To begin his weekly press conference, Pat Fitzgerald responded to questions about injuries with some important updates, telling those assembled that sophomore wide receiver JJ Jefferson will miss the upcoming game against Indiana. He also mentioned that they hope to have defensive tackle Trevor Kent back “sooner rather than later” while defensive end Earnest Brown IV is, unfortunately, out for the season.
Northwestern also released the two-deep for Week 10 of the 2019 season:
Now, onto the full press conference, where Pat Fitzgerald, Trae Williams, Joe Gaziano, Rashawn Slater, and Isaiah Bowser addressed the media.
Opening statement: Rashawn Slater had another outstanding game, he’s playing at an exceptionally high level. We didn’t have a big offensive playmaker this week. Greg Newsome was our defensive player of the week, he was really close to making a couple huge plays and was strong at the point of attack. Joe Gaziano was our big playmaker of the week.
On Indiana: Coach Allen and his team are playing outstanding football. They’re playing relentlessly on defense, and they’re quarterbacks are playing at an exceptionally high level. Peyton played outstanding at Indiana. They’re playing very confident, very well right now.”
On Indiana’s quarterbacks: “There’s a lot of similarities between the two quarterbacks. Two guys that are playing at a really high level.”
On the offense’s struggles: “I know everybody’s frustrated. Trying to meet with more guys one-on-one than I have in the past to help raise their confidence. I’ll do that at some point this week with Aidan. overall, the offense’s execution has been stymied. We’ve played some tough teams that we expect to beat and execute against.”
“They’ve been working incredibly hard in practice. I don’t have any issues with the attitude. We have to get them to play cleaner and take it to Saturday. I haven’t had a team this inconsistent, especially on one side of the ball. We’re obviously not there from a consistency standpoint.”
On what Smith has improved at: “Putting us in the right plays, making some checks. We’ve gotta get the ball out of our hands. I thought our offensive line played pretty clean, and we’ve got to take what the defense gives us. Indiana is playing so well because they’re taking what the defense gives them.”
On Northwestern’s wins over Indiana: “Coach Allen has completely changed their mindset. What’s history is history. Typically our recipe for success is winning the turnover ratio, being sound fundamentally and making teams beat us. We haven’t done that. Indiana is playing really consistent, playing really fast, playing really physical.”
On Slater’s play: “Rashawn is playing fundamentally really sound. There’s been one or two plays all year when his fundamentals have gotten him in trouble. I think he’s benefitted by the changes we’ve made technically with Kurt, and it’s also his third year playing. I think Rashawn could play anywhere on the offensive line. I think he’s a Sunday player.”
On what he and McCall have done to try and make things easier on inexperienced quarterbacks: “You try to first and foremost put together a game plan that they are confident in, that they can execute. When you go through the week and you see things get executed, you feel pretty good about it...it’s a myriad of things schematically, that I’m not going to get into right now, but you just want to get them off to a fast start.”
On whether offensive struggles are a result of a failure of that preparation: “I think it’s all of us. It starts and ends with us as coaches, first and foremost. We’ve got to help guys be successful, and when they’re not it starts and ends with us.”
On Johnson and Smith still having an “OR” between them: “I think I just told Kyle [Kelley, a team SID] not to change it. We’ve got to get production out of that room. I know everyone outside the building is frustrated, but it’s not close to the frustration within.”
On whether the starting quarterback/offensive scheme are being reevaluated: “We’re trying some different things, you see in all three phases.”
On Jesse Brown’s availability: “It’s all based on medical stuff. We had him in an emergency situation available on Saturday. It’s another guy that my heart breaks for, he works so hard to play and he’s battled injuries his whole career.”
On Smith being the starting QB: “We were dealing with an injury situation a couple weeks ago and we’ve gone in the direction we’ve decided to. We need more production out of that room. We’re going to evaluate every rep, every day. We’ve got to get better there. It’s the elephant in the room, it’s painfully obvious.”
On the struggles in all three phases (he also mentioned difficulties forcing turnovers and “unnecessary” special teams penalties by veterans): “It shows me the guys are trying too hard...trying to do too much”.
On how to force turnovers: “Catching the ball, stripping the ball, recovering fumbles. We work our butt off any day. Usually when it rains it pours there, and right now we’re in the Sahara Desert. I think we charted 16 strip opportunities on Saturday, and our effort level wasn’t high enough. We were not very satisfied on the defensive staff with the desire to get the ball back.”
“Our opponents have done a really good job of taking care of the ball, too. You watch on Saturday, though, Indiana’s defensive lineman just made an effort play, running down the field to punch the ball out. We’ve just got to give more effort.”
On McGowan being moved around on offense: “Kyric is really talented, explosive, a guy we’re trying to get touches to. He’s got a lot on his plate and he hasn’t made one mistake yet. We’re trying to add an explosive athlete in there to try to make some plays.”
On what the passing offense can do to improve: “We had a couple drops Saturday, we’ve got to be cleaner there. We had a few things schematically we liked and nickels we could take that we didn’t. We also have to get the ball out of our hands sooner...even if it is covered on the outside, there’s a guy running a shallow crosser over the middle who’s open.”
“Take the five yards, let a guy make a play. We had that multiple times Saturday. A lot of those quarterbacks on Sunday, they don’t hold the ball too long. Sometimes we’re seeing it, sometimes we’re not. It’s a little bit on everybody.”
This was a much less jokey Pat Fitzgerald.— Inside NU (@insidenu) October 28, 2019
Not a lot of quips, and he was very willing to criticize players and positions that he feels are struggling or had a tough day on Saturday.
On why the defense has struggled forcing turnovers: In the games you get caught up in the heat of the moment, you want to just take down the ballcarrier...for us to be able to get the ball out you need to be thinking about it during the play and trust our training. Allow the first guy to tackle and run their feet and the second player to punch the ball out.
As a veteran guy you can remind guys about it, but you’ve got to execute. There’s a million things to think about on the field, so it has to be more important.
On the rest of the season: We have another opportunity in front of us. We can do math. we know how many games we have in front of us and how many wins it’ll take for us to get to a bowl game. We’re playing a great team this week that’s been playing a lot of great ball.
On more guys getting reps on the defensive line: Tommy [Adebawore] and Jason [Gold Jr.] both played really well for getting the most meaningful snaps they’ve played all year. For me as a veteran guy I’m focused on getting them more mentally prepared than physically prepared. Making sure that the minute details I’ve picked up over the years that I can give them some nuggets throughout the week.
On losing Earnest Brown for the year: Earnest is a great player, a great guy too. You hate to see a guy like that go down. He’s starting to use his hands a lot better, turn the corner in pass rush and he was out fourth guy in pass rush. Tommy will take a lot of reps in run, and Alex Miller will take more in pass. I hope his recovery is speedy. JJ Watt had the same injury, and it’s part of our game, but you hate to see it for a guy like Earnest.
On the rest of his senior season: I’d like to see some tenacity from the guys and some resolve to not give up. We had high hopes coming into the season, and even if we haven’t met those, we still have a chance to make the postseason. I don’t want the guys to take it for granted. It’ll make for a good story looking back on this season.
On chasing the all-time program sack record: That’s something I’ve been looking at for a long time. Casey Daley has been the screensaver on my phone since the offseason. I’ve worked in the offseason perfecting my craft, and to slowly pass a lot of guys I looked up to for their records...that’s something special I’m looking forward to. It’s not over though, I’ve still got to get those two sacks and help the team win games.
On what he wants from the rest of his senior year: I want to win, I want to get to the postseason. I want us to play tough, hard, don’t quit. Just keep doing what we’re doing and do it better. Just get some dubs.
On the lack of turnovers: It’s been tough just because of knowing the coaches and how hard they stress it in practice. We need to force the issue and try to go and make plays. Every Big Ten team that won this weekend won the turnover margin, and we haven’t gotten turnovers. We’re playing decent on defense but haven’t gotten turnovers. If we have five PBUs you need to make two picks
On the 50-yard touchdown he gave up against Iowa: I tried outside-in to try to make the tackle and instead of trying to keep my feet moving in, I tried to swing him around and he kept his balance.
Stuff like that’s going to happen. The standard I hold myself to I don’t want that to happen... but refocusing and letting myself know that I’m confident and can still make those plays.
On the morale on the sideline: Every game we go into, we fully believe we’re going to win that game. When stuff like that happens, everyone is thinking like “oh, it’s gonna happen again” and it’s on the older players like me to help fight that and keep morale up. We’ve just gotta get out of this slump that we’re in.
On his recent personal success: It comes from preparation. it all starts Sunday night, film prep, seeing what they do. Whatever Coach Anderson’s been coaching since camp, it’s what you do against them.
On what he does when he is playing well as others around him struggle: I just try to lift everyone up, there’s no point in dwelling on whatever bad happened on the last drive or last play. You’ve always gotta have the mentality that the game is still going on.
“We’ve made a commitment to ourselves that the Northwestern offensive line, we know who we are. We’re a tough group, a physical group...the second we start to falter, there’s no hope at all, so we’ve just got to keep doing our job.”
On calling the offensive line “an unnatural position”: You’re not born wanting to be violent. As human beings we want to eat, sleep and be safe. On the gridiron...football is not a natural game, and you really have to get your mind right to do what we do on the field.
On Aidan Smith: Aidan never backs down, he wants to be consistent with his preparation. He’s really taken ownership of the offense. The production hasn’t been there but the trust is there. He started the camp like fourth on the depth chart, but now it’s him in the group chat saying we’re going to go over the protections.
On his health: I wouldn’t say I’m 100 percent. Close, but still working to be.
On what he and Drake Anderson try to do in the midst of offense-wide struggles: In the running back room, we know what we’re out there to do, protect the quarterback, run routes, run the ball obviously...we’ve got to perform individually before we can focus on the rest of the team.
On Aidan Smith: Aidan’s a confident guy, he’s a funny guy if you get to know him.
On Kyric McGowan: He’s still a receiver, but he’s a fast guy, adds some speed.
Trying to explain offensive struggles: It goes back to preparation. I guess we’re not preparing correctly.