There was a special mood in the press conference room for the first time this year, as Pat Fitzgerald was joined by a host of players to discuss the team’s rivalry win.
Opening statement: A lot to be thankful for in our program. I’d like to start with our seniors. Their body of work speaks for itself. We looked at the last month as a mindset to improve and we looked at this week as as bowl-type mentality. The way that we did it today is a look at the future of our program. I’m really proud of the young guys that have stepped up due to the adversity we’ve faced. To finish off the way we did today is a great springboard for the future.
On Andrew Marty: I saw a leader. I saw a guy that was tough and physical. We ran and played like it was a bowl game. You start to see some of our younger players in these past weeks, it’s exciting. He’s gotta have a great offseason and he’s gotta operate as if he’s the starter.
On the impact of the win moving forward: Any time you beat your rival five times in a row I think it’s a huge springboard. We take this game very seriously. This is very important to everybody in Evanston, and after a tough season we came with a purpose, to take the hat back to Evanston.
On the O-line: I thought our offensive line really grew and developed all year. I thought we adjusted really well today and it was a physical domination by our offensive line. To send [Jared Thomas] out the right way is awesome and he leaves an amazing legacy.
On the running back group: We were down a million backs and we knew we needed to have one more guy ready to go, so we move Niro over and we just put our heads together and it was Coco that stood out.
On the difference in today versus the rest of the year: I think we had a great plan, I think we’ve run the ball pretty consistent against these guys, the weather we planned for and we had just a terrible weather plan and we stuck with it. I’d compare it to the Patriots a couple weeks ago against the Cowboys, you had to be in four-wheel drive the whole way.
On Illinois being without its starting quarterback: I have little sympathy, we were on quarterback four today. I think this year has made our guys stronger and better, and this type of record [five straight wins in this game] will never happen again. We need to make sure this never happens again and I have full confidence that will happen. I’m really proud of the way the guys competed today.
On transitioning into a running back: First thoughts was before the UMass game, if I can help the team let’s go and do it.
On his 62-yard run: Offensive line opened up a big hole for me, and I was thinking about going out of bounds but I said forget that and I tried to score, but their guys are really fast.
On his in-game banter with Illinois fans: It’s all just fun and games.
On his history with the position: I had played running back my whole life, but not really in high school as a main position. Before that I was always a running back, though.
On transitioning to the running back position: Coach Lou helps us out tremendously, it’s easy when you have a coach like that.
On what the win means: It’s huge, it’s a big springboard into the 2020 season. It’s gonna fire us up and get us going.
On if there is a different plan with him and Azema in at running back: Nothing different, O-line opened up great holes and we read what coach Lou told us to read, and just make plays from there.
On the pressure of changing positions: The pressure goes away during practice. If you can do it in practice you can do it in a game. I don’t feel too much pressure.
On his 39-yard run: Just run and just follow the blockers downfield. I saw the wideouts make a wall to the outside and I just got as many yards as I could.
On lifting the HAT one final time: It feels great. When I stepped on campus the HAT wasn’t in our possession. It feels really good to step away from the program having won it every time we had the chance to.
On the team’s bowl mentality: We definitely wanted to correct this year, end the season on a high note and build off of it. We knew this was our last chance to step on the field together and we wanted to protect our brotherhood and win five in a row. We had nothing to lose so we just cut it loose and played fast.
On Trent Goens: He’s one of my best friends off the field and on the field I was happy to see him battle back. It’s a cool story for him and to have one of his best games in his final one at Northwestern, and he was able to put us in a good position today.
On what the team learned today: We have a lot of talent. There’s a lot of guys who find a way to be around the ball. We strive to make plays and be around the ball. I hope after today guys can see how that helps and you can suffocate the other team.
On what he told the offense at the end of the game: Just told them that I love them dearly. It’s been a trying year for us as a group. We went out the right way but for the guys coming back it’s a springboard. Pretty special moment.
On the O-line’s play: We knew that it was gonna be wet, so all week we talked about having the running backs carry a big load and the quarterbacks as well. Once we hit stride it was no turning back.
On getting a chance to use a run-heavy scheme: I think every offensive line in the country wants to go in and run the ball. It was one of our biggest priorities all day.
On the seniors’ undefeated record in its rivalry game: I think it’s one of those things where I can look back and say I never lost this game. Whatever your record is, it’s something we can hang our hat on as seniors. We’re able to hold onto this for another 365 days, but for the seniors winning five of these is something you can hold on to the rest of your life.
On his favorite Northwestern memory: I think it’s hard not to think back to when we went to the Big Ten Championship game, it’s my hometown and in the third quarter momentum shifted really fast. To see the place rocking with purple and white was special. And this win will be up there too.
On his preparation for the game: I went into it knowing I was going to be running the football. We all came in knowing this is our last time together, and I was gonna play every snap like it was our last. I had a blast today. Dominating the line of scrimmage, the O-line was absolutely terrific. Our mindset was to come in here and win the hat, and man it was so fun.
On his mindset going into the offseason: I’m stepping in and going into the offseason with the mindset that I’m going to be the starter. I’m gonna go into the offseason and challenge everyone to be the best they can be. Whatever I can do, whatever we can do to ensure this year never happens again we are going to do.
On his past couple weeks: It’s been fun. It’s different not playing versus playing. I would just say I’ve learned so much this season. I was taking scout reps at the beginning of the year, and to be in this position today is truly a blessing. I’m so thankful for my family one, thankful for the coaches and I just love these guys.
On his throw to Lees: Gave me a lot of confidence. Riley is a gamer and he just ran his route as he is supposed to, and it worked to perfection.
On his message to Northwestern fans: I am proud to be a wildcat, and I’m gonna give everything that i can to this program, to the fans, so that we can come back and be Big Ten champs next year and the years after.