After defeating Purdue 27-20, Pat Fitzgerald, Chris Bergin, Riley Lees and Sam Gerak spoke to the media via Zoom. The Week Five depth chart remained unchanged from last week.
On the program’s defensive continuity: We’ve had great consistency on our defensive staff...We had Batesy (Randy Bates) go get the DC job at Pittsburgh which I always check the box score to see how he does...It starts and ends with Mike Hankwitz. Hank is as good of a coach as there in the country regardless of position. He does a terrific job. He’s tireless. He is collaborative in the room. He takes input from all of our staff members. For the amount of wins and experience, the humility that he demonstrates permeates throughout our entire defensive staff, which goes through our players and then through our program. From a hallmark standpoint of our defense, it’s been consistency. We’ve worked diligently to improve our fundamental teaching, our fundamental coaching, our building of relationships and then obviously adding competitive depth. I think that’s what you’re seeing right now is as good of a competitive depth as maybe we’ve had on our defensive side of the ball in a long time.
Factors leading to defensive success: Any time you are able to keep your staff together, and then the amount of players that we had coming back this year, and then our younger talent that is really pushing our experienced players. We’re playing probably as many guys as we played up front and as many guys as we played in the secondary at any point in my time. The one group that’s probably been the most consistent of guys out there on every snap is the linebacking core. There’s a great deal of unselfishness with our defense.
On Wisconsin’s continued success: [Barry Alvarez] built that program the same way Coach Barnett did with putting together a great staff and then recruiting players that love football, and having a plan and sticking to the plan. Obviously, it starts with having those two guys as architects of the resurgence of both of our programs. Credit Wisconsin. The consistency of their success. They’ve been consistent challengers and winners of the Big Ten West for a number of years. It comes down to the fact that their players are incredibly talented. They play and have always played an unselfish, physical brand of football. They play very complementary football and I think they are very consistent in the way that they play. They are as complete of a team as I’ve seen on tape.
On running the ball against Wisconsin: It’s going to be tough sledding, there’s no doubt about that. They are stout with their three downs, their outside backers and inside backers are fast and physical. I love watching them on tape. They had a lot of injuries in secondary last year which gave them a great opportunity to add a lot of depth. They are rolling a lot of guys through, playing fast. That’s what jumped out to me watching Saturday’s night game. They played so fast and physical. It’s gonna be tough sledding, it’s gonna be really hard. Where’s our run game at? It’s not consistent enough by any stretch of the imagination, but like I said, we’ve run it well in a couple of games. We’ve thrown it well now to win games, so we just have got to put together a complete game as an offense which we’re yet to do.
On Wisconsin’s defense: They load the box like we saw the previous week, and we missed some aiming points, we missed some targets. Fundamentally we’ve gotta be better up front. And then we’ve got to take advantage of some things. We looked at some things we want to do better, and we’ll work our butt off to do that this week.
On the team’s response to Purdue’s first touchdown: We were pretty pissed off in the boundary to be honest with you. We had a mental mistake. We had a bust that led to the touchdown. It was more about just settling everyone down. Credit Purdue. The thing that made us probably the most aggravated is that was a concept we practiced and talked about multiple times. It is what it is. I thought the offense did a great job picking the defense up. Good teams do that. Just trying to be consistent, especially now here, I think that halfway through, that would be a great theme. We just have got to be more consistent. Our record is what it is, but we gotta be more consistent in all three phases and that’s our job as coaches to get our guys to do that.
On the value of Peyton Ramsey’s experience: You can’t put a price tag on experience. I think younger quarterbacks, they let that one bad play kind of fester in their mind and that negative thought then creates a negative half or a negative game, and you just can’t get out of your own head. I think we all saw that a little bit last year with our young, inexperienced quarterbacks. You just kept trying to get them positive thoughts. You just gotta stay positive, you gotta learn and grow and then you gotta be able to move forward. I think the guys have complete and total trust and confidence in Peyton. I think it shows. I would say positive decision making and thoughts with the ball way, way outnumber some of the tough plays. Just gotta keep growing in the offense and glad he’s our leader.
On Erik Mueller: A guy that gives everything he’s got for his teammates. First of all, he’s incredibly unselfish. A number of our guys are on the pre-med track here at NU. Tyler gets all the attention, but we’ve got a number of guys that are on that track. Muells has been a really consistent performer for us. He’s never taken the easy road. He’s been a guy that takes the path less traveled. He works so hard in practice, he’s ready to go in at linebacker, if asked and called upon, and he has embraced his role as being one of our core special teams guy now throughout his entire career. Just an incredibly unselfish teammate and truly what I believe embodies and represents what being a great Wildcat man is all about. Just really honored and humbled to be his coach. He’s doing a great job coaching up his younger brother, whose here in Xander, and to have both of those guys in our program, having the Mueller family be a part of our program is something we are very thankful for.
On Wisconsin’s offense: We’ve got our hands full. Coach Chryst and Coach Rudolph, they’ve been there for awhile. They know how to attack you. They are going to put together a great plan specifically for us. There are two totally different plans specific to each defense that they encountered and to their players’ credit, both games, executed almost to perfection. It was incredibly in precision, it was precise. It was really, really fun football to watch. They’re Wisconsin. They are going to have great balance. They are going to punish you up front. They’ve got a group of backs that are explosive and they’ve got guys on the outside and the tight ends that are going to make you pay if you load the box in the passing and a young quarterback whose probably got the highest completion percentage in the country, if not the highest. So, just really impressed with them. I think they are a complete offense. They probably feel the same way we do, but they’ve got better evidence and they probably feel like they can play better. But, in my opinion, they have just played absolutely lights out.
On the defense in the Big Ten: I’ve been in this league now for, I guess for 25 years as a player and coach. We’ve always had pretty good damn defenses in the Big Ten. First of all, I just think it is kind of the midwest way. I grew up in ‘85, the Bears with the 46 defense, I’m not gonna disrespect that offense because Sweetness was sweet and Mad Mac was great, but that defense was the backbone. You think about the midwest, especially here in Chicago, you start now with defense. From my standpoint, I just think there’s really good defensive talent. I love watching our league. I love watching people getting punched in the face, people responding to it. We’ve played some really good defensive teams this year and we are probably gonna play — not probably, they are the best defense in the best Big Ten defense, probably the best defense in the country. It’ll be a great challenge. Let’s see if we’ll rise to the occasion.
On the 2018 comparisons: I think we’ve got some of the same key ingredients. We’ve got some different faces in some really critically important roles, quarterback obviously being one of them. We had great consistency with Clayton that year, and you look at some of the new faces out at wide receiver, they’re making some plays for us and same thing at tight end, they are making plays for us. On the defensive side of the ball, definitely some different guys up front, the linebacking core is pretty consistent with some new faces in the secondary. I think this group is just working hard to improve right now. All comparison type questions, I usually don’t really talk about those because every team is different. I just want our guys to be their best self. I think this group is having fun right now, I think they are having fun for each other, and it is a great group to have the privilege to coach. I am pretty thankful for it.
On takeaways from the first four games: I don’t think we’ve played a complete game yet in all three phases. Theme No. 1 is we have to be more consistent in all three phases. No. 2, I think we’ve found different ways to win which is a hallmark of a good football team. It’s not always going to go the way you plan. We’ve found different ways to win. I think we’ve won some close games. So I think this group is pretty well battle tested. I think we’ve been in four quarter games and we should take confidence in that, we can go the distance so we just gotta be more consistent, but I think those are a couple of themes.
On preparation for the weather: No, there’s no ‘just show up and see how it goes’ ever. The only place that happens is my golf game to be honest with you, but very rarely do I ever go to the range. You’ll work wet ball drills all week. We’ll obviously do that, we did that last week. We gotta work hard at that. In that game last night, how about that Patriots-Ravens game. Let’s hope we don’t see that ever, that was some nasty looking weather. But, if that is what it is, embrace the suck and go after it and have fun with it. Do I like playing in the rain? Ya, I like playing football, I don’t care what we play in. I love it. Whatever. 80 and beautiful, 105 and humid, you know, we’ve played in some awful weather games, it doesn’t matter. Just have fun with it and go attack it.
On Charlie Kuhbander: I think Charlie is kicking the best that he has his in his whole career. We made a decision that we always felt like he could kickoff. We had full confidence in that. But, we also wanted to save his leg a little bit. I think having him kickoff and being more involved almost every drive to be ready has helped him kicking, we’ve got great confidence in his range. He has made multiple from 50+ in practice, so, really good confidence in that, we’ll see how the flow of the game is and all that stuff. He had a great game on Saturday. There’s a reason why he was our special teams player of the week. He really kicked it well.
On preparing for Graham Mertz: I think you just do a lot of study. Every quarterback is a little bit different. I think you just study who they are and then you study the schematics of what they are doing with a specific quarterback, and then you put your game plan together. I’ve never winged it with a game plan or weather, anybody that knows me, knows I’m just a nut about the weather in season. Out of season, I don’t care, but in season, I am pretty focused in on all those things. We’ve got our hands full. [Mertz] the real deal, he was so impressive Week One. I thought a first time on the road after a couple weeks of battling through what he had to battle through was incredibly impressive on Saturday against a very talented Michigan defense.
On the wide receiver room: Their mentality is just to keep improving. That group has worked incredibly hard. To see not only the impact they’re making at wide receiver, but Kyric is our kickoff return man, RCB starts on our punt team, Riley is our punt returner. Those guys are making a huge impact outside of when they are receiving the ball. They’re also playing with great effort in the run game. I am really proud of those three guys. Dennis Springer is working his tail off on the next group of guys. Those guys are getting better, they’re improving. You saw a little bit more of faces out there the last couple weeks and our expectation is as that group continues to learn and grow, that they are going to continue to get more and more reps. It’s not that our top three guys aren’t doing great, they are, we just gotta at times get the young guys out there to get them reps. No. 1, that’s the only way you improve. No. 2, to get those older guys a little bit of a rest on some plays, just continue to build the depth in that room. If I were to reverse this, and ask everybody, what were one of the question marks of our offense coming into this season, you probably would have said the depth at the wide receiver position. We are working diligently to add depth and confidence.
On Wisconsin’s offense: If you pop on the tape, you’ll see that Wisconsin has some of the better tight ends, if not the best in the conference. It’s going to be like any challenge. They are great in the run game, really stout blockers. They are also passing threats. It’s tough to stop so you have to read your keys and trust yourself when trying to decide if it is a run or pass.
On lessons to take from Purdue for Wisconsin’s rushing attack: Trusting yourself and running your feet through contact as you guys see like that don’t go down on initial hits. They don’t go down if you don’t bring power to them. They are great running backs and know how to use their size and their weight to their advantage. You gotta to know how to use that against them and try to go low and run your feet and tackle them.
On the Big Ten’s offense: The Big Ten is starting to really have some diverse offenses nowadays. We got the RPO, we got the spread, we got the true run game with the Iowa and Wisconsin stuff. We get to Monday, we flush and fix what we faced on Saturday. Then we move on. We kind of reset our minds. It’s not too much different. Each week of preparation is completely separate from one another.
On bouncing back from last season: I think you guys saw last year we were an extremely resilient team through everything, and I’m going to be honest, I don’t think we changed too much from last year. We stuck to what we knew and that was hard work, preparation and not letting circumstance dictate attitude and effort, positive or negative. Through everything, we stuck true to ourselves and held together as a team and used that culture and that togetherness to our advantage and this year, it is a huge strength for us.
On the linebackers approach: It’s nothing really special. We just run to the football hard. In terms of what we bring to the defense, we bring maturity. We have played a lot of football together, a lot of snaps and a lot of starts. That chemistry and that trust and faith, looking to your left and right, knowing that Paddy and Blake are going to do their job, and I’m going to do my job. It takes a lot off your mind of having to do too much. You do your job, you do fundamental football. You’re going to be just fine. That’s why we’ve been so successful this year and we’ll continue that success.
On the edge brought by Peyton Ramsey: I think it’s more of an element of trust that he’s going to do his job and then he trust us to do our job. I think his leadership has helped and calmed everybody down. We trust him and he trusts us that we’re going to get the job done.
On RCB’s success: It’s a testament to his patience. He’s always been capable of having a game like that, for it to finally happen, it’s almost kind of like a coming out party for Ramaud. Even though for us, we know that he’s always had the ability to do things like that. Confidence-wise, its going to be huge. It shows how deep our receiver room is. If different guys make plays every game, whether it be a young guy or the veterans, so I think its just a testament to the receiver room. Ramaud had a great game, it could be anybody next week. But, I am really happy for Ramaud, and I think he’s going to continue that and we’re going to keep getting him the ball.
On the offense’s confidence: I think it helps us think about the fact that we haven’t put a full game together. Last game we didn’t run the ball very well, but we threw the ball well. Once we put both things together, I think we’ll get to our full potential. The fact that we’re not there right now and we’re still 4-0 is great for us and is a great confidence booster for us.
On running the ball efficiently against Wisconsin: It’s just going to come down to fundamentals, pad level, getting hands inside, those do not go unnoticed, those are crucial details in run blocking, so those are going to be the most important for Wisconsin.
On the offensive line’s ability: The O-Line has shown enough to be resilient. We have faced some challenging things like being down on the road by 17 against Iowa. O-Line has had to be study and we’ve shown to do that. We’re 4-0 and that’s what is important at the end of the day. We still have to clean up things.