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COVID week press conference notes

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Can we really call this a game week presser?

After being upset by Michigan State 29-20, head coach Pat Fitzgerald and Riley Lees, Cam Porter, Earnest Brown IV and Greg Newsome II spoke to the media via Zoom. The Wildcats’ Week Seven game against Minnesota has been canceled as the Gophers’ program continues to grapple with positive COVID cases.

Pat Fitzgerald

Opening statement: “Thanks everybody for being here today. Let’s go in reverse and start with last week’s game. You know obviously like I said postgame, really disappointed in the outcome. We had every opportunity, even though we started in a hole, to win the game, and self-inflicted wounds really cost us. Again I want to credit Michigan State, I thought they played very well, they played very physical and they took care of the football, and obviously we did not. And that ended up ultimately being the difference in the game, the points off of turnovers. Very disappointed, but at the same time as I talked to the team today, we’ve got our goals in front of us, and we’ve got to perform better, we’ve got to coach better, we have to go win games, that’s what we do collectively. So we stay focused on our process, obviously a change this week with the news that we just received.”

On players of the week: “But some guys did play very well, on offense our player of the week was Peter Skoronski. He’s been absolutely outstanding as a true freshman. I don’t think I’ve spoken enough about him coming into the Big Ten as a freshman and playing left tackle the way that he has, it’s been outstanding, a great Chicago player. We could have probably named him player of the week a couple of times already this year. Really proud of Peter.

“Our big playmaker was Riley Lees. Riley had an outstanding game, some big third down conversions, was fearless as a punt returner, took a big hit and was inches away from making a big play at the end there. Defensive player of the week was Greg Newsome, really there were only two players recommended, it was him and AJ Hampton, and AJ was really 52 out of 53 in his opportunities, so those two guys played really well. Greg has been outstanding all year long, and no surprise — he’s worked diligently. We had no big playmakers defensively.

“Our special teams player of the week is Peter McIntyre. He’s been absolutely outstanding since the Maryland game. He felt like he didn’t played well that game, and since then he’s really responded.

“Update on Berk [Holman]...I wanna thank our medical team first of all, I want to thank the the medical team at Michigan State, our entire athletic training staff, along with all of our doctors were absolutely outstanding. We’re going to always err on a side of an abundance caution and make sure from a health and safety standpoint we do what’s best. They handled it first class, and great news Berk came back a couple of hours after the team, and he’s resting comfortably. We expect him to be back sooner than later with the team, but just a scary moment, and I’m ecstatic to know that he’s improving.

“First of all, talking about this game that just got canceled. We want to express our thoughts and prayers for the Minnesota football team. This pandemic is real, we know that they’re going through a challenging time, and I hope all of their guys from a health and safety standpoint, and everyone that’s impacted by the Minnesota program, recovers fully. That’s the number one priority, and we hope that they recover completely.”

On off-the-field differences this year: “First, the upperclassmen that have been on a championship run knew exactly why the things happened a year ago. Our preparation and execution wasn’t where it needed to be to play complementary football. We had opportunities to win games and we didn’t do it, and it all went back to, in their perspective some choices some guys individually made and we didn’t hold each other accountable to the highest standard. Those types of seasons don’t happen on accident. Same thing in reverse this year, I think those guys put a ton of the work in through being away from the Walter Athletics Center, through the COVID-restricted era, I will call it, of 2020. We had all the restrictions, we had guys at home, all over the country and they were communicating and holding each other accountable. They were individually doing it and collectively doing it. And then, we came back, and they’ve made unbelievable choices. Again, we go into this week without a positive COVID test since we reported for training camp, and I’m really proud of our guys in the choices they are making socially, and we’re going to have to continue to do that if we want to make this one of those legendary seasons. Really disappointed we don’t get to compete this weekend, I totally understand it, that’s why we put the protocols in place, but really proud of the guys and the way they’ve gone about their business everyday.”

On having a bye week: “I just found out before I came up here to visit with you all. I put some things to paper this weekend, but my focus and our staff’s focus up all the way through maybe a couple minutes before I got on with you all was all about Minnesota, so we got to obviously change gears. Our graduate assistants and QCs are going to be pouring some coffee here over the next couple hours, I got a lot of work to do. We’ll shift our focus. This week, quite frankly, we’ve got to get fundamentally better, that was our issue Saturday. Both lines of scrimmage, we abandoned our fundamentals and techniques. Not every play, but enough plays that made us play inconsistently on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Again, I don’t want to discredit Michigan State, but for some reason we didn’t take our fundamental line of football up to East Lansing, and it cost us. It put us in a 17-point hole, it cost us in some critical moments of the game. Also with that came some communication issues, which really we had been so good at in the first five weeks of the season, so that’s disappointing. But those are things that we can correct, we’re going to work our tails off to get those fixed this week, and then we’re going to work our butts off to get healthy. You’re right, we’ve been through a gauntlet, we’ve faced a bunch of teams that have had byes before they played us, and we just, I think could really use a little bit of time. But we’re going to get better, and we’re going to work our butts off to get better this week.”

On the disappointment in the locker room: “I talked about humility and understanding how we got to the point where we were. Going into the locker room at East Lansing, it was a group that was very focused, very disciplined that did the little things extraordinary. They communicated well, they played, fundamentally, really sound. They played with great energy and great passion, we made some big plays at opportune times in the previous games in all three phases, and we stayed together collectively as a team. On Saturday, I thought we had a great first drive as a defense, we had a stop, we put a great drive together offensively, but if you don’t pick up fourth-and-one, you don’t deserve to win. The football gods aren’t going to allow you to win in a consistent fashion. We put ourselves in a hole, halftime was great, we adjusted, we came out and put a great drive together and then you look at the next couple drives, and then we turned the ball over when we got a chance to seize momentum in the game, and that was devastating. And then we just abandoned some fundamentals offensively. We got a lot to improve on, we got a lot to get better at, and that was our focus this morning. You control what you can control, the process and the way we do things here works, but when you don’t do it consistently enough, and it starts with us as coaches, we gotta get our guys to do that. If that’s not happening we need to make substitution changes, which you saw a little bit of that in the game. In the areas that aren’t consistent enough, there will be a little bit of competition. You know, guys have to do the things they are capable of doing, and do it in a consistent fashion, and then when guys are close we’re gonna rotate them, we want to play as many guys as we can. Again we’re bitterly disappointed, but with all of our goals in front of us, I think we’re incredibly motivated to get better, so we’ll take this week to focus on that and then talk about next week, next week.”

On things that stood out from the game: “I thought we came ready to play, I just think that we allowed circumstance to put us into a little bit of a lull, from a standpoint of maybe our energy. We battled back, though. Fundamentals, in the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the balls, not good enough. Turnovers that we gave up, and limited turnovers caused, problematic. Giving up explosive pass plays which we hadn’t done all year, problematic. Drops, problematic. Opportunities for some 50-50s offensively, we made a few, and we lost a few, and those ones that we lost were costly. And we just didn’t make the big plays that we had been making on defense.

“I also thought Michigan State played much cleaner than they had played in any other game, they took care of the ball. I thought they played very physical on both sides of the line of scrimmage, I thought the quarterback played maybe his best game in the past two years, I thought their secondary was very aggressive.

“And I thought we played very consistently in the kicking game, just didn’t make the big play we probably needed to win the game.”

On the Big Ten’s championship policies and their potential to change: “I wish I had time to think about it. I’ll leave that to Commissioner Warren and his staff. I remember back before the season started, I was shared an email of the policies and procedures. It’s 2020, I guess we change things whenever we want, so I don’t know, maybe they’ll change it, maybe they won’t, I don’t care. We just have to control what we can control, getting healthy this week, getting better fundamentally, you know, taking a weekend to watch everyone else mess it up and then get back in the saddle next week and get ready to play our rival.”

On a sharp mental game: “I’ve been here 25 years, we’ve never been an “overdog.” I don’t even know what that means, you can put that on a t-shirt probably. Like “overdog” and put a finger pointing to somebody else that’s not us. I mean, those are for stories, that’s not reality. Our work ethic wasn’t any different last week than it was going into the Wisconsin game. We. turned the ball over, we didn’t play fundamentally the way we needed to do to win. I tell my guys all the time, the hardest thing you’re going to do is to win a Big Ten game, and then to win it on the road, I don’t care what anybody’s record is, very talented athletes, very well-coached, and we did the things that losers do, you can’t do that.”

“And, we fought all the way back to lead with 10 minutes to go in the game, and then we went out there and totally screwed it up, and that’s why you lose. Sounds really good in articles, but the reality is we’ve gotta coach these guys to be more consistent, and if you aren’t getting the job done get out, put somebody else in, and we’ve got to have enough competitive depth in most positions to be able to do that. Some we don’t, but in most we do, and guys have got to be able to perform, and it’s our jobs as coaches to get them to do that consistently. That’s ultimately our job, and we did not do that, and we collectively lost that game Saturday, and we collectively have to get better this week, and we collectively have to go out and in two Saturdays play our best game of the year.

On keeping guys healthy: “First of all, we just talked about our policies and procedures before the season. We obviously have a unique campus environment that maybe some of our peers do not have with our freshman and sophomores not on campus. I think that contributed to a very low positivity rate here on campus throughout the entire population and within our student body. I think our guys have been very disciplined, and I’m not alluding that anyone else hasn’t, I don’t know anyone else’s situation, but our guys have been incredibly disciplined with their social decisions, and I’m very proud of them for that. We’re going to have a big challenge this week because they’re going to have a little more time on their hands, we’ll finalize our schedule this week, but it sounds to me, talking to our colleagues throughout the country, like most of the problems they have with COVID positives have happened in social situations with weekend nights off. So with most of our campus being pretty much empty, I’d like to think that our guys will probably just, I don’t know, if I was them, I’d be eating a lot of food and enjoying watching a lot of football this week. But our guys have finals too, so they have to knock that out too, dominate there, go 1-0 in finals this week and then we’ll get ready to take on our rival next week.”

On coaching better: “I think probably most coaches say that. You look at your position specifically. And you start first and foremost with your plan schematically, how we adjusted the plan, how we communicated the plan. I felt pretty good about that. We saw some different things, we adjusted. What I saw on the tape after — as you guys see me take notes, I’m taking notes on the communication of the adjustments and/or issues that we had in a specific place so when I go back and watch the tape it’s fresh in my mind — I felt pretty good about that from a coaching staff standpoint. I felt like we had a couple of mistakes communication-wise on the field, we gotta coach those things better. They were nuance plays, there were special fronts that we saw offensively. Defensively, we had a couple of plays, they may not show up in the stat line, but they ended up being issues on why plays ended up the way they did, from a communication and execution standpoint. We’ve got to get those fixed, and that starts with us as coaches. Why was there a communication breakdown, make sure we make those corrections today as we go through our Monday practice routine, and then making sure we put our guys back into those situations during the week of practice. Because as always, football is a copycat game, when you give up certain things you see them again, ie. the quarterback draw. We still have not gotten that defended. Again, the big negatives you see, we defended it well a couple of times, so why is it impacting us more than it should. So I think it starts there, and then obviously you look at what you’re teaching fundamentally. As simple as hand placement, get off on the line fo scrimmage, how are our feet on contact, are we delivering a blow, are we locking our arms out, are we controlling our gap and having our head and our arms free to get the right leverage? You try to drill it down to that Nth degree, and those are the areas we were focused on today and will continue to focus on through the week. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen, a bad play turns into a bad series, and then maybe in that case we’ve got to play more guys if we have the depth at that position. We’re not just going to play guys just to play them maybe if a guy is struggling. So long answer to a great question, it’s kind of a whole process that we go through.”

On what went wrong fundamentally: “First of all, communication at the line of scrimmage, that’s number one, making sure we’re targeting the right people. The right fundamentals with our feet, with our hands, where we’re placing our eyes, our ability to strain to finish. Like I said, I thought the Spartan’s front seven played like they always do, we were very impressed with them going into the game on tape. But they outplayed us, they gave more effort. Their effort to start and finish was better than our effort to finish. And those are things that are all in our control, and we’ll work diligently on that, I know our guys will be focused on it, I know they’ll give everything they got. This year’s team, they’ve done it. Frankly, they did it even at times on Saturday, we just didn’t do it consistently enough to get where we needed to get. And then, our backs have to be able to run through contact, there’s going to be people in the hole. You gotta be able to run on contact and run through contact and pick your feet up. We got a couple shoe-string tackles, we had a couple of one-on-ones in space, we gotta win those. We got to make explosive plays that way, and I have confidence our guys will.”

Riley Lees

On holding teammates accountable: “We just had the mindset of go to football, go home. We talked about it all offseason that the most important thing this season is going to be staying healthy and to avoid the social interaction. In terms of staying accountable, I think it’s more of a trust factor, we’re not like texting people like ‘what are you doing right now.’ We believe everyone is on the same page, and we have the same goal in mind, so it’s a lot of trust here. I think with the extra time we just have to literally do the same thing we’ve been doing every single weekend, go to football, go home. Hang out with the guys you live with, but limit it to that. And we trust the guys here to do that.”

Cam Porter

On his first career touchdown: “It was definitely a special experience. I’m really thankful that Coach Fitz, Coach Bajakian and Coach Lou believed in me. I just kinda went in there and did my job, just stuck it in there and got the touchdown.”

On the running backs’ approach to this week: “Just finding different ways to get better. We trust in our coaches to continue to give us a great plan, we just gotta stay focused, keep grinding and get it going.”

On his first score coming from playing quarterback: “I didn’t really think it was going to come like that. I wasn’t really sure when it was going to come, but it was definitely cool. I’ve been playing wildcat quarterback for the last three to four weeks, just taking reps, trying to get better at it, trying to perfect the timing and everything. I played a little wildcat quarterback in high school, a little in the state championship game, but yeah, it was definitely a cool experience overall.”

On sharing Cincinnati roots: “Definitely cool. Having guys from Cincinnati just continue to give me support, it’s just been a blessing overall. The older guys just helping me get a grasp on this college football thing, it’s been tough but they’ve definitely helped me.”

Greg Newsome II

On making safe choices: “Go to practice, and go home. Literally that’s it. If you do that, wash your hands and stay away from people and always wear a mask, limit the interactions between different teammates, then I mean at that point you’re going to have the greatest likelihood of not getting the virus. So literally, practice, go home.”

On having a bye week: “Game plan-wise, obviously it’s a good thing. Now we’re going to be able to focus more on Illinois looking forward, focus on going 1-0 then. But it’s a good thing for our bodies as well, we’re able to recover a little bit more, some of the bumps and bruises we’ll be able to get away. We’re going to continue what we’ve been doing, practice will probably be lighter just because we’re not playing this week but we still got to fix some things that we messed up in the game, so you know we can fix those things and then be ready to go against Illinois.”

On watching Berkeley getting injured: “It was heartbreaking. you never want to see one of your teammates go down, and especially when a guy does go down, most of the time they’re getting right back up in a short time period, but we were just sitting there, not knowing if he was moving, not knowing if he was getting back up, it’s a sad thing. But we prayed for him, and I’m glad he’s doing alright.”

On his recent play: “I’m just trusting my technique, playing for the guys. But I mean, the way I’ve been playing, it doesn’t matter if we’re not winning games. So yeah, I had a great performance but if we’re not going to win, you know, I really don’t care that much.”

On responding to the loss: “I think we’ll respond real well. After a loss, knowing where we can go, and obviously we can still go some places, but guys are going to be even more motivated to get it back, and obviously Illinois is a big state rivalry for us, so I think guys will definitely be ready to go. Mentally, physically, we’ll be ready to go. We just have to attack each game like we did, I think even going into the Michigan State game. I think we had a great week of practice, we just got to translate that and perform on the field. So I think we’ll be ready to go.”

Earnest Brown IV

Struggling on quarterback draws: “In those situations, we just need to look at the offensive linemen’s feet. Just know the difference between pass set and if they are just trying to let you up the field. We continue to go through it in practice, about those draw sets and how offensive lineman set their feet, we just have to execute it better.”

On making safe choices: “To go off of Greg, don’t have a lot of people over, if you do have a certain amount of people over, wear your mask, stay socially distanced. You know, FaceTime works as well if you want to talk to people.”

On having a bye week: “We can mainly focus on what hurt us last game, and put it into the next game as well because teams love to go through what teams have done in the past, what hurt us and use it for their game plan the following week. Just focus on, main thing, the problems that we have.”

On watching Berkeley get injured: “It was very scary. We were just wondering how he was doing and everything. Fitz just gathered us up, was saying he raised his hand and everything which was great for us, glad to hear about it. He’s in my class, I’m really good friends with Berk, and it was just really sad to see him laying there. We didn’t know what happened to him, but then Coach Fitz told us what happened and that he was good, and he was in good shape after that, and we felt better after that.

On responding to the loss: “The D-line as a unit, we didn’t play that well, but we’re going to use that as motivation all throughout the week, we’re gonna keep punching, fighting hard. It’s a rivalry week, so this game is going to mean a lot to us. Just focusing on going 1-0.”