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Illinois game week press conference notes

After a week off, everyone sound refreshed.

Northwestern won the Big Ten West this past weekend after its Week Seven matchup against Minnesota was cancelled due to positive COVID-19 cases within the Gophers’ program and at least three games were played. Ahead of their rivalry game against Illinois, Pat Fitzgerald, Peyton Ramsey, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Paddy Fisher and JR Pace spoke to the media via Zoom.

Pat Fitzgerald

Opening statement: Thanks everybody for being here today, kind of unique not having a game to talk about. But again, like I said last week, I’m just thinking about all those student athletes and staff members affected by the COVID-19 up in Minneapolis and hope their health is improving and they’re all doing okay.

I’m just so thankful for our guys as we go into senior week here, rivalry week, it just makes me think of our great senior class and all that they’ve meant to our program. Their families, to see what they’ve done to raise great young men and and trust them with us as a program and now to see where they’re at as men, as leaders and as Big Ten West champions again , that is something that’s really special. To have them run out onto Ryan Field for the last time, we’ll be emotional, but at the same time, we’ll be with great smiles and great memories.

A big challenge in front of us after having a week off playing an Illinois team that played outstanding early in the game, had a great plan going into the game and executed really well. Iowa really responded pretty well and made some big plays down the stretch. But the previous two games, I thought Illinois played outstanding. They really got after Nebraska on the road and played almost as clean football as I’ve seen anybody play this year in the league and it was very impressive. So I know they had some guys get a little banged up on Saturday, which I hope all those guys get healthy also, but obviously it’s a big game for us and a big game for seniors. Anytime you play your rival, it’s a huge game.”

On the bye week: “We kind of had to pivot pretty quickly. Had to get going game plan wise, pretty quickly. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, was a little bit of a modified practice for our ‘varsity guys.’ And then our D squad guys we got them some team reps, competitive drills. That was a lot of fun to watch those guys that maybe aren’t getting as many reps on Saturday and are maybe younger to get them 30 total team reps was really productive.

At the same time, we got a little bit ahead on Illinois. This has always been a big game for us, and to get an opportunity to get a little bit ahead, I think, mentally was great. But we wanted to get healthier, take some time to get some rest physically, emotionally and mentally. And now we get back into our normal game week routine today.”

On Greg Newsome’s play this year: “Greg is just a great Wildcat man. He had a great high school career and he has an unbelievable family. I mean, his support network is outstanding at home, and a passionate family that absolutely keeps Greg grounded and keeps him motivated. And since Greg’s been here, he’s been a really dominant player. He’s just had to battle through some injuries and now being healthy here this year, I think all that follow our program, have seen that he’s a shutdown corner. He’s as good as there is in our league.

And I would argue he’s as good of a corner as there is anywhere in the country. I call him a unicorn. A lot of those guys at that position have baggage. You want to talk about impeccable character, work ethic, teammate leadership, the way he practices and we’ve had some great corners here. Sherrik [McManis] is still having a great career, Montre [Hartage]. We’ve had so many great players in the back end and Greg’s right up there at the top. He’s got some big games ahead of him here, but really proud of the way he’s playing and it’s because of his work ethic. He’s got a corners demeanor, he’s got a short memory, but he’s got a quick fuse. I mean, he’s got a high motor and a great mindset to go out there and take on great players. He’ll have his hands full this week since Josh [Imatorbhebhe] is a great player and one of the best receivers in the Big Ten.”

On differences between the celebrations in 2018 and 2020: “Very different than in Iowa City. I had no idea that what we needed to have happen, it happened during our game [in 2018]. That was a surreal moment. We wanted to be respectful of a great team in Iowa and not do anything disrespectful on their field, quite frankly. That locker room was great to have. Curtis Shaner, a long time equipment manager presented the guys presented the trophy in Iowa [in 2018] and again on Saturday, so that was great.”

The guys enjoyed it [this year too]. And I told them and then get up Sunday morning, it’s all about rivalry week. They were very focused here today and I know they will be all week.”

On Senior Day: “Senior Day will be very different. There’ll be no senior reception before the game. We typically have the senior celebration at the house and Stacy and I and the boys really look forward to that every year and to not have that right now at this time is disappointing. But we’ll see. Maybe we’ll do something this spring, have some fun and figure it out, maybe around graduation for our seniors and their families.”

On seniors potentially returning next year: “We’re gonna honor all of our fourth and fifth year guys. I told all of our guys last week and said, “Listen, we want all of you guys back. We want to make sure that we give you the opportunity to come back if that’s what you choose to do.” I gave them carte blanche to take as much time as they want to take and discuss that with their families. If it’s the NFL that they want to pursue, if it’s coming back, obviously, we were open to that. And then the third aspect would be transitioning into retirement, which I’m a part of that retired football player club. I strongly encourage them away from that. I understand if that’s what their body’s telling them and their heart is telling them to do, then that’s what they should do. But I kind of felt like making sure I reminded them that the retired club seems cool but it’s really not that cool. So we’ll see what happens and we’ll give those guys all the time and space that they need. And then our great director of football operations, Cody Cejda, will work hard with our NFL counterparts to get evaluations for our guys and as I’ve always been, we’ll be transparent and get that information for our guys that have those aspirations and just work through it on a case-by-case basis but we’d love to have everybody back if they choose to come back.”

“I would suspect that after the Big Ten championship game I’ll have some direction from some guys and we’ll work through it and like I told them, they unequivocally have my 100% support.”

On recent success against Illinois: “I think it has a lot to do with turnovers and then points off of turnovers. I think that that has been key in most, if not all of these games. I think in general this year, that’s been a key component to almost every game that I’ve watched either the games we’ve played in or the games that I’ve studied. Any time you play your rival though throw out what’s happened in the past. This is a rivalry built on respect, and I’ve got a ton of respect for Coach Smith, I’ve known him for a long time. He’s done a terrific job and he’s rebuilding that program and it takes time to do those things. You can see the talent level that they have is as good as it’s ever been in my time here and really explosive, they have a really physical offensive line and impressive running backs. I mean, they’ve got a really, really good offensive line. Defensively, they were playing great and then a bunch of guys got banged up. And I think that really impacted the game Saturday, but the previous games, I thought they were playing probably the best defense that they’ve played since Coach Smith has been there. So they they present a lot of problems and a lot of challenges. We’ve got to play much cleaner than we did last time we went out to East Lansing and so we’ll focus ourselves.”

On the trajectory of the program: “For us now our focus is on the Land of Lincoln rivalry. We understand the challenge we have in front of us and so our guys will be excited for senior day, and we will be excited to take on a rival. That’s where our focus is right now.”

On the fact that 10 of 14 Big Ten teams have two wins: “I didn’t know that. I tell our squad all the time, the hardest thing you’re going to do is win a Big Ten football game. We’ve been very fortunate we’ve only had one game shut down. Other schools have had multiple, and what these players have gone through has been really, really challenging and so I’m not trying to make any excuses. It’s just a reality of where life is right now. And you couple that with some injuries for some some teams it’s probably been tough to get some momentum going. For us to have some big wins early that were close, hard fought games I thought gave us some positive momentum. And then you look at, you know, to me a team like Iowa that had two really tough losses to start the year, now they’ve won five straight and are playing as well as, in my opinion, anybody in the country. I just think it’s just hard to win Big Ten games and this is a really unique year. I’m just really proud of our guys and proud of what they’ve done. And now it’s time to finish the season the right way.”

On areas for growth: “Consistency fundamentally, especially on both sides of the line of scrimmage. We’ve got to be more consistent, fundamentally. Number two, we’ve got to be efficient with the football. We’ve put ourselves in some difficult positions by turning the ball over early. That’s put our back against the wall in a couple games. And like last week, we weren’t able to overcome that. Lastly, we’ve got to make more explosive plays on both sides. We’ve created those through TFLs, sacks, fumbles. And then offensively, winning our one on ones. For the most part, we’ve done that, but we’ve got to do that more consistently. As always, you got to make teams one dimensional. You got to be able to run the ball and stop the run. And we’ve definitely got to get it going offensively whereas on defense we’ve done things pretty well.”

On being recruited by Illinois: “I had a lot of friends go to school there that I’m still close with and it was definitely a school I would have considered, you know, growing up in Chicago and they had had some success back then. They were not too far removed from a Rose Bowl run and things of that nature. But it never materialized and there was no question at Northwestern with Coach Barnett. They had sold me that they wanted me to come here and play linebacker, which is what I wanted to do. Some schools wanted me to play tight end and I wanted to have at least an opportunity to play linebacker and you know, Coach Brandon was my lead recruiter. And then Coach Barnett is the icing on the cake who gave me the opportunity. I’m just very thankful for that.”

On running the ball: “I think all of our guys are working really hard and all of our guys want to be successful running the ball. I have no doubt in that at all. It’s a great group of young men in our backfield. And we just got to continue operating as one heartbeat, we got to have the right communication up front, the right fundamentals, we got to execute the play, we got to hit it the right seam, we got to finish blocks. And then when they got a loaded box we have to take what the defense gives us. So we’re just going to continue to work on those things. I don’t think we’re ever going to be satisfied, but it’s definitely something that we want to do here. We want to run the football and not to have the success that we’ve had this year is disappointing, but to have five wins and not quite be where we want to be at is also incredibly motivating. So we’re gonna we’re gonna keep grinding on that without a doubt.”

On the impact of the senior linebackers: “They’re the heartbeat of our team, there’s no question. And it starts with the preparation. I mean, these guys are relentless in the way that they prepare for each opponent. They practice incredibly hard. You would think they’ve never played before with the relentless nature in which they practice. I think they understand what we’re trying to do defensively incredibly well. I think they have a great grasp and understanding of Hank’s defense and Tim McGarigle does a great job coaching those guys. All three guys have different personalities and they’re unique to who they are in a good way. They don’t try to be something that they’re not. And I think they just truly love the game. They love every aspect of it. And they are outstanding teammates. They take other guys under the wing. They’re great on the boundary. At a certain point, when you play as many reps as they’ve played, the game starts to slow down a little bit for you where you can start to see things. And I think they’re able to see things happen and have that great linebacker skill of anticipation because of the way that they prepare.”

On how he compares to Paddy Fisher: “There’s no doubt he’s a better player than I am. It’s not even close. All three of these guys are a million times better athletes than I ever wish I could have been.”

QB Peyton Ramsey

On how it feels watching Indiana football this year: “It’s been cool because I have so many relationships with those guys. Spent a lot of time with those people, and I’m really good friends with their quarterback now Jack Tuttle and I communicate with him a lot. I know that he was nervous and excited and prepared to be a first time starter so I’m happy for him and what he did and that whole program. Like I said, I have so many connections and relationships and it’s fun to watch.”

On the message that a second championship in three years sends: “I obviously wasn’t here for the first one, but I think it speaks to the culture here and to the buy in that everybody on the team has and the brotherhood that everybody believes in and the trust we have in each other. Bouncing back off of a tough year last year was something that everybody kind of bought into and was willing to work towards. It’s exciting. And I can tell you, in my short time, I’ve definitely bought into the culture and am excited about where we are.”

On potentially facing Indiana in the championship game: “Emotional would probably be the best word for it. I haven’t put a ton of thought into it, to be honest with you, since it’s out of our control. You know, we took care of what we could take care of and we still have a big rivalry game ahead of us and that’s our focus right now. If it comes down to us playing Indiana, I’m sure there’ll be some communication and some exchange of words, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

On approaching the rivalry game: “In a rivalry game, you’re always gonna get your opponent’s best shot. Forget records, forget history, forget anything. They’re coming for you. And that’s the way it is. That’s what it always has been and that’s my experience with rivalry games. So you have got to be on top of it and you got to have a really good week of preparation.”

On returning next season: “I haven’t made that decision yet. We have big things ahead of us, huge opportunities that we set forth, and now we get the opportunity to accomplish it. That’s kind of on the back burner for now. I don’t want to answer for anybody else, but that’s where I’m at.”

On his experience this year: “This year has obviously been different, unlike any year that any of us have experienced. But it’s special at the same time because it’s your last year so you try to embrace every practice and every game. And it means a little bit more because you don’t know when you’re going to be done. We’re getting close to the end, and it’s been awesome. I’ve met so many new people here, and I think that makes it a little bit more special.

From that sense that I’ve built new relationships and gotten to know a lot of new locker room, a new group of people and an entire new program. So for me, it wasn’t as much about football this year as it was about the people that I met along the way. And football, it’s always been there. But the new people and the new relationships that I’ve had the opportunity of making has been really special.”

WR Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman

On how he celebrated winning the Big Ten West: “After we clinched it, I went back to the crib. My roommate [Kyric McGowan] and I turned on some football, kicked our feet up, had some M&M ice cream sandwiches, played a little Warzone and just went on with the day.”

On bouncing back from the loss: “We’re a resilient and focused team. When you’re coming off a loss there’s a lot of emotion and wanting to get back on the field, whether that to prove people wrong or prove yourself right, you just want to go compete again. Having an unplanned bye week, it’s easy to fall in a lull potentially or lose focus but we’re just as focused and we made sure that we had a good plan in place to take care of our bodies and get ahead with the game plan.”

On the message that a second championship in three years sends: “We can play. Sometimes Northwestern is portrayed this way or that way, having these type of athletes or those type of athletes, but at the end of the day we’re coming to play, we’re coming to win the West, we’re coming to win a Big Ten Championship.”

On approaching rivalry week: “Going into rivalry week is 0-0. No matter how the season’s been going, the game always flows a little different.”

On returning next season: “What [Peyton Ramsey] said.”

On his reflections for the year: For me, two things. One, this entire year, offseason included, is an emotional rollercoaster. So this year has really tested a lot of us and taught us a lot as players, coaches, staff about how to be poised through adversity, potentially turmoil and any other times that people were dealing with things in the offseason. Trying to really control what you can control. We say that a lot of players and just as people, but it’s different when you really live it.”

Two, I sent out a message and we’ve been talking a lot as seniors or just players in general, talking about enjoying the moment. The season, we get four games in, and then we’re thinking okay, we got four, potentially five games left. You know, we’re at the halfway mark. We play a game a game, a game gets cancelled, and then we’re on our last regular season game. And it’s just like, wow, have we taken the time to stop to embrace and really enjoy the moment? So we’re making sure that we’re enjoying this moment and making sure we’re just enjoying these last couple of days, these last couple weeks, these last couple of games with one another.”

On the team maintaining zero positive tests: Early on we set some team guidelines and expectations. And it’s really nothing different from the protocol that we’ve been given from the higher ups. But I think a big thing that has been shown this season is our sacrifice and our buy-in as a team. It’s not really about reprimanding or holding each other accountable too much—or it hasn’t been this season—because of that expectation and the end result that we all had in mind that we made in the beginning of the season. So that made things a lot easier because everybody was kind of on the same page from the from the get-go.”

LB Paddy Fisher

On the Law Firm nickname: “It just kind of came about having fun with it this season and with the craziness of everything going on. Let’s do whatever we got to do and somehow through the mix of that the Irish law firm came about. I don’t remember specifically how but just the fact that we were three linebackers who play some ball and make some tackles with Irish descent.”

On the other linebackers: “We’re pretty different. Chris is an interesting dude. He loves to talk and use mental warfare, so to speak. Blake’s a bulldog; he’s hard-headed and he’ll hit you in your mouth and he doesn’t care. I’m more relaxed out of football and then I have the opportunity to flip that switch when it comes time to cross the white lines.”

On winning a second Big Ten West title: “I think it sends the message that we’re a legitimate contender for the Big Ten championship and a dominant team in the West. I think our hard work and the culture of this program has been tremendous, and I think that speaks dividends.”

On how he compares to Fitz as a player: “Definitely Coach Fitz. I mean, I’ve had the opportunity to sit there and watch film with him from back in his heyday, and you know there’s no mistake why he was a two-time All American and won all those awards. He was a dog, and people would say he was slow and all that, but when I watch tape of him, he was smacking dudes and he was coming downhill and he was playing lights out. So of course I got to give it to him. He’s the best and he paved the way for us.”

On celebrating the Big Ten West title: “It was a little different this year obviously because of COVID-19 and all these extra rules. We celebrated as a unit, as a team in the facility and then then enjoyed it for 48 hours and then put it in our back pocket and used the rest of the celebration as fuel to the fire.”

On the recognition of the linebackers: “It means a lot and it shows that our hard work is paying off. We have excellent coaching at the head coach position and at the linebacker position. It’s a little bit of a friendly competition between the three of us to see who can get to the ball the most and finish the day with the most amount of tackles. I think we’re just having fun with it, and we talk a little mess to each other afterwards.”

On the Illinois game: “I didn’t really have any real rivalries in high school so coming here and having a rival is cool. It was just awesome to kind of have that quote unquote hatred for a team, but at the same time respecting them because rivalry weeks are always very good games and very close game more times than not. Having that extra energy and that atmosphere going into the week knowing ‘this is your rival’ is just really cool.”

On his time at Northwestern: “I had no idea this was going to be the outcome. I came in with just the expectation to work hard and see what happened and just grip the wheel tight and hold on. I had fun and enjoyed the whole ride and made tons of friends and tons of memories. It’s been great.”

S JR Pace

On Greg Newsome: “Greg’s a dog. He came into the season talking about how he was going to shut people down. He’s been doing that week in, week out so playing with him is fun. He’s a confident dude, he exudes confidence and it reflects in his play. Having him out there alongside you is always comfortable because you know he’s going to take away somebody from the game.”

On winning a second Big Ten West title: “We’re legitimate contenders. We’re not the Northwestern of the past. People are opening up their eyes and recognizing that we can play football and we can do it at a pretty high level. We are legitimate contenders and going forward hopefully we can keep it going for the years to come.”

On how he celebrated the Big Ten West title: “After we celebrated as a team, I kind of just celebrated with my roommates. I had a little wine and watched some football. It felt good, but obviously we couldn’t celebrate how we wanted to.”

On stealing players’ towels : “I’ve been doing that every game and it just happened to get caught on TV. I kind of just do it as a way to mess with offensive players because they get kind of frustrated with it. I’ve stolen a towel in every game, but I don’t have any of them because I always end up giving them out. But last week [against Michigan State], I was looking for them and none of the offensive players were wearing them.”

On the Illinois game: “There’s always a little extra emphasis when it comes to rivalry week because at the end of the day you want to beat your rival and win that trophy. Any time you play for a trophy it’s always a big deal. This is always a fun game to look forward to and I’m excited. It’s normally always going to be a war so I’m looking forward to it.”

On his time at Northwestern: “I honestly didn’t have any idea where I’d be right now. But it’s been a fun ride, it’s been a great ride winning two Big Ten West championships and being able to play for the chip twice is unheard of around here. Just to be a part of that is special.”