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Postgame press conference notes from NU’s Citrus Bowl win over Auburn

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Fitz, Hankwitz, and two seniors took to the podium following NU’s victory.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Auburn vs Northwestern Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, linebacker Paddy Fisher and quarterback Peyton Ramsey spoke to the media via Zoom after Northwestern’s 35-19 victory over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.

Pat Fitzgerald

Opening statement: “Then for our seniors, undefeated in Bowl games, going 4-0 during their career. Most Bowl wins in a class in our program history. Two Big Ten West championships. And obviously undefeated against our rivals.

“And then for Hank, think of about this. You want to talk about the GOAT? 580 games career games coached, most by any head coach or assistant coach in college football history. 400 career wins; 288 of those as a defensive coordinator; 11 conference championships, one National Championship, 24 ranked teams, played in 33 Bowl games, 39 winning seasons, 28 as a defensive coordinator. He’s coached 15 First Team All-Americans, 70-plus NFL players and 50-plus all-conference players. Tied or broke a single season win record at five out of six schools as a DC. He coached in every New Year’s Six bowl game. There’s a lot to be thankful for, our seniors, everybody here at the Vrbo Citrus Bowl and obviously Hank and our amazing staff. But especially to our players, it’s been such a hard year, their sacrifice and dedication. I just walked by their parents and just thanked them. Really proud of this group and Happy New Year to everybody, thanks.”

On Mike Hankwitz: “Well, he’s the GOAT, like the guys call him. He’s the best. He’s the best person. He’s so humble. He’s an amazing teacher. Even today, we are going and adjusting all the way till the last series. He’s a coach’s coach and I’m just so thankful that he and Cathy and Jake chose to come here to Northwestern. We are just so thankful for them and for Hank. He’ll be my eldest; he’ll have tickets wherever we play. Yeah I think it starts with his humility. Here is a guy who has all this success I just said and he’ll never mention that. It’s all about the players and all about the staff, in that order. He cares so much about each and every one of your young men. It pains him when it doesn’t go great for a guy and he works so hard to teach defensive football to our staff and especially our younger staff, the time he spends with guest coaches and high school coaches, it’s what coaching is all about, and I think he’s raised the bar for anyone that’s been around him to get to his level and that’s being, you know, a great steward of the game, a great steward of life and the power of influence that you have as a coach to do everything that you can to make a positive impact in young people’s lives and there’s no one that’s done that better than Mike Hankwitz.”

On Peyton Ramsey’s standout performance: “We stumbled in a couple games. But we wouldn’t be where we are at today without Peyton Ramsey. Great leader. Great teammate. You can tell that he’s from a coaching family and he’s like having a coach out there on the field and he’s really so unflappable. There were some things that went great and maybe some things that didn’t go the way we wanted to today. He stayed poised, he was gritty and when he needed to make plays, even with his feet, he was decisive and that scramble touchdown there at the end was huge.”

On red zone defense: “We’ve been really lights-out all year in the red zone, and we were again here today. Again I think our guys have really, really high level of understanding of what we are trying to do down there; the execution of what we are doing schematically. Again, I’ve said this all year. We took most of the Rece Davis stuff in jest, okay, but we’ve got really, really good football players. I mean, outstanding football players that are incredibly talented. They played a very high level down there and it will be a bar that’s raised very high for the group that’s coming back in 2021.

On putting Auburn away: “Well, the guys just talked about finishing as champions. I gave the huddle to Jesse there, you guys all know that cover us. Our guys just went and emptied the tank. I think they did it for our seniors. They did it for each other and they did it for Hank. I’m just so proud of them. It’s unbelievable. I’m so proud of this group. It’s been a hard year for everybody in our country. We at times feel very spoiled as college football players and coaches for sure, I feel spoiled, and I think our guys went and emptied the tank and I would be remiss without thanking Dr. Jeff Mjaanes and Kevin Kikugawa, the entire medical team and everybody at Northwestern Medicine and everybody at campus for all their amazing support; and our guys and their families for making great choices, just absolutely spectacular. Just so thankful for them.”

On Hankwitz’s impact on the defense: “Here is the bottom line. You look at multiple All-Americans, you look at guys that are going to get drafted. We have got great players. We have outstanding, incredibly talented football players and they buy into what we are doing defensively. They play for each other. They tackle well. Outside of one communication error today it would have been almost a flawless game by them.

“What I love most about that group and it was two younger players that responded when we came over and we talked on the sideline, and I think that’s just a hallmark of Hank’s defense. He’s not emotional. He just stays calm and anyone that’s covered us, well, Fitz, I think we had a gap there. He’s got that voice and he’s just really unflappable and I think that permeates through the defense where they don’t get too high and too low.

“I think we are really physical and it showed up today. We played a really physical brand of football and frankly that’s Big Ten football. We got asked a lot of questions this week about their speed and respectfully so, yeah, they are a fast team, but we are fast, too. I thought our guys came down here to play physical, Big Ten football, and I think we put our brand of football on display for the entire country and made a pretty strong statement against a team that was ranked in the Top-10 earlier in the year.”

On playing a “complete game”: “I think we played probably as complete of a game as we have all year. We were pretty much turnover-free. A couple penalties that were tough. But you know, that’s going to happen in bowl games. I thought the crew was awesome from the ACC but I thought we played a pretty darned complete game. I think we were really good. Fourth down we were really good early and then the huge fourth down stop. You could just feel the air of Auburn’s balloon go out and momentum completely come on our sideline. Our guys quite frankly said ‘we’re going to dominate the line of scrimmage’ and that’s what they did.”

On the success of the rushing game in the second half: “I think we wore them down. It was hot, man. I don’t know how nice the TV was to me, but man, I was sweating my rear end off, so you know the guys were out there. It was hot and I thought our guys handled it well. We didn’t have anybody cramp. The way that Peter Ritz, our great nutritionist, and our medical team got our guys prepared for today. But the credit goes to our players. We got down — that’s why I wanted to get down here early. I thought being here for our Thursday practice was going to be really important for our guys to have the mindset of what the weather would be like. We haven’t seen a day this warm since maybe on the road at Stanford two years ago, and I thought the guys handled it incredibly well.”

On raising expectations for the program: “We are Big Ten West Champs. We are Vrbo Citrus Bowl champions. We are knocking on the door to where we want to get this program to consistently be winning Big Ten Championships and to be in the Big Ten Championship game now two-out-of-three years, I think speaks about where we are at. Again, the credit goes to our players, especially the seniors and our great staff. But this thing is rolling, and you know, there’s so much interest recruiting-wise, it’s unbelievable. So I couldn’t be more excited. I know our staff is fired up. We are going to take a week and exhale. It’s been a grind; and be husbands and fathers and just recharge and then when we get back in January, we’ll get going on finishing up who we add, the pieces of the puzzle personnel-wise and get rolling with winter workouts and spring ball.”

On the 1997 Citrus Bowl: “We played a ridiculous team in that Tennessee team and Auburn is incredibly talented. That group is full of four- and five-star players and are incredibly well-coached. They are going through a little bit right now. To lead our guys to four straight bowl championships is something that I’m incredibly proud of, especially when — Dave Eanet said it to me this morning, “Hey, Coach, congratulations on making it to your tenth Bowl game.” I remember just how hard the heavy lifting was to get to one and then get our first Bowl win and now to get to four straight, the credit all goes to our players and our staff and I am so incredibly proud of them and so thankful for them.”

Peyton Ramsey

On their mindset and his third quarter TD run: Yeah, our mindset — we were excited. We were excited to play another game and a Big Ten bowl game. More than anything, we had a blast in Bowl prep and continuing to be together. Like I said, another opportunity to play big-time Bowl game.

The 30-yard run was a pressure look that we had seen a couple times earlier in the year [against] Iowa, the guy that tried to flush me out to the left a little bit and there was a spy sitting there waiting for me. But this time they didn’t spy me so I was able to get in the open field and get in the end zone and play with that safety a little bit. More than anything, I stepped out of the pocket, saw some green grass and took off running.

On the offense’s fourth quarter success: I don’t know that anything really changed in terms of us schematically. I think we just asserted our will, asserted our dominance and played Big Ten football and continued to execute. Man, those dudes up front, they played so hard. They played so well today. Our offensive line, Cam, ran so hard and kind of put them away there in the fourth quarter. So all credit to those guys up front. They asserted their dominance and said it’s go-time and nothing is going to stop us from getting in the end zone.

On his downfield aggression: Yeah, I think we were just taking advantage of the matchups that were given. We rarely ever going into a game saying we are going to throw deep; we’re going to throw short. It’s just taking what the defense gives you, taking advantage of those matchups and our guys did a really good job of getting open today.

On if his relationships with senior receivers may influence his decision to play next year: You know, I don’t know. I think at some point, you have to make a decision for yourself. I am very high on some of those young guys, to your point. Bryce Kirtz I think is going to be a phenomenal player, I really do. You see Wayne Dennis coming into his own, and then Braeden had a couple catches today. You know, too early to make that call, but I’m really high on those young guys and I think they are going to be really good players.

On his impressions of Mike Hankwitz: He’s been awesome. Playing against him, I know how great of a coordinator he is when I was at Indiana, but I think more than anything, just the kind of guy he is, the kind of person; the buy-in that the entire defense has to his systems, his schemes, the way he teaches and coaches. It’s been a joy to spend time around one of the legends of the game, and truly, truly a special and an honor to see him, and a cool way to send him out, there’s no doubt about that.

On what it means to hit so many receivers and their third quarter scoring drive: To your first question, those veteran guys, I can’t say enough about Ramaud, Riley and John and what they have meant to me and how special those guys are. Again, those young receivers who have stepped up and made plays when their number was called is a really cool thing to see. Any time young guys can come in, especially in a big-time game, and make plays, it’s such a fun thing to see.

Your second question was about the scoring drive in the third quarter I think, and like I said earlier, it was just about asserting our dominance and more of a mindset than anything. You can see those big guys up front just creating a new line of scrimmage, so it was very cool. I just stood back there and handed the ball off.

Paddy Fisher

On sending Hankwitz out with a victory: “It was awesome and very emotional, too. I sort of remember in high school when I was getting recruited by Northwestern and I committed and I was actually in the lunch room having lunch and Coach Hankwitz called me and we were just talking on the phone and whatnot. He means the world to me and just to be able to play for him is just so awesome. It’s just truly a pleasure and a blessing and something that I’ve never taken for granted. It’s just amazing.”

On red-zone and third-down defense: “We just executed the game plan. Again it goes back to Coach Hank and him drawing up the third down calls throughout the week in preparation for the game. Put us in great position to make the play and we did a very good job executing.”

On lessons learned throughout his Northwestern career: “I think some of the lessons I’ve learned about myself is how I respond, when I’m at the very lowest rock bottom so to speak when I’m just grinding in the winter workout and it’s hard and school is piling up and everything and you’re missing home and whatnot, and how I respond as an individual. You know, one thing I’ll never forget is just the brotherhood that we have here, and especially for me, I’ve been highly fortunate to have great friends, great family members and friends that I can say are family, to be there by my side through thick and thin, high and low, and you know, if I need anything, or they need anything, we are there for each other.”

On fourth down tackle of Bo Nix: “So we had a pressure on and it was an inside pressure with the inside linebackers. It was our short yardage call that we had going into the week for third and fourth down, one or two yards, inches. I saw the guard, he was very light on his feet and I just shot the gap. I knew he was going to pull and they were running some sort of read in the backfield so I had a little bit of time to get to the ball, and thankfully I did, and made the play.”

Mike Hankwitz

Opening Statement: “I’m so proud of our guys, the way they responded, the dedication and commitment, and to have one positive test — that isn’t easy. The sacrifice they made, not being able to see their families and their dedication to winning and preparing every week through the ups and downs, I just can’t say enough about them. It certainly made it a special day today, the way they responded and I’ll never forget these guys.”

On his players’ reaction to his 400th win: “It means more than you can describe. You know, I mean, it’s been a very emotional year, but particularly the last couple weeks. I’m still having a hard time coping with it. But it means the world to me when they show you that kind of respect. I just want them to know how much respect I have for them in return.”

On where this year’s defense ranks among those he’s coached at NU: “It’s got a special place in my heart because of everything they went through. We’ve had some other defenses that were dang good, too. But this one, their ability to respond to adversity, and to keep people out of the end zone when they got down in there or we had a sudden change like responding to a 17-0 deficit at Iowa. I mean, that just doesn’t happen every day, and this group was one of the best I’ve ever had at accepting that challenge. Then today, [Auburn] got down there twice early and we hold them to field goals. We’ve always said that field goals won’t beat you very often. So you’ve just got to rise up and respond, and they just did a phenomenal job.”

On his career: “You know, when you start, you don’t plan on how many years you’re going to coach. You’re young, you hope you get a chance to get on a good staff, and I was fortunate enough to do that and get with good people. And then made some stops along the way. And I’ve been fortunate to work with some great head coaches. Obviously Coach Schembechler and Jim Young was a guy that was basically my mentor. I just admired the way he did things and the way he taught and the way he treated people. Then I got to go work with Jack Harbaugh; and Bill McCartney at Colorado; and Glen Mason at Kansas; and then R. C. Slocum; and then Gary Barnett who turned the Northwestern program around and won championships at Colorado, and then [I] went to Wisconsin. And when I had the chance to come here, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was. I had heard so much about Fitz, but when I met him, I was immediately impressed. I knew he was a special guy, and I can’t say how appreciative of I am of him giving me this opportunity, because, you know, he values family. That isn’t just talk; that he values it, and he makes you feel appreciated, too. Makes your efforts feel appreciated. It will be one of my highlights in coaching, having that opportunity to come here, and we get to coach some great young men that want to get a great education, and they do well. Typically have over 3.0 GPAs because they value it and appreciate it but they also want to win at the highest level. Hopefully we’ve raised the bar a little and next time they can knock it down and win the Big Ten in Indianapolis. I’d like to think we helped raise the bar a little. I just feel so fortunate I was able to come here.”

On his Gatorade bath: “That’s the first Gatorade bath I’ve ever had and that was the best one I’ve ever had. It’s been a very emotional week, and I just tried to not make it out to be anything different. I tried to prepare the same way. Go back through my game plan and my thoughts last night and look at some things. And I would run things by our defensive coaches because when we work a game plan, we work together and they have just done a phenomenal job all year, Coach Rollins’ pass rush stuff; and Tim [McGarigle] has been great with runs and our change of pressures; and then Matt [McPherson] has made the major contributions in the coverage. I’ve had some outstanding defenses, but we were ranked No. 1 in pass efficiency defense going into this game and I’ve never had that happen. In this day and age, that is hard to do, I believe, and that’s a tribute to those guys and our players who are executing what we ask them to do. So it was hard all week. But I tried not to change my routine, and just tried to keep doing the things that I’ve always done. Go back over my plan and look at things, and if I had a question, I’d run it by those guys.”

On retirement plans: “Get rested up a little. Get some medical things taken care of. Then we’re going to do some traveling. Try to catch up on seeing a lot of friends and people we’ve worked with. But you know, in coaching, your schedules don’t always coincide. You don’t have a chance to see all those people. So I’m really looking forward to that. My teammates from my senior year in Michigan, the 1969 team, have been just amazing through the years keeping in touch with me and wishing me well and following my career, and I’m so looking in order to getting back to a game and seeing all those guys, because we’ve lost some of them last couple years. But I mean, I can’t tell you how much it meant to me that they have kept in touch and sent me great messages and stuff. So I’m really looking forward to doing a lot of that stuff. You know, I’ll be certainly following the ‘Cats, but I’m looking forward to just resting up a little bit now and catching up on a lot of things.”

On what he’ll remember from today: “From today, just our players’ resolve; that some way we were going to find a way to get it done and we accepted the challenge. We had some adversity early when [Auburn] got down there but they held them to field goals, and just their demeanor on the sideline; the determination they had. I felt like we were going to win this game one way or another, and I wouldn’t have cared if it was 35-34. I’m going to remember that for the rest of my life, this group of young men, and the resolve they had to win this game.”