Ahead of their first road trip of the season, Northwestern’s head coach Pat Fitzgerald and three key contributors spoke to reporters Monday to discuss their preparation for the Duke Blue Devils and their performance against Indiana State. The Zoom connection for this week’s presser was a tad bit patchy, so some quotes will be abbreviated.
Opening statement: “Thanks everybody for being here this morning. Wanted to just go over a couple things from the game, I’ll start with our players of the week. On offense, it was Evan Hull. I think Evan’s just continuing to grow and grow into this role of being our lead running back, and thought he did a terrific job. It’s two weeks in a row he’s had two really good games. We did not have a big playmaker on offense. Adetomiwa Adebawore was our defensive player of the week and our big playmaker. I thought he was active and all over the field, did a lot of great things. And then Ray Niro was our special teams player of the week. Not only some great punt returns, but also played very well in all phases that he’s a part of. Practice players of the week were Marcus Cisco on offense, defensively it was Michael Jansey and special teams-wise it was Lawson Albright. Appreciate those guys giving a great look. I thought our scout punt team gave a great look in preparation for multiple things that our punt return team saw, and that group, collectively, had a really good game.
It was great to see college football come together on 9/11 to support our heroes, and I was glad to be apart of that. And then I got a report this morning on how our guys in the NFL played yesterday. Really proud of those guys, representing our program, representing themselves and their families. A good day for some of the guys in their individuals performances, and same thing for some of the teams.
Moving forward, obviously going on the road to face a very talented Duke team, our first road test of the year. With a young squad, I’m looking forward to seeing how we handle this week and then handle the road trip. I have the upmost respect for Coach [David] Cutcliffe and his staff. David and I have known each other for a long time as AFCA board members, we go back to competing against each other from when I was a student-athlete. He’s one of the best of the best, and he’s got a terrific staff and a very talented team. We’re gonna have to play more consistent in all three phases if we want to be able to compete and win a road contest. We’ve got our hands full, it’s an important week for us to get prepared. We’re excited to be welcoming our students to campus this week, so a lot going on here in Evanston. But our focus will be on our preparation.”
On preparing for a Duke team that has caused the ‘Cats problems in recent matchups: “Well, number one, it’s Monday. So we’re grinding right now on tape. You do your offseason study, and then kinda look and see where people go throughout the season. So it’s a heavy workload today, and then we’ll go through our normal routine. We go in the mornings on Monday, so we’ve already wrapped up our corrections from what we did well and didn't do well on Saturday, and then our first base install. And then we’ve got a heavy workday tomorrow and Wednesday... we haven’t played in a couple years, but last time, when they came up here, explosive plays, we really did not execute well offensively. Same thing when we were down there a couple trips ago. They made explosive plays, we had a lot of self-inflicted wounds, and turnovers were big in both of those games. We’re worried about us... we’ve gotta get a lot better and a lot more consistent if we want to win.”
On Evan Hull: “I think Evan’s been terrific. I mean, first of all, he’s worked so hard this offseason to be prepared for the year, and it shows. He’s stronger, he’s running behind his pads, he’s making people miss, he’s finishing runs. So I’m just really proud of the complete back he’s become, and the credit goes to his work ethic. He’s been really relentless since he’s been in our program... I don’t wanna speak for Ev, but he wouldn’t want the opportunity this way, but he’s taken full advantage of it, and we couldn’t be more proud of him.”
On the trademark of Duke football under David Cutcliffe: “I think they’re tough, I think they’re physical. They play with tempo... very aggressive in all three phases. They’ve got great team speed and talent across the board. I’m really impressed with their depth this year, they’ve played a lot of guys. So it just jumps out, the overall consistency of the program that David has run from day one when he got in there. He changed the culture, he put in the culture that he wanted, and it’s established and they’ve done a terrific job building upon it. And then they’ve had really talented players. When you look at the group of guys that we’ve played against, I mean, Daniel Jones is starting in the NFL at quarterback, I think that speaks for itself. And there’s a lot of other guys too. Just been always impressed. Again, great respect... I’m a huge fan except for when we play each other because of my relationship with Coach [Cutcliffe]. So I’m looking forward to seeing them, and I’m looking forward to rooting for them for the rest of the year. Not this one, though.”
On how the team is preparing for RB Mataeo Durant: “Durant is... outstanding... He’s played in a ton of games, and he’s a complete back. He runs behind his pads, he’s got great patience, he’s got home run speed, he can catch the ball... and you can see how they trust him. They had a critical play at the end of the first half against [North Carolina] A&T, and Coach [Cutcliffe] and his staff put their trust in giving the ball to Mataeo, when probably most other people would throw... They’ve got an experienced offensive line, and play physical out there, same thing with their tight ends. So, they’ve got a really tough package to prepare for, they're very sound with what they do offensively. They put a lot of pressure on you with their talent, and then their ability to make plays downfield while they grind you up in the run game with the complimentary play action pass. So we’ve got our hands full, there’s no doubt.
On Hunter Johnson’s game against Indiana State and how he expects Johnson to respond: “First of all, there were a couple things in that game that we liked and they changed up some things schematically, some things we would’ve done differently if we faced them again. But outside of the pick, when he got hit when we should’ve had a chip and then protection, I thought he managed the game fine. I think we needed to make some adjustments in our play-calling in the passing game... But we wanted to establish the line of scrimmage and we wanted to pound the ball, and that was our focus. I’ve got full confidence in Hunter... Duke’s gonna make it challenging, but I know that he’ll respond and he’ll play well.”
On whether he’s considering changing punt returners to Brandon Joseph or Ray Niro III: “I guess I’m gonna keep you wondering. I won’t talk about personnel, you guys know that. I’ll let you wonder all the way to Saturday 4:30 Eastern, how does that sound.”
On how it felt to get defensive pressure on Anthony Thompson: “I think we were more sound across the board. I thought we had better communication, we tackled better. Still not where we want to be or to our standard, but it was improved. I thought the guys executed to a pretty high level... And you gotta credit Michigan State, I thought they played really well... from a protection standpoint and the way Payton [Thorne] threw the ball and the way their receivers caught ‘em, and they made a lot of big plays. We just gotta keep getting better. We’ve got too many first-time starters to my liking, but they’re not first-time starters anymore, they’ve started a couple games... We just need to continue to coach better and stay consistent in what we’re doing, what we’re asking our guys to do so they can do the same thing. I am pleased in the improvement from game one to game two, but we’ve got a long way to go in all three phases to reach our potential.”
On Evan Hull: “I think Evan is one of the most disciplined running backs that we have on the team. Since day one, since he’s gotten here, he’s just worked and worked and worked. I’m really happy for him. He’s an energy guy on the team, he comes in every day working and ready to go. That’s obviously been showing on the field. I have a lot of confidence in him right now.”
On the passing game’s performance against Indiana State: “I think it was just different gameplans. Going into this past week, it was a bit more run-heavy. We were pretty efficient on first and second down and at getting plays going, especially early on. Looking back at the film, there were some opportunities there that we missed out on, but it was more so our gameplan and in-game decisions.”
On big throws boosting his confidence: “In game one, it was definitely nice to get some shots early on in the game and kind of get in a rhythm there. I felt like it opened up the underneath and the run game as well. In our offense, Coach Jake likes to get some explosive [plays] going, so being able to make those throws is huge in our offense. I think if we connect much more in this next game, we’ll be on track for where we were in the first game.”
On his play thus far: “Overall, I can be a lot better just settling into the pocket and controlling my feet and my eyes, just going through my progressions and trusting the system and the offense. That just comes with reps. Other than that, I think we’ve done a good job of chipping down the field, we’ve had some 12- or 13-play drives here and there. As an offense, we’ve done a good job of that at times when my shots aren’t hitting. We’ve done a good job of being efficient on first down and moving the ball.”
On his role at Northwestern: “I’m very proud of where I am right now as far as just getting back here and just being in this position. I told the coaches that I love being here, I love being with these guys, I love playing with everybody around this community. I’m very comfortable and I’m very proud of where I am and where we’re at right now.”
On Hunter Johnson’s play: “I’ve just seen him grow in his confidence. I’ve seen him be able to step up and make the right calls, get the ball where it needed to be and just steadily improve every single day. That’s been something that we’ve watched throughout his career and I think he’s just going to keep improving every week.”
On his touchdown catch against Indiana State: “Hunter rolled out and made a great throw. It was history from there. We scored, went up 14-0 early, we started fast. It was good to have that first score, of course, always a good feeling. I think I can bring a lot more touchdowns to this football team.”
On his preparation: “Since I stepped onto this campus as a freshman I kind of expected to come in and earn a starting role. That’s all I’ve done is just work and work. I’ve worked with the training staff and the athletic trainers to begin to put myself in the position to earn that opportunity. Now that I have it, I’m going to run with it.”
On who’s stepped up most in the linebacker corps: “I think it would be hard to pinpoint one guy. Seeing the overall growth from the unit, not only as linebackers but as the whole defense, was very promising. We’re trending in the right direction for both confidence and for where we want to go for this team and this defense. It was a great step forward [last week] and now we just need to be a week better this week.”
On preparing for Duke and Mataeo Durant: “As I just alluded to, it’s just about getting a week better. Having the coaching staff that we do and the way that we prepare us, we have no excuse not to get a week better. As we go into this week, we treat every opponent the same, we give them the same respect. Mataeo Durant is a good back and we look forward to play him, and the defense that you see this week will be better than the defense that you saw last week.”
On Adetomiwa Adebawore and the defense line: “Obviously they make our job a lot easier and that’s something I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in my time in its entirety here. We’ve had phenomenal defensive linemen and they’ve been coached greatly by Coach Long and they’ve done such a great job recruiting in that area. As they continue to get better, we’ll continue to play better. Like I said, as a cohesive unit, we’re going to continue to play better. Our d-line played great Saturday and they’re going to play even better next Saturday.”