After a close loss in College Park against Maryland, Northwestern goes back to work, eyeing a Saturday showdown against the Iowa Hawkeyes. NU fans have had this game circled on their calendar, as this is sure to be a shootout. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, wide receiver Malik Washington and cornerback Rod Heard II answered questions as the ‘Cats get ready to hit the road again this weekend.
Opening statement: “Happy Monday and let’s take a look back at the game. I thought Evan [Hull] had a terrific game. Back up where we want to be rushing the football, 215 yards. Andrew Clair had a really solid game, also, in his limited sample. I thought all three of our running backs in the kick game played well, including Tre Tyus, Cam Porter and Andrew Clair. Those guys all made some significant impacts. We had three different guys that had over 10 tackles and a lot of activity with [Bryce] Gallagher and [Rod] Heard both having career highs. We ended up having four sacks but easily could have had double digits — kind of sums up the game. Defensively, missed opportunities for big plays, which is frustrating but motivating them to last. And eight TFLs, which is the second-most that we’ve had this year, so I thought we were pretty active in that. Players of the game: offensively, Evan Hull; defensively, Sean McLaughlin; special teams was Adam Stage. Again, great kickoff day and great field-goal wise. Malik Washington, ourBig Playmaker. We did not have a Big Playmaker on defense without creating any turnovers. And then Practice Players of the Week were Jake Arthurs, Braeden Edwards and Declan Carr, recognized by our GAs.
“Obviously a challenge to go on the road in one of the great venues in Kinnick Stadium. Just have so much respect for Coach Ferentz. Someone that is obviously the dean of our coaches here in the Big Ten — longest-tenured coach in college football. Their consistency of success, I think, is what everybody wants to have in their program for not only the short term, but also well over two decades. Great respect for him and for the program that he runs and their players and their staff. They’re obviously playing outstanding defense. You could argue some of the best defense in the country, obviously, in the conference. Pop on the tape, it doesn’t take long to see. They’ve had some really good things happen in the run game. On their offense, it’s been really impressive, and just some inopportune turnovers that have really cost them. Special teams, it jumps off the screen to block kicks and to block field goals, explosive returns. They’re doing a really good job in a kicking game; they always have. Going to be his challenge on the road, but look forward to the opportunity.”
On respect for the Iowa program: “The wave at the end of the first quarter, you put it up there with the best traditions in college football. To salute those that are providing care for those little people and families that are there at the Children’s Hospital and then for the little people that are hopefully seeing the wave and maybe get a little bit of a smile to know that, you know, 80,00 and two groups of teams are looking up at them and hopefully lifting them up. So it’s really special. An unbelievable fan base. I’ve requested from the Big Ten that we kicked this game off at 6 a.m. They obviously wouldn’t let that happen [laughs]. Nothing better than Kinnick at 2:30. So, I guess that’s a welcome present to the ‘Cats as we cross the Mississippi. But great fans: always have been, always will be. And just again, like a lot of places here in the Big Ten, just another cathedral of college football. So you need to play well, you play clean and give ourselves a chance to win.”
On the three-game winning streak at Kinnick: “Great players that I had the privilege to coach, and we found ways to win. I’ve got a sneaky suspicion, if we go back and look at the turnover ratio had a big, big part in those games. It’s a big factor in this game. It always has been and always will be.”
On Jim O’Neil: “Well, I apologize to anybody that are friends of yours that are creating lightning rods with anybody on my staff, it’s a unique way to describe somebody. Well, number one, are we structurally sound? You know, number two, are we playing team defense? Number three, are we organized as a staff organized in practice? Are we adjusting accordingly? I mean, we can be here an hour, if you’d like. It’s a lot that goes into it. We knew that we’d be going through some growing pains here early after having maybe arguably our best defense in 2020. I think that may have gone down, if we played a full season, as maybe one of our best defenses that we’ve ever had. And we’re still putting together that side of the ball. And we’re not there yet. If there’s anybody that needs to be singled out, it’s me. I’m the one that’s in charge — nobody else. None of our coaches, none of our players. I’m the one that’s in charge. And I’ve seen a lot of improvement from Year One to Year Two. Where we want to be? Absolutely not, no, but I see a lot of improvement, and it’s gonna it’s going to continue to get better because I think we’re really well-coordinated. I think we adjust really well. And our staff, I think, is really good teachers and coaches. Our players, I think, believe and buy into what we’re doing.
“Do we need to get them to execute cleaner? Absolutely. Do we need to limit explosive plays? Absolutely. We need to create more turnovers? Absolutely. Do we have to win games? Absolutely. But you win as a team. And when you go through adversity, you do it collectively together. And again, I apologize to all of our fans: our record isn’t where we want it to be. We lost four one-score games and one game that could have easily have gone our way if we made a few more plays down the stretch. That eats at nobody more than me. I mean, it eats that at me like you wouldn’t believe. But that’s exactly why I don’t have your hobby [checking message boards]. Because your hobby would be an absolute awful way to live. The highs would be too high, and the lows would be too low. And I hope everybody in our program that touches it sees that I’m a lightning bolt of consistency. How does that sound? And if we win because of negativity, I doubt it. And if we lose because of negativity around here, I doubt it. I hope my guys and the staff says there’s a great deal of consistency.”
On Northwestern fans: “I love our fans. There’s no doubt about it. And it’s been great the amount of support that we’ve gotten. I would share with you, but I don’t do that, some great messages that I get because people believe in us. They believe in our program. They believe in our players, and they know we’re gonna turn it around. To everybody else, we’ll get a turnaround for you. I love you and appreciate you. Cheer loud, wear purple and go ‘Cats.”
On A.J. Hampton: “It was great to have him back. He was really close for a couple of weeks, had a couple of little setbacks that we erred on the side of just being really, really, really cautious for him. And I’d say he’s really close to being back full speed. But it was great to get him back out there, his energy, his experience. It’ll be better this week than it was last week. I mean, it was a long drought of being off the field. We collectively thought that he did some really, really good things. And it’s just so great to have him back. And then Theran [Johnson] got back out there in some different roles, too. And we thought he played really well at times on Saturday when he was out there also. So there were some really good things by both those guys.”
On first-years getting playing time: “The guys that are freshmen that are playing right now, it’s from you know, a lot. Number one, they’re very talented, but then also out of necessity, because of some depth issues. I’m going to work really hard to do everything we can to win every game as we move forward. That’s priority number one. Just make sure I temper it. We’re going to do everything we can to win every game we play, every week, all the time. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and I apologize for that. But I promise you, we’re going to be relentless.
“And what we do with that said, we’re going to try to make sure we get our team old again. And it’s a little bit of the growing pains we’re going through here the last few year. It’s not hard: you can do a study. When we’ve got veteran squads, veteran quarterbacks that play pretty consistent, we end up being pretty darn good. And when we’re kind of going through some growing years, we’ve got to try to get this roster back to being old. I built this with the model of redshirting as many guys as I can that maybe are close, but they’re going to be different at 22, 23. The guys that are ready are going to play always. As I tell recruits, it’s, ‘I’m going to recruit you to come here to compete to start,’ and I mean that. But I’m going to look at their functional strength or functional conditioning, how they pick the system up. Do we need them to play and not just a couple of plays, but do we need them to play? And can they get in the rotation? And then do they want to play? That’s kind of how I approach it with each young man on a micro level. But on a macro level as a program, I’ve got to get this roster back to being older. And we’re not quite there yet, but we’re going to get there. But we’re just not quite there yet.
“Those guys [that] have played, they’ve done some good things, DT [Devin Turner] had a big play in the game on Tomi’s sack. Austin [Firestone] played with really good effort. We’ve got a lot of redshirt freshmen that are playing, including our quarterback. I mean, there’s a lot of younger guys that are stepping into new roles, and just see them working their tails off to get better. I appreciate them for that and respect the heck out of them, because it’s not easy when you don’t you get the snowball rolling with winds. It’s not easy for everybody show up and smile and be excited and attack the day with just a relentless passion. It’s hard when things aren’t going your way. You got noise from other people, and you just gotta shut that noise, nonsense out. Because you’re only evaluated on what, seven games? Our program has never been stronger than it is today. We’ve just had a couple of really tough days. Six tough days. But tough times don’t last — tough guys do. I think I’ve got a staff and a roster full of those kinds of people and just great support. And that’s all we could ask for. We gotta do our job and win games.”
On the impact of Dr. Jen Schumacher: “We work so hard to develop our bodies physically. Strength-wise, conditioning-wise. I have always been a firm believer in the mental game. And I just think that muscle needs to be developed as much mentally: your brain, your confidence, the mental side of what we’re trying to do. Doc has been great. I’m going to be a little vague, because it’s something I’d like to kind of keep internal. We collectively as an Athletic Department, but in particular, I believe in the mental health, mental development and the mental skills you not only need to play our great game, but more importantly, for life. Doc does a phenomenal job. We’re so lucky to have her with us. She has been an amazing addition, and just love having her be a part of our staff. And I know our guys love working with her.”
On Sean McLaughlin: “He’s worked his tail off. I mean, from a great program. Sean being a great product and Lincoln-Way East in terms of honors program. They’re ranked number one in a day, you know, we got Dev [Devin O’Rourke], we got Declan, we got a number of guys [from] that great program. It started there. He’s a multi-sport guy and a great baseball player. We knew it from a functional strength standpoint, it was going to take a little bit of time. He’s just been relentless in his work ethic with Jay Hooten and our strength staff. And he’s just getting better and better and better each rep, each day, each game. Just look forward to watching him just continue to grow and improve. But it’s been fun o watch. He and Devin have played really well for us this year.”
On the defense and explosive plays: “Maybe in the offseason, I’ll go through all the play. But like Saturday, we had a mental bust on one play when they got the exchange touchdown. And then we missed a tackle at the point of attack, and probably plugged a gap too quick and didn’t get off a block. Credit the opponent. Out of 50 runs, if we would have kept them to their average, on the two big ones — the quarterback draw at the end, it was 30, and the long one where we really could have won on both those plays, schematically. We hold them to their average, and we end up holding about 150 yards, right? We gave up 70 I think in the first half. We have to eliminate those plays.
“If it was one thing, if it was one player, if it was one position group. I told the squad this morning, there’s five or six plays that make a difference in a game. We’ve all heard this. I learned in grade school. And I just can’t tell the guys when those five or six plays are going to happen. And when we’ve won games around here — we win a lot of one-score games here, typically, because we end up making those plays, and right now we’re just not making them at a consistent level. The blame goes to everybody. It’s us as coaches. Is there a couple of calls we’d like to have back? Sure. I mean, I don’t think that our missed tackles [are] because our guys don’t want to tackle anybody. And it’s not because we don’t practice our tails off in tackling. We just didn’t do it. So we believe in our guys; I believe in the scheme. We’ve made some little tweaks, nothing major that everybody’s seen. And sometimes we’re executing at a high level, and sometimes we’re not. But we’re going to keep just pounding the rock to break it and keep priming the pump. All those things to keep getting better and better. But I believe in our staff, I believe in our players, I believe in our program, and we’ve had six tough days.
“I’m not going to sit here and cry and look for sympathy or listen to negativity. I got time for them to try to create solutions. And that’s kind of the way I’ve always operated. And that’s where the world goes. I mean, in a lot of the world today, if it goes wrong, you get fired. I just don’t believe that. I think you believe in your people. We’ve got great people here. We’ve got a great staff. I’ve got great players. We’ve just got to stay together and keep pounding it, and we’ll get the thing turned around right now for tomorrow and hopefully carry it on, but for a majority of the game. I thought our guys played their tails off. I thought we played really hard on Saturday. We just made a couple of key mistakes at the wrong times. That cost us the game. But I look forward to having positive conversations when we get things winning.”
WR Malik Washington
On his growth at wide receiver: “I think one of the best things you could do is just put your head down and work. And that’s what we’ve done as a whole receiver room. That’s what we’ve done as a whole team. And so for my development to come, it comes through us just working hard throughout the offseason, us working hard right now, each Tuesday, Wednesday, practicing mentally on Thursday and Friday, to just be better and go out on Saturday to be consistent. So that’s all we’ve got.”
On Brendan Sullivan’s first start: “There’s a couple more scramble drills that we got to be prepared for. So I mean, we got to practice being ready for him to use his legs, finding ways to get blocks down the field and finding ways to get open because he has a big arm just like all of our quarterbacks. He can make plays, he can stay composed. We gotta be prepared to make him feel comfortable and make it open for him so he can make those plays.”
On the major differences: “I mean, like I said, just like the scramble drill. You gotta be a little bit prepared for the scramble drill; [if Sullivan sees] you run your route, he may break contain out of the pocket, which [he’s] really good at doing. You gotta be ready to either get a block or get open, find ways to make him comfortable. Find ways to get open so we can make that big play, because it’ll it’ll be there.”
On the leadership under center: “Well, the best thing about our team is everybody on this team is a leader. And so throughout the whole quarterback room, we have leaders throughout Ryan [Hilinski], Brendan. They’ve all come along. We prepare with them throughout the offseason, like anybody else we prepare with. We’ve developed a sense of trust. We developed a relationship with both of those guys and the whole quarterback room, to be honest, so it’s no different when we go out there. We got their back, and they got ours.”
DB Rod Heard II
On his development at Northwestern: “I think my development, I’ve been on a steady grind year by year, just trying to find a way to improve and get better and make plays for this team. I’m seeing now, I’m getting more and more opportunities to make those plays. And hopefully, I can just make enough and to continue to grow in the various positions that I play and make enough plays for us to get the job done.”
On having A.J. Hampton back: “It’s definitely great to have A.J. back. It was a tough hit to see him go out in the first game of the season. He’s a seasoned player; he’s been around for a long time, made a lot of great plays. And definitely, being out there with him, we’ve had our time. Happy to see him back, and it’s great that he’s out there.”
On having a career high in tackles Saturday: “ I mean, to be honest, I wouldn’t say it means that much to me. I think the most important, what means the most to me, is really winning the game. I mean, when I’m out there, I’m just doing my job, really. So, whether I get 10 tackles or two tackles, I’m just trying to to perform for my teammates. I mean, it is good to look back on for your personal success to see I have 10 tackles this game, this is a career high for me, which is a great thing. But overall, my main focus is just doing my job, getting the job done for my teammates. Win the game.”
On keeping in touch with Greg Newsome II and Brandon Joseph: “Yes, I definitely keep in touch with them. They come back every so often during the offseason, be able to get a lot of work in. But they definitely have impacted me, my time here. Definitely Greg, showing his preparation his work and like everything that he does; his mindset and how he competes, all those things. And I’ve tried to take bits and pieces from all the players that are here and add that to my game to make me better.”
On breaking through as a team: “I think we’re very close to breaking through. I mean, like he said, we have these one-play breakdowns and these few plays a game that we need to find a way to win on. But speaking for the team, I think that the energy is still there. We’re still preparing the same way. Even though we’ve had a six-game losing streak, nothing has really changed in our preparation work and our attitudes toward going into the game. You see every single game that we’ve played so far, majority of them have been, one-score, two-possession games. We just find it difficult to get over the hump. So, I mean, we just gotta continue to try to find those little bits and pieces and find a way to execute on game day in order to get the win. But I would say the energy in the locker room is very consistent over the over the past weeks.”