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Wisconsin game week press conference notes

A new stadium and Homecoming always make for interesting discussion.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Following a 17-7 loss to Penn State in its first domestic road game of the season, Northwestern heads back to Ryan Field to take on the Wisconsin Badgers – a reeling team that just fired longtime head coach Paul Chryst. On Monday, head coach Pat Fitzgerald, along with offensive lineman Vince Picozzi and cornerback Garnett Hollis Jr., spoke to the media about the Wildcats’ latest game, the Badgers, Homecoming and much more.

HC Pat Fitzgerald

Opening statement: “Good afternoon, everybody. Couple things here before talking about the game last week and this week’s upcoming challenge against Wisconsin. We want to lift our thoughts and prayers up to Matt MacPherson and his family. Sadly, his father Butch passed away this morning. A great high school coach, a great developer of men, and Butch [was] a frequent visitor in our program and very close with our program, our staff. We just want to lift up Matt and his entire family on the passing of his father, Butch. Just so sad for him, and we’ll work through that this week and try to lift up the MacPherson family to the best of our ability.

“On an incredibly positive note, last Wednesday was a very special day for our program with the announcement and revealing of the new Ryan Field. Words can’t describe how thankful we are collectively as a program to the Ryan family for their not only amazing, unprecedented generosity to our entire campus, community academically and scholarship and research, but obviously to the commitment to the new and enhanced Ryan Field. Obviously [thanks to] President Schill, our trustees for their amazing support, and look forward to working with our great community here in Evanston and making this just a spectacular community project that will be second-to none for Evanston and the greater Chicagoland community — to bring our community together, make this something that we’re all incredibly proud of and are able to use more than just seven days a year. So exciting, to say the least. I’ll leave it at that.

“Excited for Homecoming here this week. 10th year anniversary of the 2012 Gator Bowl team. Those guys got the “monkey off our back” getting that big bowl win down there in Jacksonville. Special group; look forward to having a chance to see as many of the guys that are able to make it back here this weekend. And then obviously, that coupled with Homecoming always makes it special to get guys back around and our alums back to be a part of a football Saturday here in Evanston.

“Our players of the week from last week: offensively, Peter Skoronski. Another consistent game by Peter. Defensively, Cam Mitchell. Just all over the field; made a ton of plays. We had him at the point of attack 21 times. I think that’s the most I’ve ever seen a corner at the point of attack in my 40 years around the game. Our pride shield, we weren’t very good early in the year, but we collectively thought that [Xander] Mueller, [Devin] O’Rourke and [Sean] McLaughlin were really solid in some inclement weather that we needed to be. Big playmaker: offensively, Jacob Gill; defensively, Bryce Gallagher. He accounted for three turnovers in that game. Jacob, obviously, with explosive catch and the touchdown. Practice players: Blake Van Buren on offense; defensively was Tyler Haskins; and special teams was Jake Arthurs.

“We’ve got two teams that’ll be fighting for a win this this weekend. Just, obviously, want to express my thoughts to Paul Chryst and his family. An outstanding coach here in the Big Ten for a number of years, not only as a head coach, but then also as a coordinator. A very good friend of mine, and someone I have the utmost respect for. Stacey and Robin are good friends. Got a chance to spend a lot of time with them through our partnership with Under Armour and different Big Ten events. We wish them nothing but the best of luck in their future endeavors. It’s not always that you get probably your dream job. The way that Coach Leonhard has this opportunity — and I know a little something about that, obviously different circumstances, and I’m not comparing them at all to be the same — but it’s always challenging to take over a role in some adverse times, and Coach Leonhard will do a phenomenal job. He was a phenomenal player at Wisconsin, in the league, and he’s been outstanding since he’s taken over their defense. Just utmost respect for Coach Leonhard also. He’s got a lot of ties to our staff and relationships, and we’ve obviously competed against him a lot. Big game for both teams. Looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge here in Ryan Field this Saturday.

“We got so many great alums in southwest Florida. I get the privilege to speak to the great alumni club of southwest Florida, in particular Naples. Everyone knows that’s where our family spends as much free time as we can possibly do together. So many families, too many to mention. Dan and Susan Jones, who I get the privilege to be the head coach in their honor and their family’s honor, are one of our close Naples families. The Ryans, the Heywards. I can keep going with names that are incredible supporters, incredible alums. To all the families and all those that were affected by the hurricane, our thoughts and prayers are with them. Hope that there’s a ton of great rescues. Hopefully a ton of smiles and positivity, because that’s a special place in our country. A great group of people. Our thoughts and prayers with them as they try to recover from the hurricane.”

On the rivalry with Wisconsin: “I think we’ve been fortunate. I go through my notes getting ready for each week, a number of years’ worth of notes. It just seems like whoever wins turnover battle in this game usually puts themselves in the best position to win the game. It’s typically pretty hard-fought. There’s been a couple of times we’ve ended up maybe a little lopsided in a defeat, and same thing with them. But typically, this is a one- or two-score game that goes all the way down to the wire. Again, going back to when I played, and all the way through as an assistant, now as the head coach, an incredibly high level of respect between our two programs and our two institutions. And, it’s always hard to compete against the Badgers. A game that I think is always hard-fought and always tough and always physical. So I’ll anticipate a similar one here this Saturday.”

On Chryst’s firing and preparing for a team with a new head coach: “I was shocked. I’ll just leave it at that. But I work here. I’ve got 99 problems, and theirs are not one, right. So our focus has gotta be on us because we’ve gotta capitalize on opportunities that we had like Saturday, and we obviously didn’t get it done. So number one, you gotta trust what you see and prepare for what you’ve seen not only this year on tape, but then we go back to our historical studies getting ready for our opponent in all three phases. I told the staff, I’ll tell them again in the squad tomorrow, you have to approach any type of twists and changes like this a little bit like the opener, where you anticipate just having to adjust in-game. If there’s things that maybe we didn’t scout or things that weren’t on tape — all of a sudden, there’s a little new wrinkle or a little nuance — just adjust to with poise and make the proper corrections and adjustments to them and learn as the game goes on. But you can hang your hat on physicality and toughness; downhill run; play-action pass; a mixture of four-down and odd package; a really sophisticated pressure package; multiple coverages and really sound kick game; really talented players that are tough and physical. They have great pride in the Wisconsin program, so we’ll expect their best game of the year.”

On analyzing last year’s blowout in Madison: “We’re a different team. They’re a different team. Obviously, we’ll always talk about things that are in history, so you hope to [not] have them be repeated. But you definitely stay focused on what we need to do and what we need to improve on.”

On Bryce Gallagher: “Number one, it was great pressure by Cam [Mitchell] and by Ryan [Johnson], and a really good, legal quarterback hit. That are some of the things that we’ve talked about: just being really smart football players. I thought Ryan was really smart on that play. That impacted the throw. A great catch by Bryce. I was a little perplexed on why “the ruling was stands” was called. I don’t know what the difference between “stands” and “confirmed” is now; after watching that play, there were a couple of little these on Saturday. That was one of them. But I thought there was indisputable video evidence of a ridiculous catch. But he’s playing great. He’s a heck of a football player. He’s a great leader for our defense and our team. Just an absolutely ridiculous family that I’m privileged to have the Gallagher boys. I mean, a special guy. Had a great game man. The fumble recovery, caused another fumble. I mean, single-handedly being a part of three turnovers is what we need from a guy who’s a captain, our Mike backer. He’s been spectacular, and we’re going to need him here as we move forward.”

On whether teams that fire their coaches gain momentum: “Well, I hope not [laughs].”

On student support and Homecoming: “Our students have been awesome all year. I want to give a special shoutout to our Wildside exec board. I was there when we revved them up in Welsh-Ryan Arena, the freshmen, when I had a chance to get after them a little bit, to teach them how to sign the fight song, and they responded. But I just can’t thank our Wildside enough. We didn’t have that back when I was in school; I just went in the student section and heckled people, so it’s great to see that. That group of students is awesome. I saw at the soccer game the other day and out at volleyball. I’m just really thankful. I only get to throw seven parties for you, so if you don’t show up, it’s your fault, not mine. College goes fast, so enjoy the heck out of it. It seems like our students have, and we’re going to need them Saturday.

“For us being an international school, I think Homecoming is just a little bit more because you’re bringing people — maybe they’re one time back to campus. A little different than maybe your typical state schools, where a lot of the alums still live kind of within an hour, two-hour radius. When you’re an international school, it might be the only time people come back, so I just think it adds a little bit more juice; it obviously adds a lot more energy to campus during the week, especially kind of ramping up Wednesday, Thursday, through Saturday night. I also want to give a shout out to my 25th reunion committee partners. I’ve done nothing, they’ve done everything, and I’ve been honored to be a part of their committee. I look forward to them having a great [weekend]. I’ll do my part, hopefully, here and make it be a great weekend for them and everybody else celebrating their reunions. It’s a special weekend. I always say this: when I played for the Orland Park Pioneers we had Homecoming. At Sandberg, we had Homecoming. There’s something special about Homecoming: it just brings a community together, maybe in a different way than it does any other week. You gotta use that as fuel, not as a distraction. I think I’ve got this thing dialed in pretty well on that. But, I think it’s always special to get as many of the alums back.”

On the perks of the new Ryan Field: “Everything. This will be the first time that we’ll have a home field advantage in the history of Wildcat football. The decision-making that’s been made as far as architecture, the size, the scope, the proximity to the field. Everything that goes into the decision-making is to not only make this an absolutely incredible opportunity for the city of Evanston, every one of our community members, our students, rec sports. I mean, this is a commitment to making Ashland and Central a hub for Evanston, a hub for our campus community, not just for seven days in the fall. I’m incredibly excited for that as someone who has been now here — I mean, gosh, it’s 25 [years] pretty much non-stop for a long time, since the early 90s, a couple of little cups of coffee at other places. But this community needs it. Our campus needs this. And as a football program, I couldn’t be more excited to get a home-field advantage. I mean, our players earn that; they deserve that, and to be able to put the size and the scope and where we’re going with this in line with that, I think shows the priorities of where we want to go with the program. We need to get that. It doesn’t matter if it’s 35,000 or 106,000. If 35,000 is done right, it will be the loudest, raucous, best home-field advantage in college football. I think this is going to set the precedent for future stadiums and future community engagement opportunities in college towns. I’m just excited to be a small — I mean, a very, very small — part of it, and none of this would happen without amazing institutional support and amazing generosity. Just relentless support by the Ryan family. And I look forward to partnering with Evanston and making this really special for everybody.”

On the 2012 team: “It was a long time coming. I’ll probably get pretty emotional when I see those guys here at the end of the week. That group and I, we went through a lot. We got a lot of coaches that are still here that were a part of that. It took everybody to get to that point. We had some excruciating, challenging losses in bowl season leading up to that. I thought we put together a great plan. I thought the guys really adjusted well. It was a hot day and humid day down there in Jacksonville; who thought that Trevor Siemian would have a rushing touchdown? How about that? Kain [Colter] played amazing. Tyris [Jones] played unbelievable. Quinn [Evans] had huge plays. Tyler Scott. The list goes on. I think [Jared Carpenter] was the MVP and made plays all over the place. Nick [Vanhoose] had a big pick. It’s all flooding back right now. I mean, it was just a great day. I had little kids at that point, so it was it was pretty cool to celebrate that with them. Great memories. Great team, great players.”

On Wisconsin’s game against Illinois: “[It was a] tale of two halves. Their first half was really close at halftime with the Illini and the Badgers. It kind of flipped there those first two possessions, a little bit with the touchdown and then the kickoff fumble that then led to points. I think number one, I think Illinois is really good on defense. I think their front is stout and I think their back-end is as good as maybe anybody in the Big Ten. I mean, they were very physical on the outside — that allowed them to really crowd the box. I thought they got off blocks really well, tackled very well. And then it became a multi-score game. It’s kind of like some of our games, where now you gotta go throw it, and so the numbers are a little bit misleading because of maybe the score of the game. But I thought Illinois played really well on defense after watching that tape. Fundamentally, gap fits, tackling. I thought their back-end played outstanding coverage: really tight, really physical. Again, [a] really physical game on both sides. It seemed like Wisconsin was just one block and one broken tackle away from a big play, and then then a couple of downfield throws they just missed a little bit. But like some of our games, turnovers played a key role in the outcome.”

OL Vince Picozzi

On establishing the run game: “Obviously, a successful run game is 11 hats on 11 hats. Just trying to do everything for everyone. But I really think we gotta focus on our fundamentals and technique week after week. I think that’s gonna be a big focus coming into this week.”

On his journey to Evanston: “Started at Temple University as a walk-on back in 2016. Played there for five seasons. I then ended up transferring and went out to Colorado State, where a few of my other former Temple players had ended up transferring to. And then, after this past season with the coaching change, ended up in the transfer portal for a season after medically redshirting last year. Was fortunate enough to get in contact with Coach Anderson and Coach Fitz. Came on a visit and just knew this was definitely gonna be the place for me. Beyond excited that it ended up being that way. So really happy to be here and be around a great group of guys and great coaches.”

On his veteran presence: “I just like to communicate with our guys, kind of talk about things I’ve seen defensive linemen do in the past, things that they’ve seen. As much as I am a veteran guy, all the guys in the offensive line have seen different things from different games. So we just communicate back and forth and just talk about of our experiences and how they can help us in the future.”

On why he picked NU: “When I first got here on my visit, just meeting all the players and all the guys, I just really clicked with them. They were all very welcoming. And I feel like they’ll be end up being lifelong friends of mine just because of how we connect on and off the field. I think that’s really what played into my decision, as well as academically, just the school and its prestige. That was a huge highlight for me in my decision-making process.”

On playing next to Peter Skoronski: “It’s an awesome experience to be able to line next to him, because he’s just a down-to-earth, humble guy. He just comes in, puts his head down. He’s working every day, in and out, coming in. See him in the film room at random times in the day when he has a free moment. So it’s really good to see. I think it’s helped me learn a little bit myself. Even though [I’ve been] doing college football for so long. Seeing that work ethic kind of gives a little me a little fire to want to do more and want to do better. So it’s an awesome experience to play next to him.”

CB Garnett Hollis Jr.

On Bryce Gallagher: “He’s a real leader. It’s good to see him bring the guys together when we’re having a hard time on defense, or when he needs to pick us up, to get us going, get us motivated. Before every time we go out on the field, he breaks it down. Being under his wing, and him helping me come along in the starting lineup, playing as many snaps as I do, it’s been a real privilege playing alongside him. We depend on him a lot. He is our middle linebacker for a reason. We trust him to make any type of call that we need. We trust him to fly around and make plays. Our trust is completely behind him 100%. Him making plays, that’s what we expect of him, and that’s what we need going forward.”

On forcing takeaways: “We’re really confident going into this upcoming week. We preach it every day to take away the ball. We preach it in practice: punching at the ball, getting it in the air. Any way we can get the ball, that’s what we try to do. So, it’s real and rooted into our defense. We just gotta keep doing it as much as we can to help the offense and to keep life on the sideline.”

On his development: “I think I’ve come a long way from the beginning of the season. It’s not easy trying to play behind someone as many years as I have, going back to last year, but I think it’s helped me grow a lot, because it’s a learning experience. Every year is a learning experience. Every game is a learning experience. I’m just trying to go out there and make every play that I can for my teammates and be confident and in who I am and who I am as a player to help us win games — to be the best player that I can out there on field.”

On younger defensive backs playing: “The ‘next man up’ mentality is critical because you never know what could happen. You always gotta stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. We talk about up young guys, and we talk up the guys that don’t have as much experience. They have to be ready when their number’s called. I think prep is very important for us because, as you’ve seen, we have had guys go down. The ‘next man up; mentality is very critical for us as a corner room, a DB room, but also us as a collective team.”

On Cam Mitchell: “He’s a security blanket into the boundary. We know he’s gonna come up and make plays. We know he’s gonna cover when he needs to. He’s always around the ball. He’s gonna fly around, make plays. Him being out there, and getting him back, is definitely what the defense needs to keep going forward and be the best collective group that we can.”

On preparing for the Badgers: “We haven’t really focused on them. Really focusing on us. They do have a new coaching change, that whole situation, but that doesn’t really affect us. We gotta focus on how we can get better throughout the week and how our preparation will help us win this game. [We’re] focusing on us, and we’re gonna have to come with everything we got to go win this game.”