A week after facing one of the worst offenses in college football, the Wildcats will now have to match up against one of the best. Northwestern hasn’t beaten Ohio State since 2004, and the oddsmakers don’t expect that to change on Saturday against the No. 2 Buckeyes. Pat Fitzgerald, cornerback AJ Hampton Jr. and defensive-lineman-turned-tight-end Duke Olges answered questions Monday about their impending matchup against the Buckeyes, the underdog mentality and more.
Opening statement: “Good afternoon, everybody. I hope everybody’s doing well. Happy Halloween. I see some great costumes here on Zoom. Everybody’s looking phenomenal. I appreciate everybody being on with us here when you could be out trick or treating. The players of the game from last week: offensively, Duke Olges had a great game. He was really physical at the point of attack and got his first career touchdown, which was great to see. Special teams-wise was Tre Tyus. Tre had a big tackle on a punt cover and was pretty relentless the rest of the game. Practice-wise, it was Blake Van Buren, Nick Herzog and Braden Turner.
“Obviously [we’re] playing an outstanding team in my opinion. I feel like I’ve ordered them Number One in my ballot. If I didn’t, I should have, but that would be my mistake, because when you pop on the tape and take a deeper dive, it’s a complete team. Coach Day and his staff have done a phenomenal job in recruiting. They’ve got depth everywhere and explosiveness in all three phases and [are] coming off a really hard-fought game at Penn State that was impressive to watch. We’ll have our hands full but [it’s a] great opportunity, along with a great challenge and I know our guys will be excited to compete.”
On Ohio State and the two Big Ten Championship games against the Buckeyes: “Year in and year out, Coach Day has done a phenomenal job, and I have so much respect for the program that he’s built and the job that he’s done. They play a complete game and they have for a while. We’ve been fortunate enough to earn the privilege to compete against them in the Big Ten Championship game. We obviously won’t be there this year, but we’ve had the privilege to do that. We’ve earned that in the past and we’ll earn it again in the future. I have full confidence in that. They’re playing at a really high level and [they had a] really impressive fourth quarter on Saturday. We got crossover tape getting ready for the Hawkeyes, saw them in the game that week, and they played really, really well. [It’s] just a really tough place to play in Happy Valley in the environment they were in, and we thought collectively that they just handled it incredibly well and made the big plays down the stretch that they needed to win. Really impressive.”
On what’s happened to Northwestern the last two years: “Well, we’ve lost games, that’s what’s happened. When you look at the ‘why,’ it starts with turnover ratio. That’s been a huge component to our lack of wins. Our explosive play battle, offensively and defensively collectively, and third, making the plays that need to be made down in crunch time, especially this year, that needed to be made to win games. Almost all the games that we’ve been in — we probably didn’t play well enough in the Wisconsin game, frankly — but the rest of the games, we had ample opportunities, and we weren’t able to capitalize on that.
“[With] the 2020 team, we graduated a lot of experience. When you look at where we’re at now and where we’ve kind of been at, we’ve got a lot of guys that are growing up on the field; they’re gonna get better, and they’re gonna improve. We’re not where we want to be. There’s no doubt about that from a record standpoint, but we’ve got a plan to get that back. It’s one rep at a time and one guy getting developed more and more at a time and continuing to add competitive depth, so it’s not rocket science.”
On his message to the team and the Iowa tape: “We’ve got to play better football. We’ve got to start faster from Saturday. We thought we had that bug fixed. Obviously we didn’t, but [if] we come out [and] we get a big stop, we get a score, we get chances to get off the field. I thought the 54-yard field goal was a big play in the game. If that ends up being missed. we’ve got field position and probably momentum on our side and we weren’t able to really capitalize on anything after that. Credit to the kick. Quarterback-wise, I thought Iowa played their best game of the year. They made some really big time throws in some tight windows and then were efficient with the ball. Throughout time, that made it tough for us to get home.
“We’ve got to get better fundamentally. That’s what I talked to the guys about today. It’s our eyes. It’s our base. It’s our feet. It’s what we do post-contact. It’s our communication. We’re just too inconsistent there, and that’s leading to why we’re having a lack of success. It’s ultimately my responsibility and the coaches’, and we’re working our butts off to get it fixed.”
On the NFL prospects on display: “From a standpoint of quarterback play, I’m not sure there’s anybody playing better than C.J. [Stroud] right now in the country. I haven’t seen every game like you all probably have; just going through and perusing things, I have obviously focused on our opponent and how we go about our routine, but he’s been in a lot of crossover tape. He’s just been so efficient and so explosive. Same thing with their entire receiver corps. Everybody can take it the distance and it’s a really impressive group, to say the least.
“Then Peter [Skoronski], I think the first word that jumps out to me about Peter is toughness; there’s a toughness about his game. Then the second would be consistent. He’s got a great body of work throughout his entire career. Those two things jump out along with a lot of other things, but it’s gonna be a very talented field. There’s no doubt it’ll be a lot of fun, and that’s what you enjoy doing. It’s fun to compete and have success. You’ve gotta make it, you’ve got to earn it, you’ve gotta go do it. That’s what I know our guys are prepared to go do.”
On getting the defense to step up: “We’ve gotta take advantage of where the opportunities present themselves. We had a couple of opportunities against Maryland that we didn’t capitalize on from a turnover-caused standpoint that probably would have been the difference in the game. We tipped a couple passes again, balls thrown a little bit differently. We had guys pretty dang close to being in position to make those plays, and then the same thing with the ability to force fumbles. I think our guys are working to make that happen. You just can’t stop. Just because it’s not working right now doesn’t mean that mentality, that mindset, and that effort stops, because the minute you do that, then it’s not going to happen for sure. Usually those things happen in bunches in a positive way. When it’s not, you just gotta keep pounding, and I know our guys will.”
On if he’s found a weak spot to Ohio State: “On tape, I haven’t seen anything, but we haven’t cut the grass at Ryan Field since our last home game, so it’ll be somewhere between two to four feet high. Maybe the sprinkling system might come on. I don’t know. They’re a great team, man. I’m just joking by the way; the field’s in unbelievable shape. It’s incredible, the best I think it’s ever been.
“They’re a complete team. Again, you’ve gotta execute, number one, what you’re expected to do. You’ve gotta be able to win on plays one at a time. You’ve gotta get off the field on third down and create turnovers, and then you’ve gotta play complementary football. In the first half, we didn’t do that at Iowa. We put our defense out there too long. Then we didn’t get off the field on third down, and it’s really not what we’re built to do. Here, it’s play complementary football, win the turnover battle and play tough, physical, four-quarter football, and obviously we’ve been inconsistent at that all year.”
On what went well against Justin Fields in the 2020 B1G Championship game and if he can carry that over to Stroud: “I think we got really fortunate that he hurt his thumb. That helped us in the passing game quite a bit, and then it really didn’t work out really well in the run game because we did not fit gaps very well and we did not tackle very well. We also turned the ball over I think three times in the second half.”
On the underdog mentality with Ohio State favored by over 30 points: “That’s what we try to do every game. Thanks for telling me that that’s how big of an underdog we are. [It’s] not the first, probably won’t be the last. I know our guys will be fired up. I believe we should and could, and if we do the things we’re capable of, we can win every game. That’s my job, to get our guys to believe that; number one, prepare that way, and then go out and play our tails off and adjust accordingly in-game. When we’ve done that, we’ve had a lot of success. When we haven’t, it starts with me, and we’ve just gotta grind. That’s definitely something that we’re doing.”
DB A.J. Hampton
On OSU WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba: “They have a lot of good guys in their wide receiver room. I feel like one thing that really jumps out about him is I feel like he has really good hands and is really good in the route tree. He does all the little things right, which I feel like is something you really like to see in a wide receiver. At the end of the day, we’ve played these guys before. 2020, and even my freshman year in 2018, they’ve always had guys like this. It really just kind of depends on us and how our preparation goes, because I don’t really think he does anything too crazy, but he just does things a lot better than a lot of the other wide receivers in college football right now.”
On what makes OSU QB CJ Stroud special: “If you just turn on the film, [it’s not just] the throws he’s making week in and week out. [It’s] the way he’s keeping his team composed and is keeping the team together. The biggest thing is just their emotion on the field and the way they’re able to have fun. Him being a leader, I think that’s one of the biggest things he does very well. The film is there. They have great games. The connection he has with his wide receivers is also another very important thing that I’ve noticed.”
On preparing as a secondary: “I think as a secondary room, we match up very well. We play them every year, and praise to them, they’re a great team — I’m not taking anything from them. I think what we need to do first is take a step back. It started today in practice: it started in film, just looking at our breakdown, just doing the little things right. I feel like going into the game as a secondary, we’ve gotta play with that fire. We have a lot of good young talent and we’ve got some seasoned vets, too. I think the biggest thing we’ve done is just to trust ourselves and...just go out there and have fun.
“I’m not taking any respect from them because they’re great wide receivers, but at the end of the day, I’m talking more about myself and about my teammates. I know what me and Cam [Mitchell] have done. I know what some of my younger teammates, Theran [Johnson] and all of them, have done. Personally, I think it’s gonna be a great week and a great challenge.”
On the standard of the defense: “Honestly, we’ve just gotta play team defense. We’ve gotta stick together. Obviously, the season hasn’t went the way we want it, but I feel like the biggest thing is we’ve gotta stick together. We can’t start pointing fingers, can’t start saying, ‘it’s this guy’s fault.’ That’s when you bring up a whole bunch of other issues.
“Everybody’s praising these guys. Everybody wants these guys to do good, but they haven’t faced us yet. They haven’t faced me, they haven’t faced Cam Mitchell, they haven’t faced any of our secondary. I’m not disrespecting them, but it starts with us. We’ve got to keep preparing how we’re doing. Personally for me, I’ve got to go out there and have fun, take it one play at a time.”
On recovering from his injury: “You know how it is when you get an injury. You always want to baby it a little bit, but you don’t get anywhere from doing that. You’ve gotta go out there and be able to push yourself. I feel like one thing I did really well in rehab, and just being able to support my teammates, was I was really pushing myself, whether it was mentally in the playbook or physically in rehab. That’s one thing that really allowed me to not only gain more confidence back, but go out there and trust myself and have fun at the end of the day.”
On the execution versus the Buckeyes: “We know what they do. We know they like to pass the ball. We know they do some good things in the run. But like I said, we have to focus on executing our plan at the end of the day. When we go out there on the field, it’s us on the field. When we’re getting the coverage, we’re getting the call; we’re the ones [who] have to execute it.”
TE Duke Olges
On catching his first career touchdown: “[When we] got that call in the red zone on fourth-and-goal, I was pretty fired up to see the signal come in. I thought it was a great call by Coach Jake. I was excited to finally get that play that we’ve executed a lot of times of practice out in the game. It was a great feeling to to finally go out there and be able to do it.”
On his position: “I don’t think it’s ever been like formally announced, but at the beginning of the season, they moved me from defensive line to tight end right toward the tail end of fall camp. I spent the first couple weeks of the season when we were playing Nebraska, Duke and Southern Illinois getting up to speed on the offense, learning as much as I could as fast as I could. I started to sprinkle in a few games in the middle of the year, and then the past couple of weeks, getting a little bit more snaps and filling a little bit bigger of a role. I’m a full-time tight end that’s been converted from a defensive lineman and still coming along, starting to get deeper and deeper in the offense and develop myself as a tight end.”
On Stroud: “He’s a very consistent player. He makes hard throws look easy. When you’re watching him, it’s almost like watching an NFL tape. He’s a very talented player. He’s a guy that just goes out there and executes. His consistency and his talent just takes him and separates him from everybody else.”
On the transition from DL to TE: “I definitely didn’t think I’d be playing tight end here at the start of my career. I was a defensive lineman here for the first three years of my career, bouncing on the bottom of the depth chart, and never really got an opportunity to play on the defensive side of the ball here in my first three years here. I felt like I had a really good offseason and a really good fall camp this year. Fitz came to me, and he said, ‘We see a lot of good things in you, and maybe it’s not necessarily on the defensive side of the ball, but we think that you have an opportunity to play on the offensive side and we think that you could fit in at tight end real well.’ He presented that as an opportunity to me, and I just put my trust in him and believed in him. My mindset was just that I want to get on the field any way possible. I want to help this team any way possible.
“I did play a little bit of tight end in high school, so it wasn’t too foreign of a thing for me to do, but slowly learning the offense and getting the techniques down were definitely some things that I had to spend a couple weeks on and hammer away. I definitely feel like it’s been going well the past couple games, and I’ve just got to keep getting better.”
On his best trait as a tight end: “I would say my versatility. Being a bigger-sized tight end and able to block and then also having some speed and being able to go out on routes and be a little bit of a pass-catcher threat. I definitely feel like I’m better at blocking right now, but working on making my routes a little more crisp and learning coverages are things I need to keep getting better at. I think my versatility in those two aspects are helping me in the tight end position.”
On Joe Spivak and the D-line to offense connection: “Joe texted me right after the game. He just texted me exactly the play that they had in for him when they were moving him over to the jumbo package, so that was just awesome to get on my phone after the game and see that. Joe was a guy I looked up to on the defensive side of the ball. Just an outstanding leader and a guy that came in every day with the right attitude and a great work ethic. Credit to him for having some of that rub off on me and just being able to stay consistent and find my own path here. I just texted him after the game and enjoyed that moment with him since he was kind of in that same position as me as a D-line converted into a jumbo-specific package. He was definitely someone I looked up to, and I was happy to hear from him after the game.”