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Illinois game week press conference notes

Mixing Rivalry Week with Senior Day will always create an impassioned atmosphere.

Syndication: Journal-Courier Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Subsequent to its 10th straight loss, Northwestern football seeks to both end its winless streak as well as reclaim the HAT this Saturday against rival Illinois at 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday. This week, head coach Pat Fitzgerald as well as seniors A.J. Hampton and Ray Niro III spoke about Rivalry Week, Senior Day and more.

Pat Fitzgerald

Opening Statement: “Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Thanksgiving week. Hope everybody has a fun and safe week and gets a chance to enjoy the weekend, especially Thursday, with your family — and, if not, maybe like we are on Zoom. Lot to be thankful for here in our program. We have so many students that, obviously, help us out on a day-to-day basis, be that our equipment staff, our video staff do a terrific job. Our AT staff that are in here before we start and are working long after practice is done and long after a game is done. Really appreciative of that. Obviously, our great band, our great seniors in NUMB, and same thing with spirit squad. For all of our seniors that have been a part of the program now for a number of years, we’re just so thankful. We’ll honor our seniors, also, before the game, like everybody does, either last weekend or this weekend. A group that has battled through a bunch. They’ve done a terrific job keeping our team together. Really thankful for them, and it’ll be sad to see them depart our program. But, I’ll be excited for them, be it if they play on Sunday or if they move on and use their great Northwestern degree to move on to the real world. Just really thankful for all of our seniors and all that they’ve done, if it’s in the arena — as it’s our young men — or if it’s those that support our staff and support the program.

“I know last week was a very tough week for Coach Bielema. I reached out to him and expressed our thoughts and prayers having lost his mother. As someone who’s gone through that, I definitely want to lift Bret and his family up in our thoughts and our prayers. I’ve had a lot of respect for Bret for a long time. We started as head coaches the same year together and have known each other for a long time. He’s done a great job since taking over at Illinois. They’re playing at a very high level in all three phases and have guys up for multiple awards, not only in the Big Ten, but also nationally; it’s very well-deserving. It’ll be a hard-fought battle. It’s always a tough battle when you play Rivalry Week. They’ve got the Land of Lincoln Trophy, and we’re gonna have to play clean to be able to compete. Gonna have to play our best game to have a chance to win the game. I know our guys put together a great week of prep. It’s exciting to be in Rivalry Week, and a lot to be thankful for.”

“Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. To all the teams competing for a state championship here this weekend, I wish them nothing but the best of luck. I’ve got my eye on that Loyola 8A game in particular. Want to wish my son Jack and his younger brother Ryan — who’s got a chance to dress for the games — the best of luck here. Best of luck to all the teams competing for the state championships here this weekend. It’s a special weekend in football, and we’re all very thankful.

“Lastly, want to say thanks to all of our great fans. Very thankful for all that you’ve done. Been a tough year, but thankful for your support, and look forward to making you proud as we finish up and definitely in the future.”

On sending off the seniors: “I think practice-wise, we’ve been pretty consistent. I’m proud of, again, the seniors for that. It starts through that group and permeates through that leadership council and captains. They’ve put in great effort every week, so I would be really disappointed if that’s not the case again this weekend. I think, like everybody, you want to win your rivalry game. That’s how you send them out the right way, and send them out victorious is always the goal. I thought a lot of our guys kind of played with that senior-type mentality last week. My hope is they do it again this week.”

On how last year’s game against Illinois fuels this year’s: “I would say from a standpoint of the way that we played is enough motivation. We didn’t execute very well at all in any phase of the game down there, and they played at a very high level. It doesn’t take long to pop on the tape to see that we’ve gotta perform better to win. I’ve been on the winning side of this game quite a bit. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what it takes to win it, and my hope is that I can get the guys to play clean and play consistent for one last time together.”

On the impact of the seniors: “They’ve been through a lot. It’ll be a really interesting chapter in their life book when they get done with college, with playing ball, as they start their family; just what they went through in their college experience, from COVID to championships and everything in between. It’s a pretty unique experience. It’s been a great group. They’ve been a fun, fun group to be around every single day. A myriad of personalities, which makes it fun. Very talented group, and a group that, I think, has taught our younger players how to prepare, how to battle through adversity and how to stay real positive. I’ve been really proud of the guys for that.”

On Cole Freeman: “Cole’s got, I think, just a demeanor and mindset about him that he thinks about everybody before he thinks about himself. I mean, just [an] incredible, unselfish teammate that brings an energy level and an excitement to our team that everybody kind of gravitates toward. He learned a ton of valuable quarterback college lessons, I think, on Saturday; did of things really well, and some things that I think he’s gonna learn and grow from. Was really proud of him; I think he stepped up for everybody. He’s gonna, I’m sure, step up again this week with his preparation and get himself get ready to go play one week better against the Illini.”

On the rivalry with Illinois: “You talk about things. Probably every coach in the country talks about the rivalry game in the offseason; they talk about it in training camp. You kind of put it away until you get to Sunday. Obviously, you debrief on the game, and then you start putting your focus into the upcoming rivalry game. You’ll definitely go through the history. You’ll go through a lot of different ways we won this game; learn some lessons from when we’ve ended up on the short end. At the end of the day, make sure we do what we can control, and that’s prepare the right way, celebrate our seniors and then hopefully play a very clean, physical game on Saturday that gives ourselves a chance to win.”

CB A.J. Hampton

On what Illinois does well: “I feel like they do a really good job of running the ball. Everybody probably knows this: No. 2. That guy, you turn on the film, he does it week in [and] week out. Feel like that’s one thing we gotta really focus on this week: stopping the run, just being physical. I mean, it’s Big Ten ball, so we know what we gotta do. We gotta stop the run and then that opens everything in the pass game. First and foremost, I think that’s what we gotta stop, because that’s one thing: I turn on the tape, I just always see, and that kind of catches my eye.”

On facing teams that run the ball: “I feel like we got a lot of experience early in the year with teams that like to run the ball. You think about teams like Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota. Those past games, like Purdue, that’s a lot of fun for people in the back-end. But these games right here, you gotta play team football. Play one play at a time. Work together, because you need everybody to step up to stop the run. So, I think that’s kind of one thing we’ve taken from the season.”

On playing with Cam Mitchell: “He’s a confident kid. I love playing with him. That’s the thing when you have two dominant corners: I feel like not necessarily having to worry about the other side. I know he’s gonna go out there, have fun, trust himself and play fast. I know what he’s capable of, and I know what he knows he’s capable of. The biggest thing is just playing with somebody that has that belief in themself. Going out there, knowing that they’re gonna give you their all. And then, at that, just being a dominant X-factor. He could really just shut down a whole sideline, or a whole side of the field, if he puts his mind to it. It’s definitely good being able to play with him, because I get to worry about my side; he worries about his side. We just feed off each other, too. It’s been great.”

On playing Illinois: “Early on, when I first got in here, that was one of the things that was always kind of highlighted in the back of our front mirror, as Coach Fitz was saying. Especially early on, the fight for the HAT. We want rivals with other teams, but Illinois, they kind of disrespected us early on in the year — just a little joke the coaches used to say. But, at the end of the day, it’s football. That’s been our rival, especially since we’ve gotten here since early on in my career. I feel like the culture with them, we know we’re gonna get a fight every time we go there. Typically, it’s one of the last games of the season, so you can count on the weather being very iffy and kind of cold and muggy. The emotions are already high with that, but it just adds for a chippy game. A fun, football-type game — nothing crazy. I mean, they bring it every year; we bring it every year. It’s gonna be fun. Looking forward to it.”

On young defensive backs: “I think the biggest thing, especially with Dev [Devin Turner] and just all the other DBs included, is just their willingness to learn. They’ve really just kind of stepped into that role of owning up to being a starting guy. Being young and getting thrown into the fire, it can be scary. It’s a lot of things coming at you. But for them, I feel like they did a real good job with stepping up and handling it. Film study was big. Just leaning on a lot of the older guys that were out at the time to help. I mean, it never hurt to ask questions. That’s just one thing they’ve really done. And just believing in themselves. At the end of the day, it’s just about confidence and trusting yourself.”

On Senior Day: “You know how it is. It’s a lot of love; it’s sad, too. Especially all these faces, all the people I’ve met over the years, I’m never gonna forget. It’s all about connections and networking. Personally, with me, I’m just a very social guy, so I’m very grateful for every relationship I’ve made at Northwestern. All the opportunities that they’ve given me, just allowing me to play the game I love. The weather, that kind of gets me a little bit; I’m not that mad. I’m ready for a little warm weather. But other than that, I have nothing but love for Northwestern, and I always will.”

WR Ray Niro III

On Senior Day: “Definitely a lot of emotions. Just kind of seeing that I’ve been here for a really long time. Guys talking about seasons from 2018, I was on that team. Just staying five years, you learn so much about the culture here and make so many connections. There’s definitely a lot of emotions going into this game for sure considering that it’s my last one at Northwestern, last one of college football.”

On Northwestern’s impact on him: “Probably just the familyhood aspect. You need everybody to be successful. You need to have true relationships and connections to just have a successful team and be happy in life. I think I made a lot of connections with guys that were older than me when I was a freshman. I’ve made a ton of connections with guys that are younger than me when I’m a senior. Just never creating boundaries between anyone and just having good brothership between everybody.”

On Cole Freeman: “All year, he did a great job of embracing his role. I feel like everybody looked at him and was like a guy that could lead himself. He definitely can lead the team. When he got his shot at Purdue, everybody talked about it with the receivers: he was just calm out there. He played a good game and fought hard to try to get us a victory. Really proud of him as a young guy stepping up. I know there [were] a lot of emotions going on with him being his first start, but he handled it really well and just avoided all the outside noise.”