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Minnesota game week press conference notes

Fitz talks weather, Brendan Sullivan, long vs. short term and more.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 05 Ohio State at Northwestern Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After slogging through horrendous weather and being competitive against the Number Two team in the nation, the Wildcats head to Minneapolis to take on the Golden Gophers in a Big Ten West matchup. In a season that's all but lost, NU will look to get its first win on American soil since October 2021. Coach Pat Fitzgerald, running back Andrew Clair and defensive back Rod Heard II answered questions Monday regarding the upcoming game in enemy territory.

Pat Fitzgerald

Opening Statement: “Recap Saturday real quick. Players of the Week: offensively, Evan Hull. Obviously had a big touchdown, some huge runs. Probably played one of the best games at running back we’ve had in a while against the Buckeyes. Defensively, Adetomiwa Adebawore. Probably played his best game of the year. Really active. Really played at a high level. Special teams is Will Halkyard. I think as everybody saw throughout college football in the midwest, wind was a definite factor. He threw seven strikes on Saturday, which is a great credit to him. Really proud of the start to his career he’s having. Big Playmaker offensively was Brendan Sullivan. I thought he was gritty. Made a lot of things happen. He, along with Cam and Evan, we had three guys go over 50 yards rushing. Sully extended some plays, played tough and did some great things. Big Playmaker Defensively was Rod Heard II. Rod, like Tomi, playing multiple positions on our defense. Rod was very active. Three Practice Players of the Week: Joe Himon, P.J. Spencer and Carmine Bastone. Those guys all given a great look.

“Thought our plan gave us an opportunity to get the game into the fourth quarter. We just had it one score under 10 minutes and weren’t able to make anything big happen offensively, or get off the field defensively, down the stretch to make that thing something that would’ve been, obviously, a lot of fun and memorable. Credit to our opponent. I thought our guys fought and battled.

“Speaking about a team that battled, it was really impressive to watch the Gophers Saturday against Nebraska. They went in at halftime down 10-0. Their starting quarterback goes out. I thought Athan [Kaliakmanis] came in and had a really great second half. Mo [Ibrahim] being Mo, and six years in this league, been a dominant running back. What really jumps out to me is just how physical they are up front on both sides of the ball — the front seven especially. Defensively, their DBs are really active and really physical and really good cover guys. Obviously, that O-line group, tight end group, running back group, is a veteran group and really, really talented. They’re doing some special things on third downs. I think they’re leading the country [in] third-down efficiency on offense, and topping the Big Ten and No. 2 defensively. You couple that, and it kind of really spins the clock a lot in their favor from a time of possession [standpoint]. You saw it in a lot of their wins. You even saw it Saturday, the way they just really shortened the game and limited possessions for Nebraska down the stretch.

“Coach Fleck and I have known each other for a long time. He does a phenomenal job. They’ve got a great staff. They’ve, obviously, played very physical football during his time not only in Minneapolis, but also in Kalamazoo. We’ll have our hands on the road. Looks like weather’s gonna be a little bit of a factor again. Little wind and a lot of cold. See how our young squad handles a trip into a great environment, a great stadium, and against a team that I thought played really gritty and really well last week.”

On preparing to play in bad weather and the cold: “I guess make everybody wear ice packs all day. I don’t know. I think you gotta lean into it. That’s what we talked about here. You embrace it and enjoy it. It’s another great opportunity to play the great game that we all love. I think we’ve handled two tests. I don’t think the weather has been a factor for us in either one of our contests: Penn State and Ohio State. I mean, it was a factor in the game, but I think we played pretty clean within the context of the weather. Both teams got to deal with it.

“It’ll be the first time, in the Midwest all year, the weather has been a little bit of wind, a little bit of rain, but it’s been relatively mild. It looks like across the Midwest, Wednesday, Thursday-ish, probably sometime late Thursday, it looks like the weather changes across the Midwest and it becomes a factor. That’s what makes Big Ten football fun.”

On balancing next game and planning for the future: “I think you’re always looking at your macros: doing evaluations, seeing where you’re at, where things need to go, and putting plans together — not only for now, but also for down the road.

“I owe it to our players, I owe it to our staff, I owe it to our fans — especially our players to work our tails off, every moment of every day, to give them the best possible plan, and the best organization that we can to be able to go out and win a football game this week and then get back on the horse again and do it the following week. It is what it is when your record is where it’s at right now. You deserve the criticism that you get, probably not as much as you deserve. You get a lot of it when it’s down, and you get probably too much praise when it’s up, and that’s part of the deal of major college football. I hope my guys would say that I’m very consistent in my approach, and we’re trying to do everything we can in our process to find a way to get us to be successful. That’s my focus right now.

I’ve been doing this a long time, and this isn’t the first tough season. You don’t do anything rash. You don’t do anything quick. You take your time to evaluate everything and see where things are at. Ultimately that’s my responsibility. When our record is what it is, it’s my responsibility to get it fixed. It’s my responsibility to help us through these tough times. That’s my job, and that’s what I try to attack each day with.”

On Brendan Sullivan and his long-term potential: “Sully’s learning a lot, each and every rep, and I think he’s embraced the role. Coming out of training camp, we thought the quarterback competition going on this year was really close and tight, and he stayed the course when he wasn’t named the starter to begin the season. That’s a credit to him, and I think that he’s learning incredibly valuable lessons each and every rep and each and every game. They’ve all been a little bit different, but at the end of the day, I think he’s shown great promise. I think he’s shown great toughness. I think he’s executed at times in ways that we need our quarterback to play, and I think there have been some plays that, like all of us as a team, it’s not a game of perfect, that I think he’d love to have back.

“The macro aspect to your question. I don’t get into hypotheticals for future stuff. I just don’t. I never have. We’ve gotta play each play and attack each day, and you see where things go. When your record’s at where it’s at right now, you gotta evaluate everything. Then you got in-flux competition in the roster. That’s every position, from long snapper, the quarterback, from punt returner to placekicker, and everything in between. Do I anticipate that he’ll fight his tail off to help us win games and will be successful not only here to finish the year but moving forward? Absolutely. I expect him to fully do that. I think he has every opportunity to be the guy of the future, but he’s gonna have to earn that just like everybody’s gonna have to earn everything.”

On takeaways from recent Big Ten West matchups: I think we gotta play clean football. We gotta do the things that winning teams do, and do it for 60 minutes. I haven’t been able to get our team to do that this year, and that’s what I’m most disappointed in myself. We’ve played very, very inconsistent football. When it comes to a full body of work, we’ve had some really good things happen in games, and we had some really good things happen Saturday. But then the missed tackle bug happens on a play. We give up a touchdown run because of it — one that should have been a three or four-yard gain. We have two critical errors on the long quarterback runs on the fourth down and then the one late in the game.

“We’ve just gotta eliminate [the mistakes]. We’ve got point-of-attack issues on multiple plays when other times we blocked it, we’ve targeted it, we communicated it, we executed it. The lack of consistency is what’s most disappointing to me, and it’s led to why our record is what it is. Gotta continue to stress what’s important, and that’s fundamental football, and it’s consistent execution. It’s playing clean football for 60 minutes.”

On playing underclassmen: “We’ve sprinkled guys in, and we’re gonna do the best job we can getting guys some experience. We got [Nick Herzog] and [Chris Petrucci] on PAT field goal on Saturday. We’re trying to be smart with playing the four games. It probably started two months ago, before our record is where it is now. I’ve gotta get the roster old again. That means a junior-, senior-laden roster, and finding ways to get guys experience while playing the four-game redshirt game that we’re able to play in college football now is where we’re at. We’ll pick and choose where we can get guys in, give them the best opportunity to be successful while gaining experience, and give us the best opportunity to win games.

“I’ve done this for a while now. I’m rolling with guys that we’re rolling with. I’m proud of them. They fought through it. They haven’t batted an eye. I think a lesser character group of guys with our record wouldn’t show up every day with lunch pails and hard hats on to get better. I appreciate that and I respect the heck out of that. You sprinkle in guys where it seems right, where it fits to get them in the arena and get them some experience. But, at the same time, we’re gonna do everything we can to win. We’re gonna do everything we can to play our players that have been out there doing things consistently to help us win. If there has been inconsistency, we’re gonna try to influx some competition with some guys, and now that we have full access to our roster, we will be able to do that. I believe in our guys. I believe they are going to do everything they can to win this game and prepare the right way.

“It was good to get a couple of guys out there for the first experience. Robert Fitzgerald got out there on kickoff play. Some of the guys are getting some first experiences in games and I’m sure they’re excited about it. It’ll help them practice a little bit better, but it’s hard to put a ton of guys out there, maybe on first and second or third down offensively and defensively, when they’re still taking scout reps. You still gotta be able to practice, so it’s a little bit of a challenge. With a lot of our injuries that we have, and some guys out, we’re getting a ton of valuable experience. Who would have thought Duke Ogles would have played as many plays as he did and play at a high level on Saturday? We’re seeing a lot of that already, and those guys are getting better and better because we’re working really hard.”

On Minnesota’s offense: “The Gophers do such a good job on first and second down efficiency and put themselves in third and very advantageous situations. They don’t run the triple option, but the schematics that they run present a lot of problems with run fits and gap scheme and controlling your gaps and things of that nature. The minute you get a little bit too greedy with getting too many people in the box, they’re gonna RPO and take advantage of it. Coach Ciarrocca has done a great job his entire time; I know him well, and got great respect for the job he does with their offense. You gotta be efficient on first and second down, and you gotta make plays on third down. A couple weeks ago, we did a pretty extensive self-scout, and there are calls maybe we like to have differently. There’s execution, communication. Lots of plays on Saturday, we won a lot of one-on-ones and we had more PBUs, more pass breakups, than we’ve had a number of games. That really was something I thought jumped out to me from our performance Saturday against the Buckeyes. I don’t think that that had a whole lot to do with the wind. I think it has a lot to do with the way our guys executed, and it’s a credit to you know, A.J. [Hampton] and Cam, Rod and Dev [Devin Turner] and J Lew. I think Xander [Mueller] had a really good breakup, too, early in the game. Good job seeing the ball, breaking on it and making plays on it.”

On players trusting themselves: “Throughout the week, it’s been really good, and the guys practice really hard all year. We talked a lot about it coming out of the bye that we’ve got a disconnect on Saturday. You’ve got to stay even-keeled in the moment and talk to yourself the right way. When you have maybe a momentary play not go the way you want it, you gotta be able to respond. Things that we talked about all the time: what comes first, confidence or experience? It’s kind of a chicken and an egg thing. I’ve coached a lot of teams, and as you’re going through some growing pains, you just keep coaching. You stay real positive. Guys want to win. They wanna do everything they can to play as well as they can for themselves, for their teammates, for our program. I see some marked improvement by a lot of guys. We’ve just got to eliminate the one-man breakdowns that we’ve had at inopportune times.

“That’s what I was talking about in the postgame. It would be one thing if it was one guy or one position group. It’s been a little bit sprinkled all over. We’ve had some guys trying to make plays, and their eyes are maybe not where they need to be, or they’ve just been a little bit over-assertive. They just gotta settle down and do their job. I’ve seen flashes of that, but as I said earlier, our lack of consistency. Trusting yourself usually goes to your preparation, and then getting in the arena and using the knowledge and preparation you’ve had during the week. Not getting too high, not getting too low, just being even-keeled, playing passionate, hard-nosed, tough football, and it’s kind of been a hallmark around here.

“We’ve just been a little bit inconsistent over the last couple of seasons with that and had our script flipped on us. We usually win one-score games, usually win the turnover battle, we’ve limited explosives, been really opportunistic in the kick game, run the ball well and had complements off of it. We’ve been too inconsistent in the last handful of games over the last couple of years, and we have to fight to get that back. I believe our guys will, and I believe that they want to and I believe their attitudes have been great. That’s all I can ask of them.”

Andrew Clair

On Brendan Sullivan: “He’s a special quarterback. He brings knowledge. He lacks an experience aspect, but he expands the games with his feet, and he’s able to throw the ball really well. You combine those two things, you open the playbook a lot more. People have to respect him, defenses have to respect him. That’s a hat that people usually don’t account for. Making him a force to the game and actually making people account for him, whether it’s his legs or his throwing ability, really expands the game, expands the playbook and opens up new doors and different opportunities for the offense to be efficient.”

On stepping into a leadership role and being named a captain: “I really say it came down to just wanting to help everyone around, just wanting to help lead. I’m helping in ways that I can, and it has just grown into me taking over one of those leadership roles. Being vocal, and helping people in different areas that they needed help in. Like I said, it’s really grown to me becoming placed in that role. I’m grateful that my teammates respect me to even give me that title, and the respect goes both ways. Being able to pass knowledge down throughout my career has been helpful, and it’s just something that I’m grateful for that people even look at me as one of the leaders, as a captain, as a person that they can come to in a time of need. Being a light in other people’s lives has really helped me step into that role as a captain. “

On being a leader in the running back room and helping the young players: “It’s really important, morally and physically, being there as a moral support when things don’t go right on the field. When they mess up or anything, having someone on the side of you saying, ‘You’re all right. Next play, play the next play.’ Telling them what you saw, what they could have done and just giving them help each and every play goes a long way. Then physically, just being there for them, helping them through all kinds of things. Telling them what I see, telling them different tricks and different things, and just being able to try to help them expand their individual game, their individual package is really important. Being that person, being able to be that person for other good players. it’s a real nice thing to see.”

On navigating social media and dealing with negativity: “I pay attention to none of it, if I’m telling the truth. Every game I read a passage [from] ‘The Man in the Arena,’ and the first line is, it’s basically not about the people around you, it’s all about who’s in the arena. Everyone has a right to voice their opinion, and obviously, we’re a team for everyone’s enjoyment — for entertainment. If your favorite Netflix show wasn’t showing, you would be mad too. For us not performing to our capabilities, fans have a right, media has a right, everyone has a right to voice their opinion, but how you let that affect you will take a toll on you. You gotta try not to pay attention to it. A lot of times, they never know what’s really going on behind closed doors, behind the scenes. People are speaking from surface things that they see. So just not paying attention to it is probably my answer.”

On what has gone wrong: “I wouldn’t say it’s individual-based because we’re a team. One sound, one heartbeat kind of thing. It really comes down to execution and making plays at the end of the day. Winning your one-on-ones and just doing what you’re supposed to do, your one through 11 every play, and that has not been the case each and every opportunity we had out there. We’ve lost by a touchdown in most of our games, and five or six plays go differently and we win all those games; our record looks completely different. Knowing that, having that in the back of your head, approaching that with that mindset each and every day, knowing how can you be better when it comes down to those five to six plays, really will help turn the corner. Like losing snowballs, winning snowballs as well. Once we get past that, get to that column, then it starts a carryover effect.”

On Malik Washington: “Malik’s very special. He’s a playmaker. He’s a person that has sure hands if it’s in his vicinity. Seven out of 10 times, really nine out of 10 times, I’m saying he’s coming down with the ball. So just knowing that and having that person on your team provides a lot of confidence and a lot of trust for the person who’s throwing the ball. We got Sully out there now, and knowing who Sully is, knowing he’s going to take some risks, knowing that he has Malik he can take that chance, he can take that opportunity. It’s good to have somebody on your team like Malik because he can turn a five-yard gain into a 20-yard gain at any moment. He’s a very special player. He’s a really good playmaker, and we’re lucky to have him.”

Rod Heard II

On preparing for Minnesota compared to OSU: “There wasn’t really a big difference in how we prepared. Our preparation is pretty consistent throughout the weeks. Definitely, Coach O’Neil had a different plan, of course, like every single week, to specify for O-State, but we just went out there and executed. It was really nothing, really anything special about it. We’re going to do the exact same thing this week, the same preparation plan, and listen to our coaches and what they have seen out there studying Minnesota. Of course, as players, we have our individual jobs, watch our film, and prepare as well. But the big thing is going out there on Saturday and executing.”

On the secondary’s confidence after Ohio State: “It’s a good thing for the group of guys that we have. We have a lot of great players in our secondary and they can make plays. To have a game where multiple guys, at different points in time during the game, are able to make those big plays is a good thing for us, it’s a special, special thing.”

On helping prepare the young guys to play: “We’re just a supporting hand. We’re watching film, talking to them, and giving them guidance on our past experiences and the things that hurt us in the past and giving them little tips and things like that. That’s pretty much what we do. We make sure that when they’re out there, that they feel comfortable and that they’re confident. To be honest, I think they’ve done a great job stepping up to the plate. Devin being a true freshman, Theran being a second-year, they’ve made a lot of plays, and they’ve actually grown a lot during the season.”