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Southern Illinois gameweek press conference notes

Their resilience fueling them, the Wildcats are focusing on correcting their own mistakes.

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Subsequent to a heartbreaking loss against Duke on Saturday, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, along with safety Jaheem Joseph, receiver Donny Navarro III and tight end Thomas Gordon, spoke to the media Monday afternoon. Below is a summary of what all four had to say in advance of NU’s matchup with Southern Illinois.

Pat Fitzgerald

Opening statement: “Good afternoon. Thanks for joining us and being with us. Let’s talk about Players of the Week to kick things off. On offense, Evan Hull just had a spectacular game on Saturday. Most catches (14) by a Wildcat player — that’s the most since [2009], the most receiving yards (212) since 1980. Most receiving yards by a Power Five running back since 2000. Had the most yards from scrimmage (278) since Damien Anderson’s 292 in 2000 against Michigan. It was an absolutely spectacular performance by him in a lot of different ways. We did not have a defensive player of the week. Special teams-wise was Ray Niro III. Again, I pound the drum each week, but I believe he’s the best special teams player not only in the Big Ten but also in the country. Our Big Playmaker was Thomas Gordon on offense. He’s been coming on here the last few weeks. We did not have a Big Playmaker on defense. Our three Practice Players of the Week: defensively was Owen Bergin, offensively was Joseph Himon III, on special teams was Braydon Brus. Those three guys had a great week.

“Disappointed in the outcome of the game. Put ourselves in a pretty deep hole. I thought our guys showed great resiliency and fight. That fighting spirit is something we gotta start the game with. We can’t put ourselves in the hole like we did, but guys fought back and ended up six inches short — it kind of was indicative of the game. I thought we lost the six-inch war on both sides of the line of scrimmage; credit Duke for that. And obviously, we gotta be better fundamentally in those areas. But now another opportunity here at home. We’ve got Wildcat Welcome week, so we’ll have students in the building next week, which will be fun. Fired up for that to get some things rolling here with our students on campus.

“The Salukis have had a tough start. They played an outstanding team in Incarnate Word down on the road and kind of ran into a little buzzsaw — I think we all see how good they are — they beat Nevada last week on the road. Just a heartbreaking loss to SEMO on Saturday night. Watching the tape, they had that game won multiple times. Some tough, challenging things happened to them down the stretch to lose a heartbreaker at the end. Great respect for Nick Hill. Coach Hill has done a great job there, [a] former great player at SIU and played for my great friend Coach Kill. He’s done a terrific job. They’re a perennial playoff team, and the success they’ve had under Nick’s leadership has been really fun to watch. I get excited about watching young head coaches have great success. I remember being that guy — I’m not that guy anymore — but I remember being that guy, so really happy for Nick and the success he and his players and the staff have had. [A] very talented football team that has just been a little snakebitten here early. We’re gonna have our hands full. We gotta play a lot better than we did on Saturday if we expect to win moving forward, and I know the guys will get to work on that here tomorrow.”

On Ryan Hilinski’s play: “I think number one, [it]was a really good plan put together by [Coach] Jake and the whole offensive staff. I thought we adjusted well in-game. I thought Ryan [Hilinski] was willing to take what the defense gave him most of the day. There were some throws I think he’d like to have back now after watching the tape and being always critical of ourselves, first schematically and then just kind of where we wanted him to put his eyes on some things. But Ryan, I thought, played well. Again, when you think about trying to put the ball in playmakers’ hands, there are a lot of different ways you can do that. I thought schematically, we had a good plan and I thought Ryan and Evan executed the things pretty darn well. You throw the ball 60 times, there’s gonna be some plays you want back. I thought he was, outside of a couple throws, really on with where his eyes needed to be and seeing what he needs to see to execute the offense. So credit him. I thought we executed our screen game pretty well. There were a couple of plays that we did not execute very well in the opener, and I thought that the work that we put in in the bye and then coming into last week, paid some dividends. It’s tough now in the O-linemen with the new rule where they can’t cut downfield — it makes it a little bit more challenging for them — and I thought the guys did a pretty good job in that area.”

On a struggling defense: “I think that we’re growing. I don’t think we’re where we want to be yet, to be honest with you. I think that’s all of us, collectively: me, our staff and the guys. I think we had a handful of self-inflicted wounds early in the game, and then I thought we settled in and settled down and then played pretty well the last three quarters. I mean, right now to me, both games have [an] explosive plays negative connotation to them. When we don’t give up explosive play, we’ve been pretty good. You look at explosive plays in the run game: they’ve happened primarily because of missed tackles. We’ve got guys there. We gotta get the ball on the ground, and then multiple missed tackles, frankly. You’re gonna miss a tackle or two here, that’s football, but when you miss two on a play, it’s going to give up an explosive one. On the first touchdown, we missed three. I mean, that’s inexcusable. I thought we tackled pretty well the rest of the game, outside of a handful. We just gotta get more consistent, and we gotta obviously start faster for what I think we need to be consistent defensively.”

On his message to the team after a gut-wrenching loss: “It’s not one play. You win as a team and you lose as a team. I know it’s one of the most overused coachisms in the world, but it’s the truth. We’ve been outstanding in our two-minute drives this year. I mean, if you’re to have one thing that really jumps out to me is really how well we’ve done in the opportunities that we’ve had in the two-minute drill on both sides. It’s something that I’m proud of the guys with. We’re not in that situation unless we get a ginormous goal-line stand to put ourselves in position. Again, a lesser character team, a team without the same spirit, probably folds the tent right there after a tough turnover. And we again didn’t really give ourselves maybe a chance early in that drive because we missed a couple tackles. But the guys bowed up and got us off the field. I told the guys: ‘I love our fighting spirit. We just can’t put ourselves in this type of hole.’ We’re fighting an uphill battle the whole game, but they responded well in-game. We gotta build upon that, and we just can’t put ourselves in that kind of hole.”

On creating greater urgency: “I think it’s collective. To start off with, number one, you gotta approach it yourself and put yourself in the right mindset to not only start a game but probably the way you start practice, the way you just go through your daily routine. You gotta self-assess maybe if you haven’t been playing as consistently as you want early. I’ve told the guys the story of myself in training camp, I think, back when I was a young player. I just felt like I was really inconsistent early in games, and I just mentally kind of almost put too much pressure on myself. You feel like there’s a weight of the world on your chest, and then you settle down, settle in, and then you start to play well. I changed my pregame routine. I didn’t go out and hit a bunch of people, but I just went out: it was an absolute emotional just monster, I guess I’d say. I don’t know any other way to describe it. I was totally out of character to try to start the game, in my second wind. Just be more focused. I’ve said that story to the guys a lot in training camp over my years, just because when you’re playing for the first time, regardless of who you’re playing, it’s more an internal thing as you’re learning and growing. See a little bit that with some of our inexperienced guys. I mean, you look at defensively, Jah [Jaheem Joseph] getting his first start. I thought he settled in as the game went along. JLew [Jeremiah Lewis], first time year playing safety, playing now two games. Made some plays and settled in. I like where those two guys are going. They’re also getting a baptism under fire. Garnett [Hollis Jr.]’s out there for the first time. You’re seeing a little bit more of Theran [Johnson]; he’s had a really good camp, and I like where that’s going. And Xander [Mueller] for the first time being out. Just some guys need to get into their routine, into how they’re gonna settle in and be the player that they’re capable of. But man, I love their talent. I love their spirit, and I love the growth that I’ve seen from them. They’ve just gotta continue to take that. It’s not anything magical to be honest with you. You just can’t wait for something to happen; you just gotta go out and be mentally into it. Have the right mindset, settle in, settle down and just go execute fundamentally.”

On establishing a rushing attack: “We want to have balance. Everybody does in football. That’s ideal. I thought we came in with a really good plan. We had a lot of one-man breakdowns. I mean, if you were to pop on the tape, you’d see that, and it was across the board. We had everything targeted well, we had a fundamental lapse. We maybe missed a target and we missed a call, and that was the unblocked player. Credit Duke. They’ve got really good players up front in their front seven. They’ve done a nice job. They’ve only given up 21 points in two games. So you gotta tip your hat and give credit where credit’s due. But we expect, and we’re built, to run the ball. It’s probably a different discussion if we’re not down three scores. You don’t have time to be trying to pound the ball as much as maybe we’d like to. But man, I really like the call Jake made late in the game. I thought that that was a really opportune call by him and a great discussion on the headphones by the offensive staff. In a two-minute drill, sometimes you want to make sure you’re as calm on the headphones as you want the guys to be on the field, and I thought the offensive staff was excellent. I thought the guys executed that really well. Unfortunately, we ended up about six inches short, but again, credit Duke’s defense. It’s football, man. It’s one of the most humbling things you’ll ever be a part of. It’s awesome. It’s tough to be here on a Monday after a tough defeat, but that’s what makes it so special being in this role. I have an unbelievable room. The hunger in our guys’ eyes, you could see it in the way we went about our Monday practice today. I mean, this is a very proud group, and they’re very disappointed, but they’ve moved on. We’re back to 0-0, and the goal this week is to go 1-0 this week against SIU.”

On recent FCS upsets: “I’ll definitely mention that tomorrow. I do it every year. I’ll do the same thing the next week when we get ready to take on Miami and the proud tradition that they have. Number one, there are great players everywhere. There are great football players on every team you play. Every team is very well-coached. It’s not a round ball. It’s oblong for a reason. We give up an explosive pass play on a tip ball. It’s a crazy game. But at any rate, you gotta alert your guys about that. But every game is about us. We’ve got to play better. We’ve got to coach better. The operative word, I think, in every college football team meeting room right now is ‘we’. Some people are ecstatic at 2-0 and playing great — they haven’t played anybody. Some people are 1-1 like we are and gave away a game and beat ourselves and won a hard-fought game. But we’ve been in two hard games. What I’m fired up about is I think we got a fighting spirit. We got some resiliency. I just gotta coach the guys better to play cleaner football and more complementary ball. We’re getting a lot of young experience. Maybe not young guys, but young experienced guys a lot of experience right now. We gotta draw strength upon that and learn and grow. Coach them better, and just keep getting better. You look across the board, though. What’s more important, probably, than what level teams are at? It’s taking care of the football. You look at this weekend, we lose, we’re -2. Stanford was -4. South Carolina was -3 in the turnover ratio. Army -2, Mizzou -2, TAMU -2 to App State, Florida -1 to Kentucky, Houston -1, Notre Dame -3. I don’t know the last time that I can remember that Iowa turned it over three times or Wisconsin three times. I mean, that’s what’s really gotta get fixed for a lot of me, us — big time for us. We’ve lost four straight to Duke because we’ve lost the turnover battle. And it’s not that we haven’t emphasized it. We just gotta do it, and it’s going to be the same thing moving forward this week with SIU.”

On Thomas Gordon and Ryan Hilinski: “TG has been through a lot, and I’m really proud of him. I told him, I think it was last spring. I’m a [White] Sox fan, so I told him he was my pick to click. And I said, ‘It’s just it’s your time, man. You’ve worked so hard. You’ve overcome so much. It’s your time.’ Then he had to battle through some more adversity. And I told him again, I said, I’m still picking you from my pick to click, man,’ and he laughed. He’s just a guy who’s been around the program for a long time. He’s been a really good special teams player for us. Really unselfish player, great teammate. He’s made some spectacular plays, but I’m really proud of the way that he’s blocking right now. I think he’s playing physical without the ball in his hands. And as far as their relationship, I’m not surprised. I think a lot of our guys are close. I mean, brotherhood is something that we are proud of in our program, and I’m proud of our guys for being so close. I’m not surprised that TG and Ryan are as close as they are.”

S Jaheem Joseph

On secondary adjustments without Coco Azema and A.J. Hampton: “Coach [MacPherson] and Coach Smitty [Ryan Smith], they do a great job of emphasizing that we need everybody to win to get back to Indy. So everyone prepares as [if] they’re the starter every week. There were no big major changes: everyone just had to lock in and know that if they call your number, you gotta step up.”

On Monday’s practice: “It was really just focusing on ourselves. We beat ourselves at the end of the day. I know defensively, after the first quarter, they scored 11 points the rest of the game; they didn’t really win any big plays. All touchdowns we gave up were on explosives. It was all things that we could control for next week. We’re focusing on cleaning everything up and moving on.”

On how Hull inspires the defense: “You see the offense. Defensively, you see them rolling. You’re like, ‘All right, we gotta get some more stops, get them the ball back because they got some momentum.’ So definitely just a motivation to keep giving them the ball. I know eventually, something’s gonna pop up with Evan and all the other guys on offense.”

On his first start: “Ever since I’ve been here, they [Azema and Hampton] took me under their wing. They always taught me the right ways of doing things. Even guys before them, like J.R. Pace, Greg Newsome II. All those guys, once I came in freshman year, they kind of showed me the way. When those guys [were] out, nothing really changed. Everything just went by smoothly.”

WR Donny Navarro III

On his impact through two games: “I’ve been in college football for a pretty long time; this is my sixth year, so I bring some experience to the table. I’m just looking to be a leader out there as much as I can, do what I can to prepare week in and week out. Really just every day, 100% effort. Every game, every snap, 100 miles an hour. Looking to help this team win in any way possible.”

On debuting in Ryan Field: “It was a great experience. Just really taking it all in. It was awesome to be there with my teammates and to go to war with them. Obviously, the outcome didn’t end the way we wanted. But to be there and to experience what we did and to learn from that game is huge.”

On the comeback attempt: “I think this office, this team in general, is resilient. It was evident vs Nebraska. We were down 11 points twice. We were down 11 going into half against Duke. We’re able to respond, and we’re able to put drives together when we need to. We drove all the way down the field. I think we do a good job of not panicking and sticking to our game plan, sticking to our coaching points. Our coaches prepare the heck out of us. So using those little gems they give us, and just executing the gameplan.”

On the nature of Monday’s practice: “I think you come in ready to be coached. You come in ready to learn. And after you watch the film and you go through it, you take those coaching points, and then you put it to bed. You go into your next week of preparation using what you learned. We’re not going to let one game bring us down, a couple of mistakes bring us down. We’re gonna keep moving forward, work to fix those things, and move on to the next opponent.”

On Hilinski: “I think he’s a really good communicator. I think throughout the week in our preparation, there are constant text messages going back and forth; Ryan and I text all the time. Or it’s communication on the field. It’s extra meeting time: just players getting together, going through the film, play by play and just picking it apart. Preparing for the unknown, seeing what we did right, what we did wrong. Ryan takes pride in his preparation, and it shows on the field. He’s a vocal leader out there on the field. He’s a vocal leader in practice. We all kind of gather and try to get on board with that.”

On Hull: “He’s a resilient player. I mean, you have seen it in his preparation. You see it in the way he practices, what he does in the weight room. So it’s not a surprise for any of us that he’s had the success that he’s had. He helped us on Saturday move the chains, making guys miss, getting extra yards and things like that. He’s obviously been really impactful. We’re obviously happy to have him out there.”

On offensive identity: “I think it’s about balance. We can’t go out there and throw the ball 90 times a game. I think the run opens up the pass and vice versa. I don’t think it’s a surprise for any of us. It’s not something that, we’re like, ‘Oh wow, a while we’re passing the ball surprisingly well.’ I don’t think that’s something that is the thought in the locker room and in the building. I think we just need to keep building and continue to try to achieve balance like we have. In different situations, different games, you throw the ball, you run the ball more, depending on what the score is, timing and things like that. I think what’s good about that is we’re able to adjust. We’re able to take anything that comes our way.”

TE Thomas Gordon

On how his blocking has opened a path for receiving success: “I think as a younger tight end here, one of my main roles was to block and be a blocking tight end in certain situations and personnel. I think being able to get better at blocking and do that kind of stuff has helped me get on the field and eventually open up the passing game.”

On a long path to playing time: “I mean, I’ve had the shoulder issue and stuff like that, but don’t really want to talk too much about my injuries. Basically, I’ve had some guys in front of me throughout my career: freshman, sophomore, junior year. Kind of been just waiting for my opportunity, so happy to be out there.”

On how his role compares to what he expected when he committed to NU: “I would say this is kind of what I’ve always envisioned: just catching a lot of balls and blocking. When I committed first, it was a different offense. Now there’s a new offense. So a little different, but this is kind of what I envisioned when I committed.”

On his relationship with Hilinski: “I kind of remember him in recruiting stuff, that he’s my age and my grade. I was just very excited. We didn’t really take a scholarship quarterback in our grade. So when Ryan came in, we kind of just immediately jelled and clicked. He’s been a friend ever since. He comes over all the time, we text all the time, we hang out outside of football. I think that camaraderie and connection help a lot when we’re on the field. We trust each other.”

On the Wildcats’ offense coming together: “First, I mean, I think we’re all just very close. I also think there’s a lot of trust there. We’re all kind of playing to our ability, and we all trust each other. For Ryan trusting me on a ball down the field or trusting another receiver or Evan trusting that block for him or anybody else blocking him, I think that’s a huge part of our offense. I think it’s just clicking together right now, which we’re all pretty happy about.”

On pass-run balance: “It’s huge. I mean, a lot of our offensive is a power run and stuff like that. The play-action is a huge part of our offense. When we don’t run the ball as well as we can, that kind of hurts our play-action game. I would say usually a 50-50 ratio is what you’re looking for, but obviously on Saturday, it was a little different. Going forward, we’d love for it to be more 50-50, but the run game helps a lot in the passing game when you get that going.”