With one more non-conference matchup remaining before Big Ten play takes over, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, joined by QB Ryan Hilinski, LB Xander Mueller and DE Adetomiwa Adebawore, answers questions about Saturday’s loss, “exotic formations” and the Miami RedHawks. Here’s what he and his players had to say.
Opening statement: “Good afternoon and thanks for being with us. I want to welcome our students back. We start class tomorrow, and seeing all the students it was awesome. I look forward to seeing them again here this Saturday night at 6:30. I want to congratulate Ryan Hilinski. He was named to the Allstate Good Works Team this morning, and it only recognizes 11 FBS players. He’s our only Big 10 conference representative. So congratulations to him, not a surprise. He’s incredibly giving of his time and we could probably have multiple guys that could be up for that. And then this week is the American Football Coaches Association Coach to Cure game across the country. You’ll see coaches wearing Coach to Cure patches to raise awareness and hopefully funds to help find a cure for this terrible disease of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. We’ve had some great fans of ours come out and be a part of practices in the past and game day. Some young men, and this terrible disease only affects young men, become a part of our football family. We as a program look forward to helping out, and it’s a proud AFCA member.
“Looking back, we had no players of the week on offense or defense. Special teams player of the week was Ray Niro III, this is the second time of the year that he’s done that. Our three practice players, on offense CJ Johnson, defensively Joe DeHaan, and special teams Devin Turner. You know, obviously disappointed to say the least in the outcome of the game. But like I told the squad, if you look at our first three games, I would categorize this as a very inconsistent football team. That ultimately is my responsibility. Iconsistent execution, inconsistent turnover ratio, we’ve made some critical errors at some critical times. We’re probably three or four plays away from being 0-3, and probably three or four more plays from being 3-0, and that’s the great thing about football. You got to be consistent, and when you’re not you got to look at a lot of things. Number one, our schematics, and I think we adjusted well in all games. We started faster on Saturday, but we obviously gave a couple things up. We’ve beat ourselves with the turnover ratio, limiting your opportunities. It’s scary to me right now to think we gave away really five possessions of momentum in the second half. But, you know, three of which were obvious, the two turnovers and the fourth down that we didn’t convert, so those are really damaging when you’re trying to seize momentum and capitalize on some things. I thought at times our defense did a great job, especially with being on the short field. We’ve got to play cleaner as a team, we’ve got to be more consistent. Ultimately that’s my responsibility and we got to work right away this morning, showing the guys why, what happened, what we can do to to fix it. Attitude was great.
“Another huge challenge, top to bottom, the RedHawks are as good of a team as we’ve played. Coach Martin has been there now a number of years, his systems are in place. They’ve had some staff turnover, but there’s been a high level of consistency with the way that they play. They were up 17-7 On a very good Cincinnati team over the weekend. Very physical team. You know, James Patton, a very close friend of mine coaches their offensive line and his DNA is all over that group, their downhill run, team RPO their defensive setup to stop the RPO, they’re very physical in the front seven. I was very impressed with John Saunders’ play against Cincinnati. He was all over the field. I think there’s a reason why they were picked to win their division. They’re a complete team. They’ve had some very impressive pieces. So we have our hands full but we got to focus on us. We got to get better here this week, and play our cleanest, most consistent game of the year.”
On how the B1G has fared as a conference in non-conference play: “I’ve got 99 problems and everybody else is not one. I use that frequently, I guess. So we need to focus on us. Early in the year, you’ve got different things that happen without a preseason, and college football every week is kind of its own entity. You’ve got to find a way to get your team to peak on game day. Like us, more teams are beating themselves than are winning games. That is what I’ve seen in the games I’ve watched and usually the teams that keep grinding improve. That’s what our hope is that we’ll be able to do here.”
On Hilinski’s leadership and involvement in the community: “Ryan’s spectacular when it comes to giving back to the community. From Hilinski’s Hope, all the way through, he interacts with every young person that he meets. He’s just got an incredibly dynamic personality, incredibly giving. You can see that it’s kind of written all over his DNA and we’re really proud of him. A young man that was a newcomer in our program a year ago, to see how he’s grown, his confidence has grown. He’s a perfect fit for that recognition.”
On coaching around injuries in the secondary: “Next man up mentality, that’s the way it’s been since my entire career here. You don’t worry about anything other than that. Unfortunately, through injuries, it becomes another man’s opportunity. I thought at times there was some really good play, and I thought at times there was some inconsistent play. That’s kind of indicative of our whole team, and that group will learn. It’s very talented, it’s very hungry to improve. And it’s not just them, right? I mean you look at that entire side of the ball right now, that group is learning and growing. We love them and that group is going to stick together. There have been flashes of some really good defensive play and we’ve just got to get to a consistent level — all three phases of the defense, fundamentally tackling and then takeaways. Those are the areas that we’ve got to continue to work relentlessly to improve.”
On what he’s learned about coaching from field hockey’s Tracy Fuchs: “Coach Fuchs and I are very close. I love her dearly. We’re up here grinding, we get a chance to look right out and see those women get after it. It’s o much fun to watch, to say the least. Number one, she’s the greatest player of all time. Maybe somebody can argue with me about that. But I just think her confidence in her teaching, in the way that we go about playing, I just think she’s a grinder and that’s what you see when you watch her team. They grind. They’ve got just a great mindset and then they’ve got some really positive momentum going on right now. You’ve got to earn that, and they’ve earned it. And that’s something that we hope to be able to gain on this year’s squad with us. You know, it’s amazing how momentum can be just such a great thing that builds upon itself. I’m just honored to be her friend, honored to be her colleague and so inspired by the success that her team has had and by watching her lead. She’s a special person, a great coach and a great friend.”
On what lessons he can learn from other successful Northwestern seasons that started out poorly like this year, and how he can try to right the ship: “The ship is fine. I’ll be clear with that. There’s great belief and confidence from our coaching staff and our players. We have great confidence in these guys that they’re gonna work their tails off to continue to improve. That’s what those teams did that I had the privilege to coach in the past. They didn’t listen to noise. They didn’t listen to outside things. They just stayed very focused. They kept working diligently to improve the things we can control. We won a lot of hard-fought battles in those years. And we had a lot of guys step up in different roles. So there are a ton of lessons. I’ll share a lot of those as we move forward. It’s tough like now, but also when you have success it’s a double-edged sword. You’ve just got to be so disciplined in the way you approach your preparation. That gives you an opportunity to compete on Saturdays. When you don’t consistently prepare, you have no chance.
“At this point, this team has worked relentlessly in practice. I’m very proud of the effort level that we’ve gotten. I’m very proud of the way that our young guys have given looks. We’ve had very competitive practices. We’ve just beat ourselves. And I don’t want to discredit Duke and SIU. They both came in here and were physical. They made big plays when it mattered. We did not. You lose the turnover ratio, you don’t give yourself a chance to win games. You can occasionally get lightning in a bottle, but we’ve got to take care of the ball and we’ve got to take the ball away more. You can’t give away three possessions when you only have six, basically, a half. That’s what we’re averaging. Twelve series a game, you can’t give away half of those series in turnovers.”
On how much he feels non-conference play reflects conference performance: “It’s been a little bit of a mixed bag over my 17 years here for us. I probably should go through and study what it is, but, you know, it’s a new week. It’s a Monday, we have our routine that we go through. The guys had a great workout this morning. I’m not surprised they’ve got a lot of personal pride. No one’s very happy around here right now, but you got to use that fuel to just keep working to get better. A lot of memories come back when you face adversity. That’s when, in my opinion, real leadership shows up. You stay the course, keep grinding and you work your tail off to get better. The teams that are able to do that end up getting better, improve and win games as the season goes along. In conference play the teams that feel like they’ve arrived can go south in a hurry and then you just you just got to keep the pedal down. I promise you we’ll continue to do that.”
David Bennett. That this this this game this series with Miami even though it’s been a while since you’ve played him hold any special significance. There’s a lot of shared history from obviously from our going all the way back previous coaches, Coach walk the game in 95, your first game? Anything special about it for
On if this series with Miami (OH) holds any special significance given its history: “Absolutely. Everythings special about this game. Obviously my time with Randy [Walker], that staff, there was a lot of his players, teammates that were with us here. The list goes on and on and on of great Miami players that I’ve gotten to know over the years, and the rich tradition that program has speaks for itself. Coach Martin has carried it over now. There are a lot of memories that came back when I woke up this morning. It’s a special game for a lot of reasons, for a lot of people. I think probably two teams that are really hungry for a win. I don’t want to speak for Coach [Martin] but I know that they don’t want to be where they’re at record-wise and neither do we. So it should be one heck of a football game Saturday night under the lights of Ryan Field.”
On what he’s seen in the Wildcat linebacker room, specifically Xander Mueller and Bryce Gallagher: “I think I’ve seen a lot of really good plays, we’ve just got to clean up the little things. That to me is where that room is right now. We put a lot on their plate metaly, put a lot on their plate as far as leadership. And I just see both of those guys really growing and improving. You include Metzy (Greyson Metz) who’s getting his first time out there at Sam and then the guys that are kind of in the two-ish deep that are playing the kick game for the first time. It’s a young group, and it’s a hungry group. Those guys are freaking relentless. I mean, these are two good groups of linebackers. I really love watching Miami’s tape. I loved watching them in my offseason study, and in these first three weeks they’ve been all over. So, it should be fun if you’re an enthusiast of linebacker play like I am, because I think those two groups, both ours and theirs, will be around the ball a bunch on Saturday night.”
On how SIU’s “exotic formations” have affected preparation for Miami (OH) and the rest of the year going forward: “There was just one, and I tip my hat to him. I told that to Nick [Hill] after the game. I said ‘That was dirty, that was a good play, man.’ Yhey lined up in an illegal formation then shifted into a legal formation. After the play I gave the old golf clap. They caught us in something that we had seen. We had an adjustment to a certain set and they did a really good job. Had too many guys in the backfield and then shifted and it was really good stuff. So we adjusted that. And, that was really it. The rest of the stuff we had practiced or some semblance of it. And it goes back to the question about non-conference games, it’s kind of like Forrest Gump. You never know what you’re gonna get in a box of chocolates. I thought our communication on the sideline was really, really good. I thought the adjustments were really good. We had some dirty eyes on some plays and it cost us and again, those guys will learn and grow from it. But I thought they responded. Sudden change happens three times across our 50, our goal is three points or less, we gave up seven. Our goal was to give up nine points or less in that situation. Obviously we want the shut out but I thought we responded, and I think we’re starting to grow a little bit with our younger experienced guys, and there’s nothing better than that. Those guys keep getting better and I have full confidence in them. Same thing with the staff.”
QB Ryan Hilinski
On being named to the AFCA Good Works Team: “It’s a tremendous honor to be a part of that team. Only 10 other guys are a part of that team. It’s a pretty cool deal when you get a text from both of your parents that do amazing things sayingthat they’re proud of you in that area of life. I’m very honored to be a part of that team and to keep doing good stuff moving forward”
On how he feels about his performance against SIU: “My job as quarterback is to put us in the best position to win the game. I obviously didn’t do that Saturday. I put the defense in a tough spot, I just heard Coach talking about it. I mean, turned the ball over twice in the fourth quarter, that’s a recipe for a loss. Turned the ball over three times individually is a recipe for a loss, so I got to do better. I think there are some things that we can build off of as an offense. But just a lot of times, myself, I want some throws back. Of course the interceptions. Just can’t do it. That’s just how it goes. Coach reads off the list every morning when we start teams. These are the teams that lost, these are teams that won and every team that lost usually is in the bottom part of that turnover margin. Just got to take care of the football. That’s the number one commandment in the QB room. We just got to be better in that sense. I’ve got to be better in that sense to give our guys a chance to win, to give the defense a break. I thought they did a great job giving us the ball back and it was a seven-point differential in the game. And if we just get one of those turnovers back I’m sure it’d be a different outcome, but props to SIU for coming out and playing a good game, but I gotta be better in every aspect.”
On how he’s tried to emulate field hockey’s success in his leadership style and how he feels one program’s success can impact the others: “I think here at Northwestern Coach Fitz does a great job of including everybody in everything that we do. Football-wise, you know it whether it’s women’s soccer, men’s soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, whatever it is, coach is always making sure that we’re at their events, learning from them, watching them cheering them on. They were out there this morning. We were practicing on the other field. So obviously there’s a good amount of stuff you can learn from a team as successful as them. But when you look at it, it kind of just comes back to having fun with it. I think that’s the biggest thing that I realized this morning. Of course, we can sulk around and we can be this and that but I mean, that’s not going to get anything done. So we do look at those teams that have success. They have fun. They go out there, they play for each other like we always do. And I think we just need to get back to having fun like it was when we were kids. I think we’re doing a good job of that, guys are always coming in with a bright smile willing to learn, willing to get better no matter what the cost is. And definitely with teams that have success like that around, it’s easy to kind of latch on to that and hopefully get some success as well and some energy from it. Whatever it takes to get the win at the end of the day.”
On his connection with WR Malik Washington: “Malik is one of a kind for sure. He’s a guy that’s explosive with the ball in his hands no matter what. And he’s a guy that always comes with a smile. We always joked about getting him an NIL deal with Colgate because of his smile. He’s a good kid. He likes to work his butt off. And I think what it comes down to for me and him, we’ve watched film together every day after meetings, and we try and scheme up what would happen in certain situations. We’re always prepared for whatever is thrown at us. And I think the chemistry that we built this offseason out of hanging out, of getting closer as friends honestly, has been a big aspect of that as well. And I think he’s just continuing to climb. I’m glad he got his first touchdown. Hopefully, we can get him a lot more moving forward.
On how he thinks he and his unit can sustain offensive momentum without turning the ball over: “I think when you look at explosives in a drive, whether it’s run or pass, the percentage of scoring goes way up. We only had three passes and three run explosives. That’s not going to get the job done. Whatever it is we need to do schematically, whatever it is we need to do individually, we’re going to do. I think that’s a big thing for momentum when you can create explosives, whether it’s a run or a pass. I think that gives momentum for the offense. Even if we drive down the field and get good field position for the defense. I think that could count as momentum for us. As long as we keep clicking on offense, keep getting explosives, move the ball as we’ve been doing the previous weeks, I think that that creates momentum for us and I think it shows us that no matter what happens, we’re going to be okay. We’re going to move the ball, we’re going to get in the end zone, but we just need to find it sooner. And I think that’s going to be a big emphasis this week.”
LB Xander Mueller
On his journey at Northwestern from special teams to starting: “I’ve loved this place since I’ve been here, it’s definitely been a great journey. The biggest thing is learning from the linebackers ahead of me. Freshman year getting to watch Paddy [Fisher] and Blake [Gallagher] and Chris Bergin. Then Chris, Bryce [Gallagher] last year. Learning from them and my coach was definitely the biggest part of any kind of success I’ve had.
“Playing football in the Big Ten is definitely tough. I think physicality is definitely a big thing and how fast-paced the game is. Just more and more reps in practice and film is kind of the best way to prepare for that and knowing what you’re supposed to do out there.”
On what he feels the team’s comfort level with the defense is: “I think getting out of spring ball and into training camp was definitely good for our defense, good for our communication. I think each of us has to kind of step into their role. We’ve definitely gotten more comfortable with doing our job, and that’s something we need to emphasize going in next week. An extra year just helped everyone understand more about their role and what their job is on specific plays. We just got to do a better job of executing that.”
On his success in coverage and his two interceptions so far: “Both of the interceptions were tipped passes. We’re always talking about getting to the ball, it’s one of the biggest things we talk about. And it could be anyone. Everyone’s fighting for it. I just got a couple lucky bounces, I’m always trying to get there and be able to give the team momentum”
On how his older brother, Erik Mueller, influenced his development as a linebacker: “One of the main reasons that I’m here is because of him. He kind of showed me how awesome this place is. Pretty much my whole life I’ve been looking up to him and trying to learn from him. He’s a great guy and now he’s done with football, but he’s doing great things in the real world. He played special teams for years and started here as a walk-on, earned a scholarship eventually and he worked really hard for that. It was awesome to see and it gives me confidence that I can be a linebacker here and follow his footsteps.”
On how his role and communication have changed with a depleted secondary: “It doesn’t change too much. Our second-string guys are getting reps with the ones all the time, especially in the DB room. The coaches do a great job of rotating guys and getting them first team reps. I think all of our guys who have stepped up in the back have been awesome.
“Our coaches put a great gameplan out there for us. I personally didn’t do a good enough job executing this Saturday and that’s something we all need to work on. I think that’s the biggest thing is they’re putting us in the right position to make plays and we just gotta execute.”
DE Adetomiwa Adebawore
On new additions to the D-line this season: “Everyone’s playing hard. Everyone’s willing to work. We’re all trying to get better each and every day, especially those guys. They’re into a new team and a new system. So other guys, including myself, are helping them out, with the playbook and how we do things here. They’ve done a great job so far.”
On how he feels about his progression over the years: “Over the years, just continued to work hard to get better. And it’s definitely showing up now, all the hard work paid off. Obviously, I still got to play better. I don’t think I’ve played to the level I need to play at right now. But you know, some of the plays I’m making now that just came from my freshman and sophomore, junior year, just learning. I’ve definitely grown from my experience throughout my years here.”
On how the linebackers impact the D-line: “Communication. Throughout the week, we watch film together to make sure communication is on point, because whatever they tell us we have to get the run. We have to have that connection, and we male sure to prepare ourselves throughout the week so by the time we get the game day, anything we’re hearing from them, we know exactly what they’re saying. Exactly what they mean. So they’ve done a great job doing that for us.”
On his role in keeping people disciplined as a captain: “Just attacking each day the right way, focusing on the details, starting fast, finishing — all the little details matter. Coming from me, encouraging guys, working hard on myself. if I’m seeing something on film, I’m correcting my own self. Then guys know, ‘Oh, he’s not just saying I’m making a mistake, he’s making mistakes too.’ So just having that trust with my teammates knowing that, anything I say I’m talking to myself as well. That’s just one thing I’ve been trying to focus on.”