After a horrendous three-week span at Ryan Field, Northwestern resumes Big Ten play this week in Happy Valley against No. 11 Penn State. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, along with DL Devin O’Rourke, answered questions about the disappointment on Saturday and this weekend’s tough test on the road.
Opening Statement: “Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for being here with us. And as always, thanks for covering us. Greatly appreciate your time and your coverage of our guys in our program.
“Go back to players of the game for last week. To start things off offensively, we didn’t have one, but our Big Playmaker was Bryce Kirtz. Great to see him kind of start to come along. Just really happy for him. Defensively was up front: Devin O’Rourke. We thought played one of his better games since he’s been back from injury. Big playmaker was Cam Mitchell. It was potentially a big play in that game. We obviously didn’t get the fumble recovery, but a really good job, and it’s great to have him back out there. Special teams-wise, it was Adam Stage. Adam’s really stepped up here and done really well. Three touchbacks, two extra points and just been kicking the ball really well. Practice-wise: offensively, Jack Kennedy; defensive-wise Braydon Brus; and special teams-wise, Devin Turner. Those three guys doing a very, very good job.”
“Looking at the tape, there were a lot of opportunities for us to seize momentum in that game early, and a lot of self inflicted wounds offensively. Defensively, like I said, the strip sack probably gives us a pretty big shot in the arm momentum-wise, but was really proud of the way the defense started. I thought they played, after watching the tape, outside of maybe about three plays, maybe some of our better football. We had six three-and-outs; held Miami to 62 passing yards. And the run game really got skewed on the one play that we really had four errors on that play, which is frustrating, but an outstanding effort by Theran [Johnson] to go run that the ball carrier down and give us a chance to take another snap. And then, obviously the turnovers in the fourth quarter have been just detrimental. We’ve got to get that fixed. We can’t continue to be in a point to win games and give it away. And it’s like I said after the game, it’s kind of been our MO: we’ve played clean. We’ve won the turnover battle and played pretty well on the kick game. And we didn’t do all three of those phases to a consistent level yet here over these last three weeks.
“But now getting ready to go on a road and play an outstanding football team. Coach Franklin’s team is really humming; they’re playing really good football on all three phases. There’s talent at every position. They’re playing as many guys as I can ever remember anybody playing. As far as depth, it’s probably the deepest team we’ve seen. Rotating seven-plus linemen, two dynamic rookie running backs that are awesome to watch. I think I recruited Sean [Clifford] back in the ‘80s. He’s been there forever, man. I remember when he was at St. X; he’s had an unbelievable career, and just really impressed by him. All their receivers can take it to distance after making a missed tackle. But what jumps out to me is just how they’re playing very physical on defense across the board. The front seven, you know, has really been outstanding against the run. I think they lead the country in pass breakups, and to watch the way they get into their subpackages and do some really challenging things on your schematically, and then you couple that with with the talent, it’s going to be a tough challenge. And they’re spreading the ball out to a number of receivers. Probably the best tight end group; all three guys are really threats, not only in the passing game, but really physical. It’s gonna be a hard challenge. But excited for the opportunity. Great stadium in Beaver Stadium in front of one of the best fan bases in the country. I mean, year in year out, you tip your hat to the Nittany Lion fan base. They’re absolutely outstanding. So a lot of work for us to do. But I’m excited to get back into Big Ten Play.”
On September being a potential setback: “Well, for me personally, it’s incredibly motivating. My job is to motivate the team and do everything I can to push the right buttons to help the guys be consistent. Obviously, I haven’t done that well enough for us to win games. And so that’s that’s incredibly motivating for me personally. But for the team, you’ve got to use the frustration as motivation. I mean, I talked to them again about, 'You had to fourth-quarter turnovers in a one score game. You can’t do that.' You can’t have a breakdown at the end of the game in our run fits expect to win a one-score game. Now, we had ample opportunities early in all three of those games to seize momentum, and we haven’t. That’s something we’ve got to continue to stress. And just keep grinding. I really like this group of guys. I think they’ve got a confidence about them. I know it’s been taking some body shots here, but it’s a confidence about it. If we keep working, we’re going to improve. If we improve, we’re going to win. And that’s that’s something that’s kind of been the hallmark of my tenure here. The teams that have continued to grind and work hard have improved, and we’ve gotten better as the seasons gone along. But there’ll be no flinch. There’ll be no anything besides right down the middle, going at it and attacking every day with everything that we possibly have to win football games. And we’ve lost three tough games that have been one-score. We haven’t played a clean game in three games. That’s something that’s our job and our responsibility collectively. It starts and ends with me. And that’s what we’re working to get fixed.”
On putting together consistent winning seasons: “We got to two thirds of our season left. I have full belief in these guys. I mean, it’sone of those where they’re coming, and we got to take what we’re doing. We’ve had six really good practices Tuesday, Wednesday, which are heavy workdays, the last three weeks. And I’ve got to get that in the arena consistently. That’s that’s my responsibility. But absolutely. 100%, I expect us to compete for championships. You got to do the things that winners do, though. There’s no magical lights, I’ve told the team, 'There’s no magic that happens.' You’ve got to execute, you’ve got to just do your job. We’ve got to win the turnover battle. We’re built for that. We’re that’s how we’re built. That’s how we’ve won. It’s nothing secret about that. Everybody that's covered us for a long time, it's not like we’re winning games, 100-2. We've won a lot of one-score games. There’s going to be no back down, no flinch by anybody here. We just got to play cleaner, and we got to coach our guys to play cleaner. That’s all three phases.”
On team leaders taking control at practice: “It’s one of those, where early in the week, it’s a lot of corrections from the game. And then an early snapshot, and then a lot of fundamental work. So that’s a kind of a day like today. And there’s a lot of facet in fixing it. We wish we had this call back; as coaches, [that we] made that adjustment. We sexpect them to kind of do the same thing about maybe some why some decisions were made, what happened fundamentally, where was your focus, where was the communication, all those things. For us, that’s a Monday because we’re a Sunday-off routine team. So that’s kind of typical for our weekly routine. So I’m not as concerned about that. I want to see how we respond to the coaching. I thought the guys were great today. It’s just, nobody wants to be where we’re at. But at the same time, we’re still 1-0 in the Big Ten. You can’t take that away from us right now. So we got to build off of that. And we got got a huge challenge this weekend against an outstanding team.”
On the offensive line: “They’re playing great. They’re playing great in the pass game. Ryan’s doing a really good job getting the ball out of his hands. We’ve got to just be a little bit more efficient in the pass game. We’re just a little bit off, and that’s killing our momentum a little bit in the pass game. We got to take care of the ball after we catch it. We can’t have those issues. Period, end the discussion. But O-line-wise, from a protection standpoint, ee had a little bit of adjustment and some of the things that we saw Saturday offensively up there. I thought our veteran guys handled that really well. I thought Kurt [Anderson] did a good job."
On his message to Northwestern students and fans: “I would say, there’s a reason why we’re all proud Northwestern fans. It's win or lose, rain or snow, sunshine, 89 degrees or -4. Shoot, I’m not changing. You just gotta stay the course, man. We had two tough years, and we had the best stretch. I mean, man, if I rode that roller coaster, I’d be completely gray right now. Come on, man. Like, let’s go. We got a lot of work to do, and we need our fans to do it with us. It’s not easy to win college football games. You can’t be too high when you’re winning and too low when you’re going through a little struggle. No two teams, and no two games, are the same. This team is totally different than last year’s team. I know we’re not off to the record that we want to be at right now. But this group, they’re working their tails off. We’ve just got to execute and play better. Adjust better in-game collectively as a team and stick together. I hope those fair-weather fans that get just so mad when we don’t win 100-0, I mean, just stay with us. Stay proud.”
On the linebackers, specifically Xander Mueller: “Just continuing to grow. First-year starters, there’s just a lot of experiences that are happening at the speed of light for Xander right now. He’s made a handful of really important plays for us momentum-wise, but it’ll just be a continual progression, I think, upward for him. Fundamentally, his eyes, physicality, all those things. I just, I’m really, really pleased with his initial start here. I just can’t wait to watch his career progress. He’s gonna be a great player for us.”
On a successfu vs unsuccessful Northwestern team: “Yeah, I mean, I think just in general, again, staying kind of with your, your thing about being macro, I just think it’s, you know, every game has its own 60 minute identity. And, you know, when you’re in a lot of close games, there’s certain things you have to do to win, right? I mean, you have to be able to win the turnover ratio, you’ve got to be able to win the fourth quarter, which means you got to get the game there. And then ultimately, you got to have really, I think you got to have just a great resolve about yet because it’s going to be a hard fought game. And we’ve been in a ton of them, I mean, over my 17 years, it’s, it’s not like I’m like, Hey, guys, it started the week, listen, I want to go to the fourth quarter, like up a score down a score, be good for TV, be good for the fans to be entertained. And then we’ll find a way to win it in the last three minutes. I wish I had that kind of power, it just seems to be the way you know, we’re usually playing really tough, gritty, physical football. You know, it’s no secret that we want it and we were built to win the line of scrimmage. That’s that’s kind of how we’ve been built. And, you know, then we’re able to make some big plays on both sides and in the kick game when they present themselves. And, you know, when we’re kind of a little bit off, you know, that’s that’s when some things go awry. And, you know, last year we had obviously, you know, you know, multiple quarterbacks, it was a different situation than we’re at right now, if that makes sense. I mean, that’s why it’s hard for me like I know, we compare teams but I don’t because they’re all very, very, I mean, I’ve had 17 different squads, if that makes sense. I mean, they’re just totally different teams. And, you know, you try to make sure you push the right buttons and my role, give them great plans to give them great motivation. But more importantly, to those guys to know, and they know how I feel, I have great confidence and belief in this group. They know that’s how we feel collectively. And we’ve just got to play cleaner and stick together. And like I said, we get two thirds of our season left. And you know, it’s gonna be huge challenges, but that’s why you come here, you get excited about it, and you go attack it, but I really, really like this group of guys.”
To give fans confidence: “Well, first of all, I would say I appreciate their support and their passion for Wildcat football. I’m sorry that you have to live in a hostile environment. But I apologize for that making your life that way. My answers are pretty simple. This games pretty simple, you gotta fundamentally execute. That’s number one. And we’ve got to just continue to have that happen. Okay. When we’ve done that, we’ve won, like, there were some things that in the opener that we needed to work on. And, you know, I thought we’d been diligent on some of those things that we’ve seen the result of that we’ve got to take care of the ball. I mean, that’s, that’s, that’s not anything magical. When the turnover ratio, it’s a totally different game. If we recover the two fumbles, we had an opportunity for a block punt, we miss it, they get there, you know what I mean? Like, those those little plays that are momentum opportunities that, you know, we’ve got to make. And then, you know, lastly, I think that the resolve of this team, I really like, how the guys are working, just continue to work hard to get better. And so that’s, that’s, that’s my job is to continue to motivate him to continue to do that. And then, you know, just keep having our first year experience guys just keep improving. I mean, it’s, we’ve had a little bit more experience on offense, we got to be more consistent there, obviously. And, you know, we all see that. We’ve got to make more explosive plays. But, you know, we just got to keep the guys that are gaining experience, keep them getting better. All right. I don’t know if that’s what they want to hear. But that’s what I’m gonna do.”
On his first career sack: “Felt good. It has a lot to do with the training staff and the strength staff and all the belief the coaches give me back on the field. So I appreciate all that, and it was great for for that to finally come to fruition.”
On excitement going into Big Ten play: "I think it’s good to see the team, like knowing where we’re at, but staying positive because we just stay positive. And still leaning on each other. Stand together.”
On positivity and confidence in the locker room: “All that confidence comes with the work that we put in every week; looking at our mistakes that we do make, and knowing that we can fix it. And it’s on us to fix it. So knowing that we can do that and it’s in our control, that we can have the confidence to go and play Big Ten football.”
On his veteran leadership role: “They kind of set the blueprint. There were some great leaders, and we went to two Big Ten championships with them. So it’s been everything being able to learn underneath them.”