After a week off. Northwestern football sits at 3-3 heading into the second half of the season. The Wildcats kick off the home stretch with a trip to Lincoln to take on Nebraska. As the ‘Cats get ready for a Big Ten West matchup, interim head coach David Braun met with the media on Monday afternoon to discuss the bye week and NU’s upcoming matchup with the Cornhuskers.
This press conference has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Opening Statement: “Coming off a bye week, really proud of the way that our guys handled last week. We invested in some developmental opportunities for our entire roster, specifically our guys that haven’t been seen a ton of end game reps, which was an incredible opportunity for us as a coaching staff and our players to continue to improve and return to techniques, fundamentals and things that we’ll need to continue to lean into as we move forward.
“Ramped up the second half of the week. We invested the entire week last week in Nebraska prep, but really got an opportunity, as the week wore along, to really get into more situational football in our Nebraska prep. Then had an opportunity to have a little bit of downtime over the weekend and hopefully use that to get our bodies back and continue to get as healthy as we can as we as we enter into the second half of the season.
“Certainly excited about the opportunity that’s ahead for us out in Lincoln. Facing a very well-coached football team. A team that certainly is starting to find its rhythm with an adjustment at the quarterback position. Big, athletic, well-coached QB that is starting to find some rhythm and a defense that’s playing at a really high level, so a big challenge for us. Wouldn’t want anything less in Big Ten football and excited for the challenge that’s ahead of us.”
On the availability of Ben Bryant, A.J. Henning and Jack Lausch: “We anticipate that A.J. will be good to go. He has been practicing, as is Jack. Ben continues to progress. Not sure exactly what his status will be come game time, but he is progressing. Anticipate that’s something we’ll continue to evaluate as the week goes along.”
On how he’s grown as a head coach: “It feels like I’ve grown exponentially simply through having no other choice. Your greatest growth comes in situations of adversity and new trials. Certainly, a lot of growth still left, but there’s a great group around me and a great locker room of young men.
“I really tried to do my best to self-reflect each and every day, each and every week on areas that I can continue to improve, and excited about where this group is out right now, but I also know that there’s a lot of work ahead if we want to achieve the things that we set out to do this season.”
On playing at Memorial Stadium: “It all routes back into our practice prep. Even last week, we were pumping crowd noise into all of our practices It’s an opportunity for us defensively, we don’t anticipate that type of crowd noise when we’re on the field, but opportunity for us to root into some of our nonverbal communication, getting everybody on the same page, and a great opportunity for offense to prepare under the environment that they’re gonna be playing in on Saturday.
“One thing I will say is in my time at North Dakota State, I saw in that dome, 20,000 people right on top of you, the impact that can have on an offense. This is certainly at a larger stage with many more fans involved in that process. That’s something that Coach Bajakian, Coach Anderson and our offense have done a great job of handling in our early days of prep, and we’ll continue to put them in those stressful situations as we move towards Saturday.”
On assessing performances during the bye week: “I don’t know if it’s my job to get myself a grade. What I will say is I took it as an opportunity to evaluate where we’re at in recruiting, really excited about where we’re at with this class. The commitments that we’ve held on to, and the commitments that we’ve gained here over the course of the last few weeks.
“I took it as an opportunity to really dive into self-scout, both offensively and defensively, and identify where we have some tendencies and some things that we need to view ourselves how our opponents are viewing us. Took an opportunity to spend quality time with our players over the course of the week, and just check in and continue to develop our youth.
“I know there’s a lot of room left for my own personal growth, just as there is for our entire football team. That’s what’s so neat about a bye week: you get to take a deep breath, look at yourself in the mirror, take full ownership of where you’re at, and set the course for how we’re going to move forward.”
On Stopping Heinrich Haarberg on the ground: “You’ve got to play with great leverage and you got to tackle. I know that’s oversimplified, but when you don’t do that, he has the ability to be extremely explosive. He has the ability to run through arm tackles. and when you lose leverage, he’ll turn it into a touchdown on you. I’ve been really impressed with his ability to operate within the scheme and within the system. You talk about plus-one football — when he’s carrying the ball, you better use every hat you got.”
On playing mobile quarterbacks previously helps prepare for Nebraska: “I think it does. I think there are some things that we look back on, I look back on specifically, in terms of the way that the game was called. From a defensive coordinator standpoint, from my standpoint, I wish I had some calls back.
“So you take that information, and you move forward accordingly. There is nothing more scary to a defensive play-caller than a young man that operates the offense at a high level, has the ability to be utilized in plus-one run game, and has the ability to extend plays and take off with his feet once things breakdown in the passing game. To Nebraska’s credit, they’ve they’ve really started to find a rhythm there.”
On Richie Hagarty’s availability: “We anticipate that Richie will play.”
On his confidence in the D-Line against UNL: “When we’ve been at our best defensively this year, we’ve controlled the line of scrimmage, we’ve created knockbacks, we’ve been urgent to get off of blocks. When our guys play with that demeanor up front, good things happen for us defensively. That’s certainly the expectation, has been the expectation, and will be the expectation moving forward. I think it’s a great opportunity for our guys to challenge themselves against the Nebraska team that’s certainly going to look to establish the run game. If we’re not able to stop the run, it’s gonna be a long day for us.”
On staying balanced on offense: “I think it comes down to just creating balance and staying ahead of the sticks. Something I challenged our entire team on is our pre-snap procedure, and the things that we can control. Whether that’s defensively all being on the same page, or offensively making sure that communication from the sideline to our team, to our pre-snap procedure, to make sure that everything is perfect before the snap of the football.
“Offensively, when we stay ahead of the chains, I think naturally some of that balance that we’re all looking for naturally happens. When you avoid second-and-12, third-and-11, there’s just more balance, and it’s more difficult to call a defense in those situations. When that consistently happens, you’ll see that.
“When you go back and study the Howard film, in our drives where we stayed ahead of the chains, really good things happened. when we found ways to hurt ourselves through penalties, negative plays, TFLs, or sacks, it was hard for us to catch our rhythm.”
On closing out games: “I think it really comes down to our level of focus and our level of urgency in everything that we’re doing. It’s easy to say those things: but how are we embodying that in our practice habits, how are we embodying that in an immediate environment? How am I embodying that in terms of the way that I carry myself as the head coach, whether it be on the sideline, at halftime, or carrying over into the third and fourth quarter.
“You could see it very plainly on Friday with Colorado vs. Stanford. Colorado, a very good football team that’s playing at a high level, jumps out to a big lead in the first half but isn’t able to close out. It can happen in all areas of college football, and I got to continue to challenge myself and our entire team to approach every opportunity, whether it be practice, meetings or gameday with just a certain level of urgency and focus on all the details.”
On the themes of the season so far: “I think it’s been a resilient group. A group that’s continued to pour into one another and care for one another. It’s a group that understands: the people that they’ve worked so hard with over the course of the offseason, over the course of the summer, over the course of fall camp, and over the course of ups and downs along the first half of this season. Those are the people that they need to continue to pour into.
“I’ve really challenged the group entering into the second half. All the goals and aspirations that this group has for themselves, the story that they hope to write, all that is still right in front of them. Now this is an opportunity, as we enter into the second half specifically, the third quarter, to go set the stage for the things that will be ahead of us in the second half of the season.”
On starting the second half of the season: “I think it’s an opportunity for us to reflect back on what we’ve experienced, take full ownership of things we need to continue to build off of that have been positive, but also challenge ourselves in areas where we need to improve.
“Speaking to some of the questions of evaluating myself, what a great opportunity for me to continue to improve on: my clock management, my communication with our staff, and continuing to hone in on some of the details that need to happen with me calling the defense and being the head coach.
“Same thing for our players. The beauty of it is we get to look back, take full ownership of where we’re at, and then set the course moving forward. I think you have a group that’s really hungry, really excited and eager to attack this week of practice.”
On recruiting and picking up commitments: “We talked about telling the story. At the end of the day, recruiting is presenting a story and just giving young men and their families thorough information. I think the story that exists here at Northwestern is a really special story to tell. It’s some of the best academics a young man could find, a degree that has an opportunity to set a young man up for the rest of his life, and playing in the Big Ten. Doing that within incredible facilities, surrounded by a bunch of coaches that are going to pour into you in a developmental program, I think there’s a story to tell there.
“I think what you’re seeing is young men and their families realizing that even though there’s a certain level of uncertainty, we’re not going to focus on that. We’re gonna focus on the things that we can continue to commit to at Northwestern, and that’s an opportunity to play in the Big Ten, and an opportunity to do it at one of the best institutions you can find.”
On if he’s spoken to Matt Rhule about leading a program after a scandal: “We haven’t. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Rhule for the way that he built that program up at Baylor. I’ve observed him from afar for a long time. A tremendous amount of respect for the way that he coaches the game, mentors young men and knows how to build a program.”
On Xander Mueller: “I’ll start by saying I just love the way that that young man approaches practice: the energy he brings every single day, there’s a consistency there, there’s a focus there. We’ve talked about ownership here multiple times over the course of the last few minutes, Xander Mueller is someone that fully embraces and invites coaching.
“A lot of that growth that we’ve seen out of Xander is the fact that he’s taken coaching from [Linebackers coach Tim McGarigle]. He’s accepted that, he’s invited that, he’s taken full ownership on things that he needs to improve on within his game. It’s pretty fun to see that show up in the production we’ve seen out of him this year.”
On players getting healthy during the bye week: “We tried to find a really healthy balance between continuing to push and improve and prepare for Nebraska, but also giving our guys ample time to recover and get their bodies back. I really feel like in our planning, we were able to accomplish that. It’s pretty exciting to get back to practice today and tomorrow and wrap this thing back up.
“At the end of the day, Nebraska, specifically defensively, has done some incredible things in stressing their opponents. Really excited about the plan that Coach Jake, Coach Anderson and the rest of that offensive staff are putting together for our guys.”
On adding recruiting to his plate as Interim Head Coach: “I just leaned in relationships, genuine relationships. At the end of the day, I’m gonna bust my tail, put every fiber of my being into supporting our current players, serving our current players, and putting them at the forefront of all our decision-making — while also making sure that I’m being a great steward of this program.
“How do you do that you? You identify young men across the country that you feel fit the profile here at Northwestern, that love football, that value of a Northwestern degree, that you feel like in due time can be developed into great Big Ten football players. Then, you tell a story, but a story of truth, what truly exists here, and we’re doing that through genuine relationships.
“We’re doing that through telling them the truth of what this looks like moving forward. Clearly, you’re starting to see a bunch of young men and their families deem that as something that they want to be a part of moving forward.”
On his message to recruits about the uncertainty surrounding the program: “It’s the same thing that my wife and I have committed to and the same thing that we tell our players, control the controllables. Now what do you know: Northwestern offers one of the best degrees somebody can find, and we’re playing in the Big Ten. This program has been rooted in the holistic development and mentoring of young men as far as we can remember. I certainly trust that that’s going to be the case moving forward.
“Whoever holds this position as head coach moving forward, those are things that you can count on. If young men and their families want to come back with more direct questions for me, in terms of my status, I just continue to tell them I’m gonna focus on the things I can control. That’s supporting our players, serving our players, and busting my tail to make sure that we have an opportunity to write the story that we’ve continued to talk about.”