After Northwestern’s 17-9 loss to Nebraska on Saturday, David Braun and his team will look to get back on track at home against Maryland this coming Saturday. The interim head coach spoke with media members on Monday afternoon about Ben Bryant’s injury status, special teams, prepping for UMD’s offense and much more.
Opening statement: “Back in the facility yesterday, and our guys were back at it this morning for morning meetings. Did not get any easier yesterday going back and reviewing the film [against Nebraska]. You have a group that is disappointed in the result, but also very hungry for what’s still ahead. I think you can just see that in the way our guys are carrying themselves. It’s an intense group, it’s a group that knows our best football is still ahead of us, and is anxious to come back later this afternoon and totally shift their frame of mind and focus onto a very good Maryland team that’s gonna be coming into Ryan Field. We’re gonna learn from Nebraska, we’re gonna grow, and very confident, very optimistic about what’s still in front of this football team.”
On whether the team’s reaction to the Nebraska loss differed from past losses: “That’s a great question. It is different. You have a football team that has really started to find their confidence, their identity. There’s always been a level of togetherness, but I think that’s only grown as the season has gone along. I think you truly saw a team Saturday evening into Sunday that fully expected to win that football game, and left every ounce of their being out on that field. I think that’s where that element of disappointed and a sense of being crushed came from. But you’ve got a group that came into the facility this morning, is amped up, is ready to grow from it and get better, and that expects to have a great week of preparation moving forward. I think the way that we help them navigate that as a coaching staff is to embody and carry a great deal of optimism and energy. And also, hold ourselves as a coaching staff and hold the team as a whole accountable to all the little things we need to continue to improve upon to win games in the Big Ten.”
On continuing to struggle with red zone offense, pass-blocking and pass-rushing, and whether those issues have improved: “There’s been elements in terms of our protection offensively that have been clicking, for sure. You look at the Minnesota game and some of the things that we were able to do in the second half, a lot of that had to do with our ability to protect the passer. An operation like Penn State, an operation like Nebraska [is] very aggressive, very pressure-oriented. Those are areas that we need to continue to improve upon. In terms of affecting the quarterback defensively, there’s certainly been some bright spots of guys being able to get after the quarterback. Nebraska didn’t give us a whole lot of opportunities to do that on Saturday, but those are two areas that will continue to be points of emphasis: protecting our quarterback, and finding ways to affect our opponent’s quarterback.”
On complimenting the special teams group of Jack Olsen, Hunter Renner and Will Halkyard: “Their performance warranted it. The way that those guys performed in terms of being able to create advantageous field position, Jack being able to get us on the board [and] even on that missed field goal that came up just short, Will with his operation from a snapping standpoint, all critical things that often get overlooked or taken for granted. Those guys are a model of consistency in terms of their preparation. Probably something that we could point out every single week, but especially this week they deserved an extra little pat on the back.”
On whether Jackson Carsello will remain the starting center: “We’ll evaluate that day-to-day. A decision hasn’t been made on that just yet, but Jackson had a great two weeks of practice merited an opportunity for him to start.”
On if there’s an update on Ben Bryant’s injury status: “At this point, there’s not. We’re taking it day-to-day. We’re very confident Ben will be back at some point this season, it’s just kind of a fickle deal that he’s working through, and hopeful that he’s healthy sooner than later, but we’re taking it day-to-day. For that young man, you can just see the level of frustration that he’s dealing with. He’s hungry to get back, but at this point, no update. Taking it day-to-day.”
On whether there’s been any change in the timeline of Bryant’s injury or the coaches’ concern with it since the Penn State game: “Nothing’s changed. Just an optimism from our standpoint that if we approach this with a mentality that guys are gonna get back as soon as possible, and also never putting guys out on the field until they’re fully ready to go. We’re going to stay optimistic with our rehab approach, and keep certain elements of that information in-house, and take it day-to-day.”
On Brendan Sullivan and the offense’s performance against Nebraska: “I thought Sully battled his tail off, and found ways to create some plays. The completion down to A.J. [Henning], the completion to [Bryce] Kirtz under intense pressure, moving his feet, sliding in the pocket, finding a way to get that ball off. We’ve got to do a better job of protecting Sully, and putting him in situations where he can feel really clean in the pocket, step into some throws and create some rhythm.”
On Maryland’s offense: “They’re really good. Well-structured run game, a bunch of juniors and seniors up front with the offensive line that understand what they’re trying to accomplish. A very deep, talented wide receiver room and a quarterback that operates at an extremely high level. The way that he processes information, scans the field, understands coverages, understands how to attack coverages with the pass concepts that they’re utilizing. As you continue to watch the cut-ups and watch the film, it’s an impressive operation. It’s no surprise that they’re averaging over 30 points a game, and it’ll be a great challenge for a defense.”
On watching film from Northwestern’s loss to Maryland in 2022: “Have watched the tape. Again, little bit different operation last year just with who they had starting at quarterback in our matchup last year [Billy Edwards Jr.], but still, just well-structured. They do a good job of mixing inside zone, outside zone, some gap scheme, enough element of quarterback run game that keeps you honest. It’s well-balanced, it’s well-thought-out, they utilize tempo in certain situations that can stress you. Well-coached operation with really good personnel.”
On conversations with Mike Bajakian: “Those conversations happen weekly, whether it be the positives that I’m identifying or the things that we need to improve upon, especially early in the week, and then as Mike and I connect throughout the week. There’s not a single person in this facility that doesn’t want to see that area of our offense and operation continue to improve. At the end of the day, as you evaluate those scenarios, we certainly have to execute, but we have to find ways to just keep the ball and the chains moving forward. Too many times this season when we’ve positioned ourselves either through simply field position or explosive plays, after A.J.’s big catch, we find ourselves in situations where we’re behind the sticks, the ball’s going backwards, and now all of a sudden we’re out of rhythm. Those are things that Mike and I have had conversations about, and we’re taking active steps to tweak some things to ensure that area of our offense improves.”
On the nature of in-game conversations with Bajakian: “At the end of the day, considering the context of the situation and the way all this happened, I was never going to be a micro-manager of the offense. The conversation and consistency with those conversations has not changed. It’s Sunday conversations postgame, it’s check-ins throughout the week with a very thorough check-in on Friday and a trust that Mike and the offensive staff [are] going to put our guys in the best situation to win games.
“In-game, it’s more strategy, time management, conversations about things that I’m seeing from a standpoint... Second-to-last drive of the second half a very effective drive in terms of our run game, and some of the things that were set up. Tre Tyus really got going. Just simple comments of like, ‘Hey man, keep rolling with it. Tre’s running the ball really well right now.’ But at the end of the day, I know from calling defense for a long period of time, one of the worst things you can do as a head coach is be too involved, especially when the offense or defense is on the field. You’ve got to trust that a play-caller is gonna find a rhythm. The worst thing you can as a head coach is, in-series, be too involved where you don’t allow that play-caller to stay in rhythm and just do their job.”
On whether Anthony Tyus III’s lower snap total in the second half stemmed from Bajakian disagreeing with Braun’s input: “No, I’m not mandating who’s in, who’s out. I trust our offensive staff to make in-game adjustments and decisions as they continue to manage our offense. I’m gonna continue to give feedback on the things that I’m seeing specifically from my role as the head coach, and also my years of experience as a defensive coordinator, on things that stress a defense that hopefully provide the offensive staff with information that can help them continue to move the ball.”
On the secondary: “I think you see a group that’s continuing to find more and more confidence just finding a certain rhythm with one another. I think you find a group that’s becoming more and more comfortable in the scheme that we’re utilizing. You find a group that is responding to some challenges we’ve put in front of them in terms of being more ball-aggressive, and having an attitude that when the ball is in the air, it’s our ball. At the end of the day, what a great challenge for us coming in here with Maryland. A very productive, efficient pass game that will challenge us in every facet of their passing game, whether it be RPO, drop-back pass, quick game, screen game. Very well-structured.”
On wearing black uniforms at home three times in a row: “That is a question I don’t feel positioned to answer right now. I’m gonna continue to stay in my lane, and as I continue to grow in this role, maybe I’ll continue to collect information. And as I become more informed, have a more convicted opinion on that.”
On whether there were conversations with tight end Thomas Gordon about technique after he committed a 15-yard cut block penalty: “The conversation is eliminating gray. The call came back to his pre-snap, as he shifted his alignment earlier in the game. When we had the same shift on, we did not give any gray for the official, we were clearly within the tackle box. As Thomas shifted back in, you could argue round and round about whether it was legal or not based on his pre-snap, but there was certainly an element of gray. The conversation that we’ve had as a staff and as a team is that as we continue to move forward, we’re going to take 100% responsibility, we’re going to take extreme ownership and we’re not going to point the finger at outside influences that we can’t control. And officials are part of that, they’re doing their best to call the game. [Gordon] has got to do a good job of getting himself clearly within the tackle box, and then execute his assignment. If he gets his alignment in an area that there is no gray, there’s no issue on that play.”
On Brendan Sullivan, and instilling confidence in him: “I think you just continue to build off of some of the things that we’re seeing in practice. He’s continuing to get better and better each week. I see a young man that battles. And that’s all you can ask out of your quarterback. I’m confident, our group is confident. We’re going to continue to improve, we’re going to find ways to protect Sully in the passing game. As long as he continues to trend in the direction he’s trending right now, very confident that Brendan Sullivan’s going to find ways to help us win a lot of games moving forward.”
On keeping Cam Porter’s spirits high despite a limited role: “I had an opportunity to visit with Cam earlier today a couple times. He is the ultimate team player, the ultimate captain, embodies selflessness. At the end of the day, would Cam like to touch the ball 30 times a game and rush for 140 yards every week? Absolutely, because he’s the ultimate competitor. But, Cam’s always going to put the team first, and embodies what this program is all about. I think the encouragement to Cam is a very simple and very straightforward, ‘Just keep being you, man.’ He is a huge reason why this team is positioned to still do great things in the second half.”
On how the team’s resilience after past losses benefits it this week: “It’s just the character of the group. We all know this is a unique season for a lot of different reasons, and I think you’ve got a group that just steps back in the facility, owns the previous week and then goes and attacks the next opportunity. Fully expect us to do the same this week.”
On how experienced defensive players have helped him as a first-year head coach: “It’s a credit to our players, it’s a credit to that defensive staff. Again, unique circumstances, but what I can tell you is, I’ll ask someone in our team room, ‘Hey, how we doing this morning?’ and [players respond] ‘Great coach, how are you?’ The amount of times that guys are honestly asking me that question right back, it is so easy to get into this facility and be around our guys and just go pour everything you’ve got into them. And coach them hard, and mentor them and spend time with them, and pour into them.
“Coco [Azema], the way that dude plays the game, all you’ve got to do is turn on the film. It’s contagious. It’s energizing, it’s awesome. It makes it awfully fun to coach this group. He’s not the only one. Very easy to show up every day and just go to work with these guys.”
On setting and adjusting goals as the season moves forward: “The goal moving forward is find a way to beat Maryland. We’re in the third quarter of our season, we’ve got to set the stage for how we’re going to move forward. But all of our efforts and energy have to go into finding a way to get a win back at Ryan Field, which is an opportunity that we’re really excited about.”