After falling to No. 6 Penn State 41-13 on Saturday afternoon, Northwestern welcomes the Howard Bisons to Evanston for its homecoming matchup. Before the ‘Cats have a bye next week, NU interim head coach David Braun met with the media Monday Afternoon to discuss NU’s defeat to the Nittany Lions and this weekend’s game against the Bisons.
Opening Statement: “I’m excited to be back with the guys today. Had an opportunity this morning to review Saturday, to review Penn State. Certainly, some opportunities for us to continue to have conversations about what this team is capable of.
The challenge moving forward is what this team can truly be capable of when it finds a way to play a full four quarters. When we do that as a coaching staff, as a program, we can talk about: two-quarters, fast start, there’s plenty of positives to pull from, but at the end of the day, our guys prepared in a way that they expected victory. They expected to go in, compete and find a way to beat Penn State. Even though those on the outside certainly didn’t expect that, the group in that locker room did and was certainly very, very disappointed with the result.
Specifically, though, the way that we close out the game, in the second half and in the fourth quarter, we need to continue to challenge ourselves. There’s going to be people that pat you on the back and say, Hey, that was a great first half. Well, we prepared to win a football game, prepared to play a full four quarters, or however long it takes. I think that gives us an opportunity as a team to continue to take full ownership in our performance and continue to take full ownership of the things that we need to continue to improve upon moving forward.
Turning the page, our guys will return this afternoon. We’ll start to install our game plan for Howard. Great opportunity for us to be playing back at Ryan Field, on homecoming, against a very good football team. A team that scored a lot of points right now. Offensively, battled their tails off against a good Eastern Michigan team, and we’re gonna have to be at our best. We’re gonna have to be at our best this afternoon. We’re gonna have to have a great week of preparation; the standard has been set in terms of what that’s supposed to look like — the urgency and the detail that needs to go into that.
I’ve challenged myself, I’ve challenged this group moving into this afternoon and moving into the week: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, into Friday and Saturday morning, that we make sure that we embody that and put our best foot forward and ensure that the best version of this team shows up on Saturday.”
On Ben Bryant’s injury and possible starting quarterback: “Not specifically. What I can tell you about Ben is that dude is tough, he’s gritty, he’s a warrior. He’s gonna do everything in his power to get back to back to full health and be ready to play. Not sure what that looks like in terms of timeline by Saturday.
If Ben weren’t able to go, as of right now, would anticipate Brendan [Sullivan] going. Brendan’s earned that opportunity. He’s played well in his opportunities to come in and spell Ben. But as of right now, we’re moving forward anticipating that Ben will be ready to go.”
On if there was consideration sitting Ben against Howard: “That’s a great question. But to answer very directly, absolutely not. This is a darn good football team coming in here. Maybe it’s my background coming from Division Two and FCS, but you can put whatever letters or numbers next to a team’s name, there’s darn good football at all levels. We look at this opponent the same that we would look at any opponent — an opponent that’s plenty capable of giving us a run for our money and beating us if we don’t show up at our best. So we’ll put our best foot forward.”
On keeping the team focused: “Just continue to remind everyone how critical every single game and every single opportunity is. Challenge a group coming off Minnesota, an emotional high is really hard to come off of sometimes. I thought our guys handled that, for the most part really, really well. Well, now we’re coming off an emotional low. Good first half, we’re in a game we’re in a battle, and then the way things played out in the second half our guys were frustrated and not satisfied with the result.
If anything, we should have a group that is more hungry than ever to go play our best football. And again, you will not hear me once refer to our upcoming opponent as anything other than a really good opponent that we better be at our best at. I promise you, in these walls, there’s no mention of FCS. This is a team that we better strap it up, bring our urgency, bring our edge and be ready to roll.”
On what he told his prior teams when going up against FBS programs: “Our message was consistently bring on the competition, and it didn’t matter who we were playing. That was a message to our team about bringing our best. You bring our best on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and then make sure that that carries into Saturday. It didn’t matter if we were playing the Chicago Bears or a D-Two school that is coming into the FargoDome. Bring on the competition and show up at our best. That was the message from us coming at the FCS level.
I’m very confident that I have a firm understanding of what that level of football brings week in and week out, and that’s darn good football. Those guys are on scholarship. There’s a lot of NFL football players that are that are roaming around FCS schools. I think I’ll have an opportunity to make that very clear pulling from my experience at North Dakota State.
On reflecting on his time as head coach: “Opportunity to reflect: no, probably not, but what I will mention is that there’s a great deal of gratitude from both Kristen and I. From the support for our players, for our staff, the people that we’re doing this with, it’s pretty neat. With our team this morning, talking with our leadership and talking with our team, I think where they felt tangible support day in and day out is from their parents and their teammates.
But the outpouring of support from former Northwestern football players, the alumni, what those men have meant to the guys in our current locker room — words can’t express it. I think this is an opportunity for us, on homecoming as a team, to just honor those that have worn the uniform, worn the jersey and walked in our shoes.”
On Brendan Sullivan’s play: “In typical Brendan fashion: it was tough, it was gritty, it was doing whatever he could to just keep battling with his team. The interception is a choice and a decision he’d love to have back.
But what I can tell you, unequivocally without a doubt, is I’ve spoken about the quality of that room as a whole from the start. I’ve spoken to the fact that Ben Bryant is our starting quarterback, but the depth that exists in that room with Brendan, the leadership that exists with Brendan, what Ryan Hilinski brings to that room, the leadership that Ryan brings to this football team, what Jack Lausch has done for this offense in terms of his versatility. Regardless of how this moves forward, we’re anticipating, expecting Ben to be able to go, but regardless how that plays out, moving forward, very confident Brendan’s ability to step in and help this team go win and very confident in that room as a whole. In terms of their ability to prepare to get this this team to a point where we can expect great execution and performance out of the quarterback position.
On Carmine Bastone: “Carmine embodies so many of the qualities that we value here at Northwestern for many reasons. High academic, engineering major, and understands what this degree from Northwestern will do for him for the next 40 years, not just the next four. Toughness, perseverance, great teammate, willing to step up with courage and coach other guys and hold other guys accountable. I think it speaks to what we want to continue to build here.
We want to recruit high-end, high-character young men that want to come to Northwestern. They’re willing to walk on, they’re willing to put a lot of time effort and energy into maximizing their potential with hopes of earning a scholarship. Carmine has done just that. I mean, that’s pretty special.
We need to continue to lean into that for this program to continue to go the places that we want it to. There’s a long history of that here at Northwestern of young men that have earned scholarships that have come here as walk-ons. Carmine is just such a great example to point to of what needs to continue to happen here.”
On Jack Olsen: “Really proud of his performance. Another young man that has earned the opportunity. It hasn’t been the easiest path for him, dealing with some nicks and bruises along the way since he arrived here at Northwestern. He just brings a great deal of confidence to this team, to myself, to Coach [Jeff] Genyk, into the offense as a whole in terms of, knowing that if a drive does stall out in the red zone, we’re not coming up empty-handed. With his consistency, we can be very confident of trotting him out there and expecting them to come back with three points.”
On rotating kickoff duties: “Part of it is just kind of who’s got the hot foot. In terms of who’s kicking well. Part of it is just, splitting the load with multiple kickoffs at times and handling field goal and PAT duty, that can start to potentially wear on a guy. Location of where we’re putting the ball is such a critical piece of that as well.
There’s a lot of factors that go into Coach Genyk’s and my decision with that, but with some of the explosive quality that Penn State possessed on special teams, really felt like Luke was going to be a weapon for us with kickoffs. Really proud of the way that he stepped in and carried on that load throughout the rest of the day.”
On the offensive line: “To be honest with you, we’ve played around with some rotations. I feel really good about where that group is at right now, in terms of the guys that we expect trotting out there as the starting group.
Coach Anderson will continue to find ways to rotate guys at times, to continue to build depth and find good rhythm with that group. I really believe that it comes back to what seems repetitive and cliche, but comes down to balanced complementary football. Finding ways to stay balanced offensively. It’s much easier to stay balanced offensively when you’re playing in a tie game or with the lead. At the end of the day, you get out in front of a Rutgers operation or a Penn State operation, these talented, athletic defenses, and they have a 10-point lead, you start to become one-dimensional as an offense.
It becomes awfully difficult to be a playcaller. It becomes awfully difficult to be an offensive lineman, so we need to find balance. We need to hone into complementary football. We need to find ways to play with a lead.
On getting the rushing attack going: “I think it really ties back into what I just spoke to in terms of: balanced attack, complimentary football, playing with the lead. A guy like Cam Porter, our running back room is going to be at their best, our O-Line is going to be at their best when we can find ways to be up two scores in the third quarter. Control the clock, run the football, and all of a sudden Coach Bajakian has the entire call sheet available to him.
That’s the brand of football that we have to strive for and continue to push for. and so much of that is not just the offense, or not just the running back position, not just offensive play caller, it takes all three phases playing at a really high level. I truly believe in the third quarter against Penn State, a couple of things go our way with the fourth down conversion or fake punt, we stay in the game, start to wear that opponent down a little bit, you see a little bit more of that balance moving forward. The situation we got in, being down by a couple of scores, it went the other direction. It really comes down to just balance, complimentary football and finding ways to lean on guys like Cam Porter and the rest of that running back room late in the third quarter into the fourth quarter and closing out games.”
On lack of touches to A.J Henning and Jack Lausch: “I think you’d go back to some of the things that we’ve done in previous games when those guys had been seen at their best. I fully trust that Coach Bajakian and the offensive staff see the same things that others are recognizing. We’ll find ways to get the ball back in both of those guys' hands.”
On his message to the team this week: “We talked about the fact that we’re into the third game of our second quarter. Well-timed bye week right at halftime, and the challenge is to be at our absolute best this Saturday to go 1-0 this week. If we’re able to accomplish that, we go two and one in the second quarter, and we go into halftime at three and three. You have a group that’s got all the goals and aspirations that we have for this group still right in front of us. It all starts with a great Monday prep and a great week of practice. The expectation is to be at our best Saturday, but if you were to tell us that we were going to go into halftime coming off a win at three and three, is that perfect? No. But it does give us a lot of reasons to be excited and a lot of promise ahead? Absolutely.”
On having Howard come to Evanston: “I think it’s awesome. College football at its best. You talk about the student-athlete experience, you talk about the student experience, you talk about fans and alumni, that’s incredible. To see what college football, college athletics can do for the experience of a young person, everything that goes in around it, for the overall experience, I think it’s awesome. The bands, the pageantry, everything that goes on pregame, at halftime, postgame, it’s all part of it. It’s a historic opportunity for Northwestern to be playing against an HBCU.
The level of play that we’ve seen in recent years at both the FCS level and at other HBCUs is something to take note of. You go back on the history of college football, there’s a lot of strong tradition, a lot of strong history. That’s not just the young men or the student-athletes on the field, that involves a lot of things that go on around the game day experience. So to have Howard’s band be a part of the game day experience, that’s something that we won’t be able to take in as a team, but something that I’m excited for our overall community to be able to experience.”
On NFL talent making great plays vs. changing scheme: “I think you find balance. You find balance in the fact that you tip your hat to a very talented, well-coached team, but you have to be solutions-based. They made a nice play, but what do we learn from that? How do we move forward to make sure that certain situation doesn’t happen again?
Great coaching is identifying what our guys can do really well at a really high level consistently and leaning into those things. A team like Penn State has the ability to expose some of those things. In all three phases, those are things that we need to continue to evaluate, and then there’s a great deal of excitement for us as a staff moving forward, long-term, about recruiting young men that fit the values and the profile here at Northwestern. We can bust our tails year-round to help them develop into great NFL prospects and NFL talent, and that’s been proven to be done here for a long, long time. There’s there’s NFL guys on our roster too.
As we go through the recruiting process, we may not be able to recruit a bunch of five-stars right now, but we can recruit a bunch of young men that 36 months from now, can turn themselves into guys that NFL scouts are coming through and saying ‘you know what this. guy has the potential of being a first or second-round draft pick.’ A lot of credit to Penn State, but we also have to learn from those and put our guys in advantageous situations week in and week out.”
On slowing Howard’s offense: “They find ways to use tempo to their advantage. They’re balanced, do a nice job up front, the scheme definitely fits the personnel. A couple of talented [running] backs, a quarterback that spins it really well, a deep wide receiver room. You turn on that Eastern Michigan film and there are some explosive plays showing up in the passing game.
They do find balance, they utilize RPOs as well to put themselves in advantageous situations in the run game. It’s a team that screams an understanding of their personnel being well coached. When they start to put the pedal down and get you on your heels, they can get you reeling. It’s gonna start with us doing a good job of handling the tempo, being really good on first and second down, and being efficient getting off the field on third down.”
On Theran Johnson’s availability: “We do anticipate that Theran will be back.”
On Penn State’s final touchdown: “I know the way it could have been viewed. It was truly a very well-constructed play-action pass, good scheme, great execution by them. I’ll never take exception to that. At the end of the day, we’re out there to compete. We’re out there to play a full four quarters, and the guys that Penn State trotted out there we’re going out there looking to execute a play and be at their best. At the end of the day, we have to defend it, so we’ll never take exception or anything like that.”