With just four games left in its 2023 season, Northwestern football sits at 4-4 — a remarkable feat that almost nobody saw coming, unless you’re interim head coach David Braun. With the Wildcats set to battle the Iowa Hawkeyes (who they haven’t beaten since 2020) from Wrigley Field this weekend, hear what NU’s guide had to say during his weekly media availability.
Opening Statement: “Exciting time to be around the facility right now. A team that battled on Saturday; found a way to get a big win against a really good Maryland team. We were back at it this morning evaluating the film. I think the thing that’s exciting for this group and this coaching staff moving forward is, we feel like we’re getting better as a team — we’re improving — but I think it’s also very clear to everyone in the building that there’s still a lot of room for improvement moving forward. I’ve said this before; I’ll continue to say it: I think our best football is still in front of us.
“This afternoon, the group will be back. There will be an opportunity for us to completely shift our focus to a very good Iowa team. We know the challenge that is ahead against a team that, in a lot of ways, embodies a lot of the things that we pride ourselves on here at Northwestern — in terms of being a developmental program that plays with great fundamental, great technique and great physicality. Iowa certainly embodies that.
“Opportunity to be playing at Wrigley Field in a rivalry game is something that this group is really excited about.”
On Ben Bryant’s status: “Do not anticipate Ben playing this week. Said it last week: he’s progressing, maybe not as quickly as he’d like to or as we’d like him to. He is working his butt off. Anticipate getting him back at some point. Anticipate that Brendan Sullivan will be going for us this week.”
On playing at Wrigley: “I know I’ve had a lot of these moments in the last year, but it’s just another pinch-yourself moment. First professional baseball game I ever went to was with my dad at Wrigley Field. Drove down, grabbed a hot dog on the way. Mark Grace, Sean Duston, Joe Girardi — all those guys are still playing — Ryne Sandberg. Remember walking up the stadium, parking in the back alley, all those things. An opportunity to be part of a football game at Wrigley Field? What a unique, special experience to say that I’m getting an opportunity to get to coach in that game. Pretty special. Really excited for our fanbase to experience it, our players to experience this. Really excited for my two boys to get an opportunity to experience this. It’s going to be a special day.”
On the historically low over/under: “I know it sounds super cliche: I wasn’t aware of that. We don’t pay attention to that. I think this group has all the extra motivation that it needs. We’re going to keep focusing on the people in this building.”
On the crucial goal-line stand against Maryland: “What that D-line room has been able to do this season is such a reflection of what you hope is happening all over this team right now. It’s banked reps from us double-repping during fall camp. It’s investment paying off in terms of some of our developmental indy. It’s developmental paying off in some of the bye week. It’s the walk-on program here at Northwestern. You look at some of those guys — the four guys lined up with their hands in the dirt against Maryland, at one point, it’s two true freshmen and a former walk-on. You’re going, ‘I’ll take this group any day.’ They’ve battled; they’ve invested; they’ve continued to improve. Really proud of that group. We need to continue to push, especially with this week. Our D-line will be tested this week in a big, big way.
“In terms of those situations, you’ve got to be really careful how you practice those high-intensity scenarios. It’s really hard to replicate. To be honest with you, the only time you really practice those scenarios live is maybe an isolated practice or two during fall camp; when you get into scout team sessions, you’re practicing those scenarios at about 80% just to make sure that you keep people on their feet and keep people healthy.
On preparing for the last play from that sequence: “It’s really difficult. You’re picking your poison. Honestly, anticipated on the fourth down that it would be a pass. You start to ask yourself, ‘Are we willing to call a defense that plays to the pass, and then, all of a sudden, they hand the ball off and they walk in for a touchdown?’ You’re going, ‘We’re going to make them earn every inch.’ Just a credit to Xander [Mueller] making a huge play in that situation for us, and to the rest of our defense for getting ourselves to that point. These are questions that I ask myself every week. In the moment, I’m asking myself that same question: ‘What are you willing to give up here?’ At that point, we were going to force them to execute on a pass play, and give everything we had to stopping the run.”
On changes to gameday operations playing at Wrigley: “We’ll have to be very strategic in that. You’ll see the same format [as 2021] with both teams on the same sideline. That’ll create some unique substitution situations. The Big Ten and the officiating crew has done a great job of communicating with us in terms of what that’s going to look like and how we need to operate. I firmly am confident that our guys will handle it well. We’ve got to find ways to replicate that in practice to the best of our ability. Just another piece to the puzzle in terms of a very unique and special opportunity for our guys.”
On Aidan Hubbard winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week: “Really proud of Aidan. Some things that we’re starting to see are the things we’ve seen out of Aidan in practice on a consistent basis. Had a great fall camp. Has really developed as a pass rusher. Starting to mature in terms of his preparation and the urgency that he plays with. I think last year, when you turned on the film — or even in spring ball — Aidan was doing what he was supposed to, but didn’t have that urgency, didn’t have that motor, didn’t have that edge that you’re looking for out of a big time, Big Ten defensive lineman. I think you’re starting to see that maturing process from a young man that we’re not only expecting to perform, but also help lead that room. For him to have production like that on Saturday is really exciting, but not surprising. He’s put in a lot of work.”
On conversations with Brendan Sullivan after the Nebraska loss: “The first thing that I told him was that I was proud of him, and that he’s a stinking warrior — the way he battled out in Nebraska. Did he play a perfect game? Absolutely not. He battled; battled for his team. Was really proud of him. And then, you go back and you watch the film; evaluate where he needs to be better. Coach Bajakian expects a lot out of Brendan. Brendan expects a lot out of Brendan. I think we did a really good job this week of getting Sully comfortable. Performed much better around him on offense. With the play-calling, I think did some really good things to get the ball out of his hands on time, which allowed for him to get into a rhythm and play his best football.”
On what Sullivan needs to do to succeed against the Hawkeyes’ defense: “We’ll all be challenged this week in so many different ways. This Iowa defense is a model for consistency. Just the way that Coach Parker and the rest of that staff — it’s impressive. We’re going to have to detail our work this week. I think the things that we’re going to hold Sully accountable to is just his process. Where his eyes are at in his progressions; making good, sound decisions; protecting the football. I think all of us, at times, can get caught up in the statline. You don’t find wins and losses in the statline. If his statline comes back next Saturday at varying numbers and much lower totals in terms of passing yards, but we find a way to win, that’s good quarterback play.
“Against such a talented defense, such a well-coached defense in Iowa, I think the expectation in terms of his ceiling is just being a great decision-maker, a great manager of the game, a great leader on the sideline. Getting the ball out on time. Forcing Iowa’s defense to earn everything that they get. With the way that Sully’s trending, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to continue to put our team in a lot of good situations to win a lot of football games.”
On more playing time for Michael Kilbane and Dylan Roberts: “Part of it was out of necessity in terms of where we’re at from a depth perspective. Dylan played against Minnesota; Michael played some against Howard. They earned that opportunity with their practice habits, with the way that they’re performing on scout team and giving the offense good looks. Kilbane, last week, was the scout team player of the week; all of a sudden, turns around a few days later, and he’s playing 30 snaps of Big Ten football.
“What it comes down to in terms of those guys being ready isn’t just one flash practice, where it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh! He had a great day.’ It’s just that consistency of, ‘Man, this guy’s getting better and better and better, one day at a time.’ Really comes down to a certain element of trust — that you trust that you can put that young man out there, and you are confident that he’s going to be able to execute at a high level for his teammates and the guys around him. Both those guys have proven to be worthy of that opportunity.”
On D-line coaching: “Christian [Smith] would be the first one to tell you — Logan McCormick, who is our defensive GA who played for us at North Dakota State will tell you. Watch out: if you get me down in D-line drills, I might stick around for a while. I get pretty passionate about that that position. I have not micro-managed that position. We hired Christian Smith for a reason; he earned that opportunity through the interview process. I think the greatest gift I can give Christian is my perspective, some wisdom and knowledge from coaching the position prior. Also, giving him the sense that it’s his position group.
“I feel like great D-line play is guys playing free. Not with the mentality of, ‘Don’t get reach! Don’t get reach! Don’t make a mistake!’ It’s, ‘Man, I’m going to play vertical, knockback, aggressive football. If I make a mistake, I’m going to make it fast. I’m going to make it violent.’ That’s great D-line play. Sometimes, Christian will come to me with questions, concerned about, ‘Oh, I want to make sure this is just how David wants it.’
“Talking about Taulia and preparing for him, we got to find a way to just get to him. Just get him off his spot. I know pass rush lanes are critical, but no one’s getting to him. We’ve just got to find a way to get to him and affect him. Playing fast; playing with conviction. I think that is showing up in our play. I can’t speak highly enough of Christian and the job that he’s done with that group.”
On the significance of this game: “I think the attitude is, number one, we’ve got to respond. Last week was a response after a really tough, crushing loss. How are we going to respond to success? How are we going to respond to people talking about bowl games and the Big Ten West and our standings? Tune it all out, guys. It’s interference. What do we need to do today to position ourselves for a great practice into preparation for a really good football team? That is so much easier said than done. I have a tremendous amount of belief in the maturity and the leadership in this football team, with a lot of reminders that this team will be able to do that — because we’re going to have to. This football team is too well-coached, too talented; finds ways to win football games. We’re going to have a great week of preparation, and that starts this afternoon.”
On preparing for Cooper DeJean in the punt return game: “My first conversation was with Matt Entz up at North Dakota State. When I was up at North Dakota State, we offered him. I really would’ve appreciated if Matt Entz could’ve closed that recruiting up and gotten Cooper up to North Dakota State, so we didn’t have to deal with him now. All kidding aside, he’s such a model for what the Iowa program has stood for. They’ve done a tremendous job of recruiting their home state; keeping Iowa kids at home that are passionate about playing for the Hawkeyes.
“He is a dynamic, talented, instinctual football player. That will be an absolutely critical piece of this gameplan working with Coach Genyk throughout the week in terms of just limiting our risk. At the end of the day, sometimes you’ve got to compete and trust your guys to make plays. At the same time, you only want to give someone like that — a young man like that with that skillset — so many opportunities to touch the football.”
On how punting styles may change to favoring bouncing kicks: “I think that is certainly a part of our thought process and considerations. How can we find ways to continue to create field position, while also limiting his [DeJean’s] opportunities back there to field the ball cleanly with time to make things happen? We’ve all seen what he can do with the ball in his hands. We’re going to have to find ways to get creative. At times, we’re going to have to just trust our guys to go cover and tackle and play with great leverage. He is a dude.”
On the importance of growth via practice: “I think we’re in a unique setting. There’s a lot of Big Ten teams that entered into fall camp with 120 guys for Day One of fall camp. We had 103. We’ve talked since Day One: it’s going to take all of us. You don’t know when your opportunity’s coming. It’s really not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when. Owning your role.
“What does it look like for Michael Kilbane to own his role? In fall camp, it was just continuing to improve each and every day. Early on, during the season, it was be the best scout team player you can possibly be. As he continues to get better and earn credibility and trust — and opportunity arises with some injury — he walks through that door. You turn on the film: he may not have showed up in the statline, but that young man helped us in a big way win a football game on Saturday.
“I think Michael’s a great example for all the guys in our program, whether you’re a freshman or a junior that doesn’t have the role that you want. Staying the course; continue to improve; owning your role; staying ready. It’s not a matter of if, but when that opportunity’s going to come.”
On the lack of a winning streak thus far: “I haven’t gone back and evaluated it. I’m proud of the way that we’ve responded after losses for sure. What a great opportunity for us to keep momentum within the season. So much of it is just isolating one game at a time. It’s going to be absolutely critical as we come back this afternoon that, man, we completely put Maryland behind us. Iowa’s a completely different operation, completely different skillset in terms of their strengths. Our guys understand that. We’re going to have to do a great job of focusing on the details. In some ways, channeling the emotion around this game in terms of the competitive demeanor that we know is going to be required to compete with a team like Iowa — while bringing that competitive demeanor and edge with a level of poise that allows us to play clean football.”
On his plans for Halloween: “None for me. You can count on Kristin Braun to come up with some creative ideas for our kiddos. Lukas and Andrew were the wet bandits from Home Alone last year. Absolutely hilarious. This year, we’ve got some Mario, Luigi. You can’t forget about little Blake: she’s going to be Princess Peach. Kristin Braun has got that all lined up. Going to be a fun day for the Braun family tomorrow.”
On the work of the specialists: “Expecting them to continue to do what they’re doing. What we saw out of Hunter [Renner] at Nebraska was just a model for excellence. Jack [Olsen] continues to play at a really high level. Will [Halkyard]. Those guys are just such pros. What I mean by pros — they’re clearly student-athletes, and great students here at Northwestern — but just the way they handle themselves in the facility. They have their routine; they stick to it. They just take ownership of their craft. Expect them to just continue to do what they’ve been doing up until this point. Field position will play a critical role.”
On Joseph Himon II: “It’s awesome. It’s not awesome in practice in fall camp when we’re competing against our offense, from a defensive coordinator’s perspective in the past. That dude was such a headache last spring ball to me as a defensive coordinator. Gave our defense fits this fall camp. To see him stepping into this role and being utilized in creative and different ways. You can see the way that our guys respond when Joe gets the ball in space. You watch that coach’s copy of that film; A.J. Henning blocking downfield; Bryce Kirtz straining for a block; our O-line getting downfield; Marshall Lang. I mean, it’s pretty exciting. You get the ball in the hands of a young man like Joe. Really proud of the way that he’s stepped up. A credit to our staff of putting him in those situations.”
On A.J. Henning’s six targets: “I think that’s always something that’s on the forefront of Mike’s mind. I think some of the specific scheme was more tailored toward what we were seeing out of Maryland. That is at the forefront of Coach Binns’ and Coach Bajakian’s mind. We know the playmaker that A.J. is, and how critical he is to what we’re doing.
“I’ve got to be honest with you: I’ve got to love up the rest of that room. The level of play that we’re seeing out of Cam Johnson and Bryce Kirtz. That room as a whole continues to step up in big, big ways. A.J. is certainly a big part of that.”
On his candy-eating habits: “I’ll tell you what: I have a sweet tooth. I’ll put it this way: when I get home, their candy will probably be hidden.”