Following Northwestern’s 10-7 loss at Wrigley Field to Iowa, David Braun and Co. will head up to Madison in search of their first road win in almost three years. In his weekly media availability on Monday afternoon, the interim head coach touched on those struggles, Camp Randall’s atmosphere, some players who stood out against the Hawkeyes and much more.
Opening statement: “Back at it today with the group. Had productive morning meetings. An opportunity to review film with our guys, and learn from the Iowa opportunity, and where we can continue to improve and get better. Our guys will be back in the facility later this afternoon, this evening as we dive full into Wisconsin prep. We’ve got a group that’s really excited about what’s still in front of it. Obviously, very disappointed with the result of Saturday, but I think this group understands that if we continue to make improvements each and every day out of practice — and that continues to show up on Saturdays — this group’s gonna give itself a chance to win games each and every Saturday. We have three guaranteed opportunities left. Those are opportunities that our team [is] really excited about. This group cares deeply about one another, loves playing together and is gonna battle its tail off to ensure that we have opportunities to earn ourselves at least one more chance to play together moving forward.
On having his father attend last Saturday’s game, and on coaching a game in Madison, fewer than 60 miles away from his hometown of Wales, Wisconsin: “Coaching Big Ten football and doing it with a group like we have here at Northwestern is always really special. Having my dad at the game this past Saturday was more a testament and a credit to him than anyone else. Not to get into details, he was dealing with some things this past week with his health. Didn’t think he was gonna be able to attend the game. In a very patient and stubborn manner, worked with his doctor to ensure he could get down to the game. That wasn’t an opportunity that I thought he was gonna be able to join our family down there. I was glad he was able to share in that.
“I’m just really excited for this team to have an opportunity to go up to Madison. It’s well-documented that we haven’t played our best football on the road this year. So it’s an incredible challenge against a really good Wisconsin team in an incredible environment. Our guys are excited to get into prep this afternoon.”
On closing games strong defensively: “It’s with details. It comes down to little procedural things. For me, I’ve evaluated every single decision that I’ve made in those closing moments of the game. There’s things that I can continue to improve on, on the details. A lot of times, when you prepare for those field goal block situations at the end of the game, you’re preparing for the ball to be on a hash, or not directly in the middle of the field. You’re looking to overload a side, you’re looking to get to a max block. Going back on that, I need to do a better job of putting our guys in the proper alignments to get pressure where we need pressure. Credit to Iowa’s kicker, he put it right down the middle. You go back and look at the film. Were our guys straining, were they in a position to potentially affect the kick? In some spots, but we didn’t have them in the best situation. It comes down to all of us, but starting with me, on all the little details that are required to win in the Big Ten.”
On the team’s road struggles, and its preparation for road games: “This week will be unique. It won’t be a plane trip, it’ll be a bus trip, so it’ll look a little different. Ideally, I think routine and rhythm are absolutely critical to any team, whether it be home or away. We’ll certainly look to get our guys in rhythm and in routine, while also evaluating if there are some areas that we can continue to improve. Especially on their gameday prep to make sure that our guys are ready to go. At the end of the day, so much of it comes down to execution and really tuning out all the external environment that exists on the road. Madison’s certainly going to pose a lot of challenges in the regard. Against a team like Wisconsin — really well-coached, plays good defense, finds way to stress you on offense — it’ll be critical that we start fast.
“I’m excited for the challenge that’s ahead. The last time that this team was truly on the road out at Nebraska, we certainly fell short. But I think there were a lot of lessons to pull from that experience and that opportunity. I think this group only continues to mature as each week goes by. That’s what we’re going to challenge them moving forward. We’re going to have to be a very mature group that’s executing at a really high level for four quarters to find a way to get it done in Madison.”
On the meeting between Big Ten head coaches and commissioner Tony Petitti regarding the Michigan sign-stealing scandal: “I’m involved in all those conversations. I won’t share the content of those conversations, but I was on that call.”
On the allegations against Michigan, and potential punishments: “That’s not in my lane. I will say that Commissioner Petitti has been an incredible leader and an incredible support system for me going through this transition. Fully trust that him and the rest of the Big Ten office will take proper steps to make sure they’re moving the conference forward in the appropriate manner.”
On play-calling conversations with Mike Bajakian during Iowa’s goal-line stand: “It was very clear with Coach Bajakian that as long as we weren’t going backwards, there would be an opportunity to go for it on fourth if it got to fourth down. Beyond that, shoot, hindsight’s 20-20. If you were to give me the play calls that were executed in that situation, in that sequence where the ball was placed, and say, ‘Hey, Dave, are you comfortable with these play calls, this sequencing that we’re going to score a touchdown?’ I would’ve said, ‘Absolutely.’ I’ll put it on that group to find a way to get in the end zone. Not gonna second-guess that play calling. Were we disappointed with the result? Absolutely. But in hindsight, it’s easy to be critical. I feel comfortable with the way that went down, and the calls that were made.”
On Ben Bryant’s injury status: “We’re taking that day-to-day. Ben’s made some incredible progress. Each day, we’ll know more, but I’m not willing to sit up here and say that he’s not going to be available. With the progression that he’s shown over the past couple weeks, I think there’s a possibility that he’s ready to go.”
On whether Bryant will start if he’s active against Wisconsin: “We’ll take that day-to-day. We’ll make a decision that we feel is in the best interest of the team in winning a football game. Tremendous amount of respect for the way that [Brendan Sullivan] has played and battled, and fought for his team. The greatest statistic that you can hang your hat on as a quarterback is wins and losses. And what you see is a football team that is fighting its butt off, and rallying around a bunch of guys, including Brendan Sullivan.
“So, that’s not a decision that’s been made yet, but what I can say is if Ben is available, that’s great, and it’s gonna make it a really difficult decision for us as a coaching staff to deem who’s gonna put our team in the best situation to go win a football game.”
On Xander Mueller: “He’s improved a ton. I still think he’s just scratching the surface. That’s a young man that’s taken full advantage of a spring ball, of a fall camp, has made a conscious and intentional effort to improve each day out at practice. Coach [Tim] McGarigle’s done an incredible job with him and the rest of that group. But the thing that shows up so consistently for Xander right now, which is so exciting, is is tempo and demeanor of play. He is flying around. I know that’s words that you hear coaches say all the time, but literally, you see that guy flash on film. Really excited about the growth and development that he’s had, and excited for that continued to growth. He’s getting better and better each week.
On preparing for Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen: “It starts off with some really good tackle circuit work, and making sure that we’re keeping our eyes up, getting our near foot in the ground, running our feet through contact. He’s a talented back, big back. Really good stiff arm. He’s gonna pick up four yards just by falling forward. But we’re going to have to do a great job in our fundamental and technique work, just like we do every week in our indy. Our guys are going to have to do a great job in those scout periods of making sure that we’re getting in great body positions, and replicating what we want to see on Saturday. And that’s good chest-to-chest contact, eyes up, running our feet and creating opportunities for knock-back tackles, because if you’re not running your feet through contact, he’s going to pick up six yards every time.”
On instilling confidence in the team to turn 2022’s blowout losses into close games against the same opponents: “It sounds so cliche, and I apologize for that, but it really does come back to guys showing up, taking it one day at a time. We talk about flushing the last game, well, whatever that result was against that opponent last year, putting that in our rearview. I really believe this group has taken it seriously about finding a way to improve just a little bit each and every day. When every guy on our roster’s doing that, you’re seeing some of the collective benefits of that. You got a team that believes, that’s playing really hard, that’s playing for one another. And I think they understand that if they continue to do that, they’re going to give themselves a chance to come out with a victory each and every Saturday. We’ve just got to continue to hone in on the details, continue to push, but certainly lean back into the process that we’ve created over the course of the season. I think you have a group that is disappointed with the most recent result, but is an awfully confident group right now.”
On coaching in Camp Randall for the first time: “It’d be awesome to go into Camp Randall with this group of guys and bring a victory back to Evanston. That’s what we’re going to bust our butt [for], we’ve already started busting our butt. But over the course of the week, making sure we’re doing everything in our power to put our guys in a situation to do just that. Bring a win back to Evanston.”
On how much he’s paying attention to the outside results in the Big Ten West: “Very little. I know that’s part of conversation. Even just talking to people in the community, they want to talk about that. The thing that we know and understand is, the only way we’re going to have continued conversation about that is by winning our next football game. The challenge to this group moving forward is leave no doubt. Let’s not put our focus on anything other than improving each day, and positioning ourselves to go 1-0 this week. We handle business, let’s see where this thing plays out by the time we get to the end of the season.”
On Jaylen Pate’s character and watching him rack up a sack and forced fumble against Iowa: “It’s awesome. It’s what Northwestern football, this athletic department, the university is all about. You’ve got a young man of really high character, a young man that’s overcome a lot of adversity. Went out to Wyoming, graduated in three years. Another man that we recruited heavily at North Dakota State, spent a lot of time with Jaylen on his official visit when he was at North Dakota State. And got to know him not just as a football player, but as a man, and some of the things he’s really passionate about in terms of serving those that are in need of service. To see him put the same effort into some of his outside interests, and things that he wants to do long-term, while also putting an incredible amount of intention and effort into becoming the best football player that he can be. He’s turned himself into a pretty darn good Big Ten defensive end, and really excited about what’s ahead of him the next few weeks.”
Comparing late-season cold in Fargo, North Dakota to late-season weather in Evanston: “There’s no doubt in our playoff runs up in Fargo, playing in a 72-degree climate-controlled dome... there were no complaints about that on Saturdays about that, that’s for sure. What I will tell you is, Big Ten football is played outdoors. We know we’re going to have to deal with the elements in different ways each and every week. We’re certainly conscious of what we’re going to be dealing with on Saturday. But as many times as we can over the course of the next few weeks, if there’s opportunities for us to be outside and just get in tune and comfortable with the elements, that’s something that we’re going to do. For us to win in November, it’s a different brand of football sometimes. Throwing the football is not always going to be advantageous when you’re dealing with wind, precipitation and cold. To our guys’ credit, they’ve really embraced that, and we’ll certainly take advantage of that this week as well.”
On prepping for Wisconsin quarterback Tanner Mordecai, who has not played since Oct. 14 but was marked as questionable last Saturday: “I think you’ve got to prepare like you’re gonna see Tanner, and understand that both quarterbacks are capable of playing winning football. We’ll certainly be mindful and be prepared for both quarterbacks. Tanner certainly brings a level of scramble ability and plus-one quarterback run game that makes you uneasy at times.”
On Northwestern men’s basketball, and his relationship with Chris Collins: “Coach Collins has been very supportive. Wealth of wisdom, just in terms of his time being a head coach at this university, and understanding ways we can recruit at a really high level, understanding what Northwestern has to offer for the student-athlete experience. Really excited to continue to support him and his team. Really enjoyed being over at Welsh-Ryan Arena multiple times last year during that incredible run. Plan on supporting as much as I possibly can. I know Lucas and Andrew Braun get awfully fired up to be at Wildcat football games, and are looking forward to being a huge part of basketball games this winter. Unfortunately, we had some things going on at the house a couple weeks ago, but they were planning on a couple Thursdays ago coming out and watching women’s field hockey and the incredible season that they’ve had. Big Ten Network, I don’t know what their ratings look like, but the Braun boys are helping their ratings wherever they’re at. If the Wildcats are on, it doesn’t matter what sport it is. They’re tuned in, they’re cheering their butts off.”
On the biggest lessons he’s learned as a head coach: “It’s all about your people. It’s all about creating genuine relationships with players, with staff, with coaches. We’ve talked a lot about this group having an opportunity to write their own story. Unless you’re with this group on a consistent basis I don’t know if you’d ever completely understand, but I think this group is really shining through in terms of their character, their resiliency, their togetherness. And that’s where it starts, from a head coaching perspective. I think that’s what been so humbling about this opportunity. I’d like to think I’ve had a positive impact on everyone that’s a part of this program.
“Secondly, you never have it all figured out. You just show up each day, doing your best, continuing to have a mentality of humility and growth, a willingness to listen and take input and constructive criticism, and learn from those that are around you. Whether that be guys in our defensive staff room, our offensive staff room, Coach [Skip] Holtz, Alex Knisely our Director of Football Operations, there’s so much to continue to learn and grow in. But at the end of the day, the decisions we’ve made have been putting our student-athletes at the forefront of those decisions. It really starts with those guys. If we’re not serving them, we’re missing the mark. I’m proud of the way that we battled, but I’m also really hungry to push this group to do continue to do incredible things moving forward. This group has so much more to accomplish this season, and I’m confident that there’s a lot of special things ahead for them.
On Garnett Hollis Jr. and Theran Johnson’s importance: “Absolutely critical. If you’re not playing at a high level at the corner position, it doesn’t matter. And that’s not just in the pass game. That’s an upside run game, a corner being a primary fitter as well as teams spreading you out and defending deep balls like you saw Theran do such a good job of on that play action pass with his interception on Saturday. Credit to those two, credit to the depth in the room. Ore [Adeyi]’s been playing at a really high level, there’s some other young guys in that room that continue to push for playing time and push that group. Coach [LaMarcus] Hicks has done a tremendous job with that group. But starting off with Garnett and Theran, when those guys are at their best, they’re quite the duo.”
On whether he’ll burn the redshirt of Michael Kilbane, who reached the four-game limit on Saturday: “We intend to continue allowing that young man to continue playing at a really high level. I don’t know if I’d say burn his shirt as much as Michael Kilbane is excited to help this team continue to push for a lot more victories.”
On the effect of Memorial Stadium’s atmosphere on the team’s ability to deal with Camp Randall: “I think those opportunities always help. Especially when you’ve got some guys on this roster, a relatively young football team, that may have been one of their first experiences in an environment like that. That’s a perspective, that’s experience, that’s wisdom, and those are opportunities to continue to grow. That experience only helps us moving forward, and again, something that our guys really embrace. When you’re getting an opportunity to get an education from Northwestern and play Big Ten football, part of that is having opportunities to play in hostile environments like Camp Randall. It’s something that I know our guys are really excited to take head-on. They understand that we’ve got to play better on the road, and it won’t be an easy task, but a task that our guys are excited for.”