After a 38-14 loss against No. 18 Duke, Northwestern heads home to begin Big Ten West play against Minnesota. In his weekly press conference, head coach David Braun spoke about what he saw on Saturday and some of his thoughts on the coming one.
Opening statement: “Had an opportunity to come in this morning after an off-day yesterday, put the Duke game to rest. Plenty to learn from, everyone included, starting with me. Did not go down to Durham and play our best football, I think that was very apparent. It’s something that we used as a growth opportunity this morning. Certainly a great deal of credit to that program. They’ve done an exceptional job. They’re playing really well on both offense and defense. Quarterback is a high-end player. There’s reason for us as a program to identify the things that we need to get better at while staying very optimistic that when we do get clicking on all cylinders, we have an opportunity to compete with anyone.
“Shifting into Big Ten West football, which this group is really excited about. Returning to Ryan Field against a very, very, very physical opponent that knows what it takes to win in the Big Ten West. Coach [P.J.] Fleck and his staff have done a tremendous job in his time there of really building the program and building an identity on both sides of the football that complements one another. There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s quite a challenge in front of us, but it will certainly embody what Big Ten football is all about, what Big Ten West football is all about. Our guys are excited, our staff is excited to be transitioning into Minnesota prep. The guys will be back this afternoon for some install meetings, a brief practice, then transition into our typical Tuesday. On to Minnesota.”
On whether he saw improvement against Duke compared to the loss against Rutgers: “I think I’d be hard-pressed to say that... I’ve seen improvement since Rutgers day in and day out. In terms of the performance and the way that we performed in that isolated 60 minutes down in Durham, I don’t know if I can say that. It wasn’t our best, when we pride ourselves on fundamentals, and technique, and our demeanor of play, that did not show up on Saturday. Opportunity for us to own that, challenge the group [and] challenge myself to be better moving forward. There’s no doubt that in our two opportunities to play on the road so far this year, we have not started fast, we have not played well collectively as a group. Excited to be back at Ryan Field, but regardless of where we’re playing whether we’re at home or on the road, we need to perform at a higher level than we did on Saturday.”
On how to improve early-down run defense against Minnesota: “That’s a great question. It sounds very cliche, but it all starts off with our fundamentals and technique. We need to create knockback at the line of scrimmage, we need to define our gaps up front, we need to violently get off of blocks, we need to understand the fit structure that we’re playing with and play with great leverage and we need to tackle well. It’s easy to say all those things, not always easy to do especially against a very well-coached, quality opponent like Minnesota.
“As a staff, starting with myself, we need to do a good job of putting a plan in place that allows our guys to play really fast, to change the picture up on their offensive line, their running backs and their quarterback. And collectively, we need to play complementary football, we need to trust all four quarters and understand whether or not we start fast or don’t start fast — we didn’t start fast against UTEP, but we played a full four quarters — we need to trust that over the course of four quarters, we’re gonna find ways to get a lead. At the end of the day, Minnesota, when they’re ahead, is at their best. They are going to milk the clock, they’re going to control the football, they’re going to stay committed to the run game. We need to start early, we need find ways to get them behind the chains, and force them to become one-dimensional and drop back and throw the football. They have the ability to do [that] at a high level as well, but we have to find a way to get these guys out of their comfort zone, because when they’re running the ball and leaning into their play-action, they’re a dangerous outfit.”
On the significance of A.J. Henning and Coco Azema combining for four kick returns against Duke: “I think part of it’s looking for a spark, I think part of it is just the belief in that unit, starting with the guys that we have back there as returners between A.J. Henning and Coco [Azema]. Both guys have the ability to do some really good things with the ball in their hands. We’re close. Some of those returns, a lot of good things are going on, we’re getting the ball out to the 30, and we’re a block away from really springing one and flipping the field, and giving our offense some advantageous field position. But it really comes back to a belief in the returners, a belief in the entire unit, and looking for a spark.”
On practice adjustments to improve tackling, and how much he attributes tackling struggles against Duke to its talent vs. Northwestern’s mistakes: “You’re always evaluating how you’re practicing. You’re always willing to be honest with yourself, and look to potentially change. I feel like some of those fundamentals in tackling have shown up in a positive light earlier on in the season. Just because a few missed tackles showed up on film against a really quality opponent, you don’t want to hit the panic button. We’re going to carve out plenty of time for individual, our position coaches do an incredible job of emphasizing tackling. I think it’s a great opportunity for us collectively as a staff and as a program to really hold ourselves accountable in terms of not only the way we’re practicing in [individual drills], but what type of position are we getting when we finish on the ball-carrier in those practice settings even against scouts? Are we tagging off, are we getting in a great position where we can get a good thud? Those are things that I know our leadership and the guys within our locker room that do a great job of holding everyone accountable are gonna certainly make sure that they’re emphasizing [that] this week.”
Evaluating the offensive line and tight ends against Duke: “There were moments of production and process, where it was exactly what we were looking for. Moving the line of scrimmage, moving the point of attack, staying glued to blocks through the whistle. Cam [Porter], again, in the run game showed the ability to be really efficient and explosive at times, tough to take down. But there were moments against a really quality defense and a really quality defensive line where the standard that we expect out of that group wasn’t met. And they know that. They’re well-coached behind Coach [Kurt] Anderson and Coach [Jeff] Genyk. It’s a group we need to continue to lean on. There continued to be flashes on Saturday of guys straining with great effort, especially out on the perimeter. Collectively as a group, we just need to consistently put that together, play after play, for a full 60 minutes. Reason to be encouraged, but we’re still chasing the standard.”
Evaluating the punting and punt return units through the first three games: “The punt return unit, we need to get going. We’re feet away from springing a big one late. Theran Johnson is giving maximum effort, doing a great job straining to find a way to get that thing started. He just needs to take a better angle and use better technique to make sure he doesn’t get called for a defenseless player. But that’s the strain that we’re looking for, and you go back and watch the film, we are a few feet away, a split-second earlier of him showing up and just shielding off that tackler to get A.J. [Henning] out and rolling.
“And I would attribute the punting with Hunter [Renner] to just a lapse in consistency. He’s been such a consistent presence, and the product that he’s produced has been really consistent in terms of the location, his operation time. A couple of punts he’d like to have back, but full faith in what he’s able to do. Not only as a punter in terms of his location, but also just being a weapon of really discouraging any form of pressure with the operation time he gets the ball out with.”
On whether Hunter Renner and Luke Akers offer different strengths as punters, and if the team may use them down the line: “That’s a great question. Where we’re at right now, through very transparent conversations with both Hunter and Luke, we plan on having Hunter be our starting punter throughout the remainder of the season.”
On expectations for the stadium atmosphere on Saturday, and its effect: “Honestly, I don’t know what to expect. But really excited for the opportunity for our guys. To have students back, for it to be Wildcat Welcome, to have all of the incoming freshmen at Ryan Field along with a great deal more of the rest of the student body. It’s a Big Ten opponent, a Big Ten West opponent. If you can’t get charged up for this opportunity, you’ve got something wrong with you. So, excited for the opportunity that’s in front of our student-athletes.”
On balancing his defensive playcalling and head-coaching responsibilities: “It really comes back to delegating responsibility and trusting those that you delegate that responsibility to. With our defensive staff, it’s communication right after the drive on potential adjustments, getting in front of some pictures and really understanding how our opponent’s trying to attack us. Make any immediate adjustments that need to be made, and then revisit with those guys as the series goes, in any follow-up conversations that may have been had while I was over with the offense.
“We’ve delegated a lot of that responsibility onto the staff. Have unwavering trust in their ability to manage that. It’s a great staff, very knowledgeable. I’ve been really impressed with the way they’ve navigated gameday. And the same goes for the head-coaching responsibility. There’s people that I’m leaning on throughout the game, talking different scenarios, whether it be going for it on fourth down, some potential two-point conversations. We’re sitting down 31-7, and you certainly don’t want to be in that scenario, but we’re talking about, ‘How do we win this game?’ Well, at the end of the day, it’s still a three-score game. It’s conversations with Coach [Mike] Bajakian of, ‘Hey, when you go down and score here, we’re going for two.’ We only have so many opportunities, so many possessions left. That’s something that I’m becoming more and more comfortable with as each game goes by. But it’s definitely a balance, and there’s definitely a lot of people including Coach [Skip] Holtz that I’m involving in those conversations just to make sure I’m doing my best to put guys in situations to be successful.”
On using 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends), especially during jet sweeps with A.J. Henning: “It’s something I certainly trust that Coach Bajakian and his staff is doing a really good job of self-evaluating. Really after Week Three, it’s a great opportunity for all sides of the football to go through some self-scout, and identify where we potentially have some tendencies. Football is a game of matchups, and matchups with our tight ends in space, blocking potential DBs on the perimeter with A.J. Henning with the ball in his hands is a matchup that we like. Credit to that tight end group, they’ve done a great job of blocking in space. A.J.’s done a great job of understanding his angles, and creating some really efficient plays within the run game. The exciting thing is the complements that can come off those looks. Excited for our tight ends to continue to shine, excited for A.J. and others within the skill group within our offense to continue to shine. That’s the fun part, when you get into the season, is really having an opportunity to study yourself, understand how your opponent views you and then start to use that view of you to counteract that and find some wrinkles that hopefully can create some opportunities for explosive plays.”
On Anto Saka: “The young man can rush the passer. There’s no doubt about that. We talk about roles within this program, and owning your role, and not being satisfied with it. None of us want Anto to be satisfied being a third-and-long specialist or a pass-rush specialist. We want Anto to continue to strive to be an every-down guy that becomes unblockable in this league. He’s not there yet, but he continues to improve under the mentorship of Coach [Christian] Smith and some of the veteran leadership in that room. Something that he and I have talked about even just a few days after I arrived, as I watched his film and started to wrap my head around the skillset that that young man possesses was like, ‘Hey bud, in terms of your role, let’s start off with being someone that can have a huge impact on the quarterback week in and week out. He’s shown the ability to do that. Excited for him to continue to push that element of his game while also being a more consistent first, second-down guy for us as well.”
On Big Ten West football, and the effect of beginning division play on the team this week: “There’s an edge to our team right now, and I think that’s more a result of an understanding that we didn’t perform to the level that we expect out of ourselves on Saturday. And there is a level, and you’ll get a sense of that in the building this afternoon as they return. A sense of excitement, a sense of embarking on Big Ten West play. To me, growing up in the area and observing it for a long time, it’s football rooted in physicality and fundamentals. It’s football that’s rooted in the complementary football in playing within all three phases. And it’s going to be a knockout, drag-out for four quarters, and that’s something this team fully has to prepare itself for if we expect to come out with the result that we’re looking for. But Minnesota in recent years has done a tremendous job of embodying that.”
On Cam Johnson’s impact on the wide receiver room: “I think there’s just a level of confidence with Cam that’s contagious. Don’t hear him speak much, in terms of outwardly over the top, it’s just talking with his quarterback, talking with the wide receivers, encouraging guys. Cam’s a pro in terms of the way he approaches every single practice. He’s a consistent performer in practice. He’s battled, just like anyone through fall camp, through some dings along the way, but continued to practice, continued to improve, and the production’s showing up, which is really exciting to see. But I would say poise and just a level of professionalism. Even as a student-athlete, he just approaches his day-in and day-out in a very mature manner.”
On speaking to incoming first-years during Wildcat Welcome: “It would’ve gone off much better if I could figure out how to operate the mic to start. So, that’s step one. In some ways, it was very humbling to have an opportunity to take some time with a group that is absolutely critical to this student-athlete experience. I think the thing that makes Northwestern really special to me as I observe it. It’s a world-class education as part of Big Ten athletics. Whether that be as a student-athlete that we’re recruiting to come here to get their education from Northwestern and play in the Big Ten, or it’s a student that’s coming here to study engineering but still wants the opportunity to experience Big Ten athletics, I think that’s what makes this place so special. The experience for both our students and our student athletes.
“That freshman class, they will play a critical role in home-field advantage opportunities in football for the next four years, in basketball for the next four years, coming out to lacrosse games, field hockey, whatever it may be. That experience is something that, when it’s done the right way, can be really, really special. It was a neat opportunity for me to share some time with them, and hopefully with some of the other coaches, hopefully get across the message of how critical and important and valued their support is for our athletic programs. I hope with another opportunity to do something like that, I can put it into better words than I did during my first opportunity. But it was great, and the energy in Welsh-Ryan was awesome. I think we have a young freshman group that’s excited to be a part of the Big Ten experience, and we’re looking forward to having them in Ryan Field on Saturday.”
On expectations for Ben Bryant, and evaluating his play: “Expectations out of Ben are for him to perform on Saturdays the way that he practices. What we see in practice is a really dynamic quarterback that is an absolute weapon with his arm talent, and in his accuracy, that commands the offense. And you’re certainly seeing plenty of that on gameday, especially in some of those third-down conversions. But the level of consistency that we see in practice is what needs to show up on gameday moving forward. Ben understands that, and gosh, it’s not just Ben. The entire team needs to help Ben in that. It’s a lot easier to play quarterback when you’re playing with a lead, and there’s balance in the run game and the pass game, and you’re up by 10 points. All of us play a huge factor in that. But, when it comes to Ben’s play, I’ve been really encouraged by some of the things that I’m seeing, it’s the level of consistency that we’re looking for moving forward.”
On rotating players on defense against Duke: “I think any time you’re dealing with a tempo operation like Duke, that’s just going to be something that everyone can become accustomed to. Not only with our defensive line, but all levels of our defense, of finding ways to play and lean into our depth. But [Mac Uihlein and Robert Fitzgerald] are young men within our program that have earned the opportunity to get on the field and have a positive impact. We see their impact week in and week out at practice, and excited for those guys to continue to find opportunities to shine.”