After pulling off an improbable 21-point fourth-quarter comeback to defeat Minnesota 37-34, Northwestern is back in the facility to prepare for No. 6 Penn State. On Monday afternoon, NU interim head coach David Braun met with the media to discuss Saturday’s thriller and incoming matchup against one of the best squads in the nation.
Opening statement: “Excited to be back in our routine. The team was back in this morning to review the Minnesota game, and what a great opportunity to clean some things up and identify areas that we need to continue to improve; While also celebrating a lot of the qualities and traits that we strive to put on full display as a program. The resiliency, the grittiness, the way that our guys put for four quarters.
I had a conversation with the group today that that’s the expectation. That’s the standard. That’s what this program is all about. Great opportunity for us to clean things up, but had a glimpse at some of the things that this team is capable of moving forward.
The guys will return this afternoon, as we get into Penn State prep. We’re excited to have an opportunity to practice today. We have one heck of a football team coming in here. Very talented. Very well coached. Coach Franklin clearly has done an outstanding job within all elements of their program from a recruiting standpoint, coaching in all three phases of the game, they are playing at a really high level right now. So we’re excited about the opportunity. It’s going to be quite a task, but certainly very, very looking forward to returning Ryan Field.”
On the offense in the second half: “In the first half, there were a lot of self-inflicted wounds through penalties. There are moments where we were really moving the ball in the first half, and just unfortunately, couldn’t get out of our own way. I do think, even though the second half involved a very explosive passing game, the fact that we were able to move the line of scrimmage and establish the run game early played a factor in that, The protection from the offensive line was a huge factor.
Obviously Ben started to really put on full display some of the things that we see out of him in practice, every day and throughout fall camp. I think you see a group and a unit that is starting to find a rhythm and gelling. The questions continued to be about Ben, but I think we saw a group around Ben that was fully supporting him, protecting him in the pocket. Guys out on the perimeter making some big plays. At that point, there was a lot of confidence and a lot of rhythm. It was really neat to see what that group was able to do, especially in the fourth quarter.”
On Ben Bryant’s health: “It’s just part of playing quarterback at this level. Ben finished the game and showed his toughness and his grittiness. He’s back in the facility today going through his typical routine and excited to move on to Penn State.”
On the community’s response to the win: “The outpouring of support has been really neat. Everywhere from alumni, former players, parents of current players, mentors, people that I’ve coached with, high school buddies, the list goes on and on. It’s really neat, but the moments I cherish the most honestly are the time with my family postgame and the time with our players postgame.
A little bit of a reprieve Sunday morning with my family, breakfast with the boys; you walk back into this facility and it’s like, hey, what do we need to learn from this last one. It’s a sprint to get ready for Penn State and get ready for practice this afternoon. As much as there was a great deal of enjoyment and all that it’s been, that’s part of the Big Ten schedule so on to the next, but awesome Saturday evening.
So cool to see the outpouring of support from so many different areas in the Northwestern community, and really excited to continue to channel all this positive energy and put that into our preparation for Penn State.”
On his competitive spirit and motivating the team: “There’s no doubt in my mind that is within our young man and burns at a very high level. What I would say is, this group is a group of high character, quality young men that want to do right. They want to please, they want to do what they’re being coached to do, and sometimes that can get in your way of just really cutting it loose and going and playing free.
I truly believe that God has gifted me with patience and poise. I’ve done my best to put that on full display over the course of time that I’ve been at Northwestern, but I feel like I’ve also been gifted with an intense competitive spirit. I think that’s allowed me to find success in a lot of different areas of my life. I really started to get a sense that post-Duke, I needed to do a better job of letting that side of who I am be on full display more often. I think all that is done is help pull that out of our own guys, things that already existed within their competitive demeanor and who they are. I think when they see a coach letting it rip and coaching free with a great deal of passion and energy and love for the people that I’m around in the game that we get to play and get to coach, you certainly hope that is embodied within your team. The neat thing is, we didn’t just see that on Saturday, we saw that in the way that this group practiced on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday in the preparation for for Minnesota.”
On how the offense can start faster: “There needs to continue to be focus on just consistent execution because there are moments where we’re moving the ball, but a holding call, or TfL, or sack, and all of a sudden, that drive stalls out. And then two drives later, you’re back in rhythm, negative play, and that drive stalls out.
Everyone’s gonna get sick of me saying this, but some of it comes back to complimentary football. Defensively, we were able to get a stop on the first drive against Minnesota, but after that, did not play our brand of football. You can see what starts to happen in the third and fourth quarter when you start to stack a three and out followed by a five-play drive and the ball is punted. All of a sudden, that momentum starts to build, and that only helps the offense get in that rhythm. On both sides of the football, we need to find some of that Mojo in the first quarter to get going. That only helps an offense continue to turn positive plays into positive drives and points.”
On punting on fourth and one on the opening drive: “Punting that ball no matter what. Strictly coming from a standpoint of, with the operation that we’re dealing with in Duke, being a tempo operation, a certain style of play, the level that quarterback had been playing with at Duke, that was an opportunity for us, at Duke, to be aggressive to find some ways to get an early drive and get points on the board.
At that point in the game against Minnesota, the way that Minnesota operates offensively, it could really be a game that possessions were limited, field position was going to play a critical role, and points were going to be at a premium. That proved to not be the case, but at the time of the decision, I felt very confident and the decision that we went with.”
On new gameday operations: “It’s been a transition directly from our team Hotel over the Ryan Field. It’s been returning to, instead of a locker room setup that, had been utilized during COVID in Welsh Ryan atrium area back into the old locker room. The way that we had structured things in the past was really well thought out, but there had just been some requests from our leadership and our players that they were looking for a new rhythm at home, and they didn’t want to be going from the hotel, over to the facility, and back over to Ryan Field.
They wanted to have a direct line from the hotel over to Ryan Field, and we listened. We took feedback, and we’re talking about throwing a curveball at that staff in early August. A lot of people in athletics easily could have looked at us and said ‘Dave we’re going to keep this status quo the way that it has been.’ And they said whatever you need, and they’ve gone to work. They’ve worked really urgently, along with our director of football operations Alex Knisley, and created an environment that we’re able to replicate in fall camp. I think our guys have found it to be conducive to their routine on game day.”
On Bryce Kritz injuries and confidence: “I think goes both ways. I think especially at the wide receiver position, both those things at times can be hard to come by simply from a standpoint of your consistency maybe showing up play in and play out. But your opportunity for actual production may not just depend on the coverage the team is playing, or the quarterback's progression and reads. His production was no surprise to us, but just really neat to see all that hard work, consistency in practice, and level of confidence that young man carries day in and day out come to fruition. An incredible game and production, especially when the game was on the line.”
On Penn State’s defense: “They’re aggressive. They’re balanced, You can’t find a weakness on that defense: really well coached, willing to play tight coverage, man coverage, mixing some different looks, find ways to put stress on you on first and second down, not just on third down. You see a group that’s well coached and plays well off one another. They’re playing at a really high level and all three phases defensively, very impressive.”
On the safety group in run support: “It’s been fun to see, obviously. There have been times that the safeties here at Northwestern had been very involved in the run fits prior to my arrival. In terms of the structure that we have now, a little different than it has been in the past. Those guys knew from the first install meeting in spring ball that they were going to play a critical role in run support. Those guys have really stepped up and all of them are doing an outstanding job. [Jaheem Joseph] making that big play on that pressure in the second half.
You turn on the film, and you watch Coco play right now. he just plays with a different tempo, demeanor and speed. You want to start talking about that fire that burns deep inside you, that young man knows his purpose. He knows his passion. He loves this place. He loves his teammates, and he tangibly puts that on film. I’m really proud of the way those guys are playing right now.”
On time of possession and controlling the clock: “So much of it comes back to, some of the urgency and edge that we talked about playing with. You want to control the football, and you want to find ways to get the football back, against an opponent that is going to make a concerted effort to do just that to you.
It all starts at the line of scrimmage and then plays into your technique and your fundamentals. If you want to consistently produce in that area and find ways to possess the football, you better be the most physical team on the field on Saturday — which is much easier said than done, It needs to start with our practice habits. Thought our guys did a great job of embodying that last week. Now the challenge is to stack another week this week as we prepare for Penn State. But without the ball, you can’t score points, and it is really difficult to create a rhythm. It’ll be absolutely critical that we do a good job of getting this operation behind the sticks and get off the field on third and fourth time.”
On conversations with Derrick Gragg about losing the interim tag: “There hasn’t been as I’ve said before. If I’m just speaking really bluntly, I think it can be a very easy distraction or trap to fall into, to allow your mind to wander, and where myself and my wife have committed to is, we feel like we were put in this role for a reason. That’s to support our players, to serve our players and be an incredible steward of the program moving forward. And letting all that take care of itself.
If that’s what’s meant to be in the long term, that is an honor and a privilege we would take on with a great deal of gratitude and humility, but that’s not what we’re concerned with right now. We’re going to support these players. We’re going to serve them. We’re gonna be great stewards of the program, continue to recruit and make sure that as a family, we can look ourselves in the mirror 10 years from now and be proud of the way that we handled it.”
On how much tape of last year’s Penn State game he’ll watch: “You certainly take a look at it. Our defensive structure right now has a lot of similarities to the way that it was structured last year, so there’s a lot of opportunities just to see how offensively they attack certain fronts, certain coverages, and certain alignments.
The conditions certainly played a huge role in that game, and you’re probably starting to throw out the stats in terms of the run-pass percentages in those types of things. I’ll tell you what, the one thing that has become very clear as we’ve continued to watch the tape from this season: the quarterback play, the O-Line play, the running backs, the talent they have out on the perimeter, the amount of points that this group is putting up offensively per game right now, sometimes you look at numbers and you turn on the tape and go this doesn’t connect, but, there’s a strong connection there. This group is very talented, very well coached and poses a great challenge for us on defense.”
On conversations with other NU coaches: “With the context of the transition, there hasn’t been a ton of time to spend with other head coaches other than an all-head coaches meeting here and there. But, I have been incredibly impressed with, not only the quality coaches within this program, but just the character and who they are as people. The support, the text messages, the phone calls. Dave, anything you and Kristen need, let us know. We all know genuine when it’s real, and every single interaction I’ve had with head coaches in this department, assistant coaches, support staff has been thoroughly genuine. Speaking of the outpouring of support, the amount of text messages from other head coaches was neat for myself and the rest of our program to experience on Saturday night.”
On Xander Mueller and Mac Uihlein: “We’re really excited about the way both those guys are playing right now, and the depth that those guys provide that position. Not only at the Will linebacker position, but other positions within that room is something that will be critical as we continue to move forward. But plan on utilizing both of those guys in both their skill sets. That being said, you turn on the film and watch Xander in the fourth quarter, that dude was playing fast and made some big time plays for us. He was playing in a different gear on Saturday and I’m excited for him to have that continue moving forward.”