Jeremy Ebert had a memorable Saturday afternoon against Rice, whom he eviscerated with seven receptions for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns. One of them came on a 90-yard burst off a short post pattern, but the true highlight of his day was the improbable one-handed grab between two Owl defenders that 'Cat head coach Pat Fitzgerald would admiringly describe as "ridiculous." He, in fact, thought so much of this catch that he included it in a package of plays that exemplifies the meaning of Playing Northwestern Football. "Typically," he will say, "they're examples of effort, extra effort, great swarm, whatever."
On Monday morning, at the end of a team meeting, he then shows that package, but at least one 'Cat was not impressed when Ebert's spectacular flickered across the screen. "I think it was (junior defensive lineman) Bo Cisek who goes, 'Well, big deal.' Like that's par for the course for Jeremy and the whole team starting laughing. That's the way he's been his whole career. He's just a real dynamic guy. He sits right over there, gets named Player of the Game, he's just, 'Whatever.' It's, 'Ho-hum.'"
Sorry. There were at least two 'Cats not impressed by the catch and the other was Ebert himself. "It's whatever," he will say, literally echoing his coach 24 hours later. "I do what I'm supposed to do. They threw the ball to me, I'm supposed to catch it, so I came down with it."
Wide receivers are historically preening divas, proud peacocks sated with pretension and narcissism and a boundless need to call attention to themselves. (Think, if you will, of Terrell Owens or Chad Ochocinco.) Then there is Ebert, who after his Saturday histrionics was led to an interview with WGN Radio and then led to another interview with the Big Ten Network and then led toward a meeting room where he would face a scrum of Scribblers. Here, as he walked toward that last obligation, he showed just how much he enjoyed the celebrity process by jokingly saying, "I'm gonna stop having good games."
TO PROVE THE POINT:
Fitzgerald offered this observation when asked where his receiver had improved most this season. "It's probably his most consistent year blocking, which I'm most proud of. We talked in the offseason, for him to be able to take the next step in his career here and to showcase and marquee himself for the NFL -- there's no question he can catch the ball, he's a great route runner -- we thought he needed to get more physical at the point of attack. I think Jeremy really took that to heart. The way he worked this offseason in the weight room, cardio and physically he's in the best shape of his life. He's really practicing at a high level. When I talk to the scouts as they come by, in a position of high maintenance football players, he's about as low maintenance a guy as there is in the country. That's why I think the NFL is so excited about him. In an era when guys just want the ball and they bellyache when they don't have it, you get a throwback guy like Jeremy that's willing to do the dirty work, willing to go over the middle, willing to block, willing to do whatever it takes to help us win. . .guys at the next level are really excited about him."
"Yeah. Fitz pulled me into the office after the season and told me I had to be more physical on the perimeter. I took that to heart," Ebert himself will say, again echoing his coach. "I got bigger in the weight room, got stronger. I'm a lot stronger than I was last year and I think it shows when I'm out there on the perimeter."
BY THE WAY:
The 'Cat running backs, at their Monday film session, went back to Ebert's catch again and again, watching it at least 10 times. "That was nasty. It was crazy, actually," Adonis Smith, who was impressed, said after those multiple viewings. "He just turned around and the ball was in his hand. It was crazy."
LESS IS MORE:
With the defense's improvement, and with the recent revelation that it's game plans have been simplified, we felt it propitious to check in with Mike Hankwitz, that unit's coordinator. "I don't think it's that complicated," he said of his group's recent performances. "We're just executing our fundamentals better, we're communicating better and we did cut out some things that we thought may be confusing or 'If they do A, we do this, if they do B, we do that.' It wasn't that we changed it drastically. But I do think they raised their expectations, they became more accountable because they realized we were hurting ourselves too much. We're playing better because we're executing fundamentals better. All that other stuff is a factor. But we're executing our fundamentals a lot better and making plays that we're capable of making, and making them in key situations too."
Was the simplification a reaction to the communication problems his group suffered early in the year?
"Well, yeah, because we were beating ourselves, because we were making mistakes. Some of it was communication, some of it was just execution. We just weren't doing our job."
Is his unit communicating better?
"Much better, much better. And they're seeing the results too."
And with a player like redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell, it's just been a matter of experience?
"Yeah. There's the saying, 'There's no substitute for experience.' You can't always learn from somebody else's mistake. You have to be there, make a mistake, learn from it. Unfortunately."
We here repeat for him something we heard earlier this year from senior safety Brian Peters, who told us, "To learn how not to get beat, you have to get beat."
"Yeah. That's true. You don't like to learn it that way, right. But like when you're a little kid, they tell you don't put your hand up there, it's hot. But you've got to put it up there and get it burned before you learn."
SPEAKING OF PETERS:
He is the defensive leader, the raging cauldron that burns in that unit's soul, and so we sought him out as well. "We're playing football the way it's supposed to be played," he said, right to the point as usual. "We're executing, we're tackling, we're making plays and we're getting off the field on third down. If you do that on defense, you're going to be pretty damn good."
And the edited game plan?
"It's been simplified a little bit and the more you can simplify the faster you can play because it's less mental. We have some young guys out there, they can handle it. But when everybody's playing fast and getting to the ball, we make a pretty solid defense because then you're playing with a lot of passion."
We would be remiss not to mention that the 2011 seniors became the winningest five-year class in the history of 'Cat football with that victory over Rice. "I think that's awesome," said one of those seniors, wide receiver Demetrius Fields. "I always tell people how, after I committed, I used to look on ESPN and see (former quarterback) C.J. (Bachér) getting hit by (defensive end) Vernon Gholston from Ohio State and telling people that was the school I was going to."
What kind of hit was it?
"It was ridiculous. It was like the last hit of the highlights going into commercials."
But why point it out?
"That was like an embarrassment type thing. 'Yeah. That's the school I'm going to.' Seeing the shift and the change, it's awesome."