The surprise for the 'Cats last Saturday, of course, was the intrepid work of their defense. It limited Nebraska to a mere 122 net rushing yards, just over half of the Huskers' season average; it held Nebraska to a mere 25 points, nearly 10 less than the Huskers' season average; it contained powerful Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead, who is averaging 105.7 yards on the season but here was thrown for losses five times on his way to netting just 69; and it benefited from a bit of skullduggery that would have made Ian Fleming's slick spy very proud. That, anyway, is the belief of Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who earlier this week said, "They were looking at our sidelines to see what plays we were running (and) they maybe kind of caught onto what we were doing. . . It's Northwestern. Smart school."
So were the 'Cats stealing Husker signals, which (by the way) is not illegal?
"I'm not going to talk about what other people say and things we can't control," said 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald. "But I know there were some things that we saw from our film study that he gave away that we thought we could take advantage of. When they were confirmed, I think we took advantage of some of those things. But we didn't do anything different than we do any other game of the year. If we could steal their signals and get lined up, I think we'd be undefeated. I think we'd shut everybody out. So. It is what it is. But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night."
That was an unexpected performance by the defense, which Indiana gouged for 38 points a mere seven days earlier, and so it has been a matter of much discussion and dissection. "I'm just happy for the guys," is what Fitzgerald would say when asked his feelings about the upset that defense helped spring. "They've worked hard. They finally figured out the kind of preparation it takes to be successful. They've done it now two weeks in a row and we haven't been perfect, but we've been pretty consistent. It all goes back to our preparation."
What, specifically, about preparation, we wondered.
Right here, this is when he made the issue unit-specific by saying, "Just the whole thing, especially defensively. Some of our young guys are starting to mature a little bit and they understand just how hard it is to win no matter the situation, home or road, conference or non-conference. It's irrelevant. It's really hard to win and you have to do the things winners do during the week. Film study. Getting your rest. Eating right. Preparing right on the practice field. It's just maturing, quite simply."
When this season opened, the 'Cats did have five defenders with extensive starting experience (tackle Jack DiNardo, end Vince Browne, linebacker Bryce McNaul, corner Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters). But the rest of that first 11 were rookies in their roles and so with them there was indeed a learning curve involved. That is one point that should be remembered. The other is the truth behind Fitzgerald's words, "It's really hard to win." This is an observation he frequently makes and so part of any newcomer's learning curve is grasping and then acting on that oft-overlooked fact. That is another point to remember.
THE YOUNG GUY:
Those words of Fitzgerald sent us to sophomore tackle Will Hampton, who spells DiNardo at tackle. "What he means is we now understand what it takes," he will say when asked about them. "The mental preparation, the physical preparation. Last week he really challenged us to study our playbook more, to watch more film. The defense got together as an entire unit at night, it was totally optional on our part, and we watched more film. I think we watched every game of Nebraska. We really focused this week and it was tough. We were all mentally and physically exhausted after this game, but the emotion was amazing. We were all tired, but we won, and singing that fight song was sweet and the scene in the locker room was nice. So it was hard to win this game, but the feeling is so much better than being tired."
But didn't you think you were working hard before?
"Yes, sir. But last week made us realize how much more work it takes. You think you're working hard, but you can always do more. That's the great thing about Coach Fitz. He pushes us to reach down deep inside even more. That's what we did last week and that's what we'll do this week as well."
That carried us to DiNardo, the estimable fifth-year senior who is in his second season as a starter. "He says it all the time. 'The hardest thing you're ever going to do is win a Big Ten game,'" he will say of Fitzgerald's words. "That really is true. Every week, whether you're playing in the conference or out of the conference, you're playing good competition. It's easy to get lulled into thinking that it's easy to win, that you're going to show up and things are going to go your way. That's just not true at all. Every week there's got to be a great sense of urgency to improve, to get better and to get it done on the field on Saturday."
Is that something young guys have to learn?
"Sometimes. It can certainly be that way since a lot of guys come from winning programs. And a lot of guys sat last year. We didn't win as many games as we wanted, but we still won games and they sat and watched it. It could get in your head, 'This is what we do. We show up and win games.' But really there is so much work that goes into that, and that can never be forgotten."
Work like the extra film sessions the defense put in last week?
"We've always studied a lot of film, always had a lot of guys who studied film. But now were making more of an effort to do that together. Position groups together, the whole defense together, and certainly I think that helped us on Saturday. When your back's against the wall, you've really got to do anything you can."
BACK TO THE YOUNG GUY:
We also asked Hampton about the senior influence on his unit and, thinking back to last Saturday, he avowed, "We played for them. Brian Peters, he's always harping on us whenever we make a mistake. He's our vocal leader. Me personally, in the D line room, Jack DiNardo always asks for your best. He plays so hard, he plays every play. Watching him and Niko (Mafuli), Vince Browne, Kevin Watt, all our seniors just put their hearts on the table and give it their all. Seeing that, it really hit hard and we played for them."
Hampton, on his unit's image entering the Nebraska game: "We heard all the talk on ESPN and the other shows, even the talk around campus and other stuff, how we had to score a lot of points to win that game. Nobody gave the defense a chance and we took that to heart. We took that personally."