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    BLOG: Upon Further Review

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    * There is no exaggerating the split personality the 'Cat offense exhibited last Saturday against Minnesota. It looked as crisp as a heavily starched shirt while rolling to touchdowns on its first three possessions. Then, on its next five, it had a seven-play drive that ended in an interception; two five-and-punt drives; a three-and-punt drive; and a six-play drive that ended in a fumble lost. But, to close out its afternoon, it now unfurled a 15-play drive that ate up 80 yards and 4:38 and resulted in a touchdown, and a 13-play drive that ate up 71 yards and 6:18 and turned the ball over on downs to the Gophs on their own 11 with just 1:10 remaining in the game. It was no wonder, then, that Pat Fitzgerald reported on Monday, "A very hungry group in our offensive room, no question about that. Especially (quarterback) Danny (Persa). I really liked his attitude today. I promise you. Nobody's satisfied by winning just six games."

    And just what was Persa's attitude?

    "He's excited to play. The guys on offense felt they didn't play very well on Saturday."

    * The defense, in stark contrast, not only continued its recent transformation into a stingy unit that can deliver stops when needed. It also continued to do that while running a (to use one of Fitzgerald's favorite words) wave of performers at the Gophs. Just consider: on their first offensive possession, the 'Cat front seven consisted of ends Quentin Williams and Tyler Scott, tackles Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli, and linebackers Damien Proby and David Nwabuisi and Collin Ellis; on their second possession, Vince Browne replaced Williams on the line and Bryce McNaul and Chi Chi Ariguzo replaced Proby and Ellis as 'backers; then, on their third, Kevin Watt and Will Hampton and Chance Carter joined Williams on the line and the 'backers were Ellis, Nwabuisi and McNaul.

    "As the season's progressed, we've progressed to have better depth from the standpoint of experience," Fitzgerald would say about the flexibility he now has on that side of the ball. "We felt solid about the depth going into the year. But we just were making too many mental mistakes. Obviously we weren't simple enough, I think we handled that (last) Monday at the press conference. So they've gotten some experience, we've simplified and in between it has now become a Big Ten level defense."

    "I don't like to roll out at all," said DiNardo. "But I realize there are different times in the game where it's better for me to be out so I'm fresh and ready to go in the fourth quarter. I think we've done a pretty good job of that lately. It's definitely important to have the right guys in at the right times and the right guys rested at other times."

    * The reason for the wave, quite obviously, is to keep players fresh. But we wondered if they also benefited from the offense having to face defenders who had different skill sets and employed varied techniques. "We could, for sure, but I haven't thought of it in that sense," said DiNardo, who then brought up a benefit we hadn't considered. "It's more getting a chance to step back, if there's something with your technique or fundamentals you have to adjust, getting out and getting to see someone else kind of gives you a second to reset yourself. But the biggest thing is if you're out for a series early in the game, you're that much more fresh in the fourth quarter. That's going to pay dividends."

    * No one who has been paying attention to the 'Cats will be surprised to know that Fitzgerald also said this on Monday about his defense. "We went through some growing pains there for a month with some inexperience." But, when asked about its improvement, it was a surprise to hear him opine, "I think where we've stepped up the most is leadership behind the scenes. To watch the way that (safety) Brian (Peters) and (corner) Jordan (Mabin) and some of the more experienced guys like Jack DiNardo, they've brought those young guys under their wing a little bit. They spend a lot more time together throughout the course of the week in their film study, and their time together away from us has coaches has really unified that group a little more. Then go out and have success. Confidence or success? Which comes first? I think it's a combination of both, especially when you're a young player. Those guys are playing at a high level right now, have a lot of confidence in themselves and each other. But they're going to see one of their stiffest tests this weekend (when tenth-ranked Michigan State visits Ryan Field)."

    "We've increased the time we're spending here as a unit together," DiNardo later confirmed. "There's always been a good work ethic among the team coming in, watching film and stuff. But now we have it much more structured, much more organized and much more a sense of the older guys leading things. We're watching tape together. Not just a couple d-linemen here, a couple linebackers there. We're getting linebackers, D-linemen, secondary all on the same page watching tape together. That's big. Beside just the mental input, it's so overused, but I have to go back to the camaraderie and closeness, it's definitely increased. We had some rough times early in the season. . .and when your back is against the wall, when we lost five games in a row, we really did realize, 'Hey, we're done here in a few months if we don't get things turned around.' So there was definitely a sense of urgency."

    * The 'Cats, last Saturday, faced fourth downs at the Gophs' 34, 28, 30 and 11, and each time they eschewed field goal attempts and went for it. The reasons for that were clear the first three instances (which, by the way, they converted into first downs). They were going into a wicked wind that made the kicks, said Fitzgerald, "outside where (place kicker) Jeff (Budzien) felt comfortable and we felt comfortable, but were also too short to punt the ball. They were manageable fourth down situations, so that would lead to that."

    But the fourth instance, which came with 1:16 remaining, was manageable and would have, if successful, given them a three-possession lead. But, Fitzgerald went on, "If we get a first down, the game's over. We had a run-pass option there for Kain (Colter), he decided to run the football. . .and we ended not picking that one up. I'd do that one again. At the end of the day, you kick the field goal, yeah, you go up three scores. But the negative is you get that field goal blocked into the wind, you could give up the score. So maybe I focused too much on the negative there. But I thought we were firmly in control of that game, and field position dictated a lot of that too. I have a lot of confidence in Jeff and that unit. But that wind was howling."

    * Quickly noted: Guard Brian Mulroe had 10 knockdowns against the Gophs and graded out at 92, which were the reasons he won his second straight Offensive Big Playmaker of the Game Award. "Playing real physical, real consistent," Fitzgerald said of him. Said Mulroe himself, "Usually you'd expect Dan, Kain or (wide receiver Jeremy) Ebert to get it. They could easily get it every week. But it's cool, it's cool. Take it for what it is though.". . . Asked to compare Mulroe and tackle Al Netter, whom he lines up next to, Fitzgerald demurred. "That left side has been consistent all year. To say one is playing better than the other would be a spite of the other guy," he said. "I give them both a lot of credit. Al has done it just a little longer as a senior, this will be his 51st start, him and (right guard) Ben (Burkett), this will be their 51st start, those guys have just been stalwarts up there. They've been consistent, Al's really taken over the leadership role the last two years. But I really like the way Brian's come on, I think he'll be the heir apparent next year to Al from a leadership standpoint. That gives me a lot of confidence not only for now, but for the future.". . . DiNardo said the defensive rotation is scripted and that the coaches "Definitely like to do that one time early in the game and one time early in the third quarter. There is a script, but it all depends on the situation and the game. The game situation really dictates whether you're able to stick to your plan or not. If we're in a tough situation where you wouldn't like to put a young guy in there, they're not going to do that.". . . Venric Mark, who had kickoff returns of 44 and 42 yards against the Gophs, was the Special Teams Player of the Game. He is also, Fitzgerald noted, just one of four players in the Football Bowl Subdivision to have six kickoff returns of better than 40 yards. . . And let's not forget running back Jacob Schmidt, who had a third-down pickup, a fourth-down pickup, a rushing touchdown and averaged 5.3 yards-per-carry against the Gophs.

    * And finally, after their win, the 'Cats were addressed in the locker room by Gary Barnett, Fitzgerald's old mentor who was on hand for the reunion of his 1996 team. "One of those moments," Fitzgerald said of it, "that'll be in the top five in my life as coach."

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