LOOKIN' BACK: There were any number of reasons we wanted to check in with offensive tackle Patrick Ward. There was, first of all, his selection as the 'Cats offensive player of the South Dakota game. There was, in addition, that one minus he had received for his performance last Saturday, that negative blip he got for his work on -- of all things -- a quarterback sneak. Finally, and not unimportantly, there was the homage paid his mental acuity by Pat Fitzgerald, who had noted in awe that Ward was a straight A student except for a single A-minus.
"There were a couple A-minuses. Unfortunately," he admitted when we did check in with him.
"Yeah. I definitely wanted the A, so I was a little bit upset. But you can't really change anything now."
So what wasn't perfect about his block on that quarterback sneak?
"I just didn't have my eyes inside. So I could have covered up the defensive end a little bit more."
Could he believe it when Adam Cushing, his position coach, graded him down for that?
"He was right. I could have gotten my eyes inside. But it wasn't like it affected the play or anything."
NAME CHANGE: The 6-foot-10, 310-pound Ward is in his fourth season as a starter on the offensive line, which this season dropped the cry to have Hog Pride ("Hogs get slaughtered," Cushing reminded them last offseason) and instead adopted the stance that it is a line full of Big Cats. "We're trying to be fierce, aggressive in our playing style," he said when asked how he and his mates reflected those creatures. "We go out every single week and we want the other team to know that they played a Big Ten offensive line by playing hard every single play, by finishing plays, by letting them know that we're there all day and that there is never going to be a play off for them."
IMAGE MAKEOVER: Those Big Cats have been fierce enough and aggressive enough this season to, through four games, transform the 'Cats themselves from a pass-oriented offense into one that favors the rush. Venric Mark, their starting running back, is averaging 99.8 yards-per-game (fifth best in the Big Ten) and, together, their 221.2 ypg rushing average is third best in the conference. "It's great," Ward said when asked how he felt about this change of emphasis.
"It means that everyone has a lot of confidence in you to go out and execute. And that is where you really get a chance to be a dominating offensive line, in the run game. It's like, 'Hey, you know what we're going to do. We're going to come, we're going to run the ball right at you, we're going to be physical, and there's nothing you can do to stop it."
And how many times a game would he like to run the ball?
He chuckled and then said, "As many as we can."
ANOTHER TOUGH CAT: We also checked in with running back Mike Trumpy for the first time since his monster game against Boston College, whom he blistered for 106 yards and a touchdown on just 16 carries (6.6ypc). This was a landmark performance by the 210-pound junior, who with it put his recent past far behind him and announced that he was fully back from the brutal knee injury he suffered in last season's week four. That type of recovery, a full recovery, is never guaranteed after an athlete rips up a body part like the ACL he tore. Often, too often, that athlete never again trusts that particular part and so never again regains his previous form. "I believe that," said Trumpy when asked about that mental hurdle.
"That's why, from the beginning of rehab and stuff, I kept thinking, 'I have nothing to lose. I can't hold back. I have to trust it.' That's what I've done so far. That's definitely tough. It's definitely tough the first time doing something, jumping, running, cutting, whatever. But I tried as had as I could to have an attitude to just trust it, trust the trainers and the doctors."
STILL: There is another axiom applicable to an athlete returning from a major injury and it is this. His hopefully-healed body part must take a blow, must absorb a hit, must get twisted up with no dire consequences before he can be sure it is indeed fully healed. Trumpy did not remember the specific play when this happened for him. But, he continued, "I would say in practice, taking the full-on first hit, getting tied up in the bottom of the pile. Then the first rep in the Syracuse (season-opening) game was like the first time I felt I was really back and got all the surgery and rehab in the back of my mind."
Does he ever think back to those times of surgery and rehab?
"I do occasionally," he said. "Not often. It wasn't the greatest time, so I tend to forget about it. But there are times when I think about where I was at, where I've come from and how long the journey has been." TO CLARIFY: Back on Monday, you may recall, linebacker Damien Proby said this when asked about the 'Cats attitude as they approach their Saturday conference opener against Indiana at Ryan Field. "We still have a big thing to prove to other Big Ten members of who we actually are and what we can do," he said. "That's something he (Fitzgerald) puts a lot of emphasis on."
"I just think we're focused on improving," Fitzgerald began when asked about that comment. But then, after a pause, he went on a bit more emotionally.
"We didn't have the season we wanted a year ago and we took a beating publicly and we got what we deserved," he would now say. "If we want to change that perception, then we need to change it to the other way around. I don't think any of the guys came here to have the kind of season we had a year ago. That was kind of the off-season talk."
What does he mean by perception?
"Awww, I think a lot of garbage, to be quite honest with you. We don't listen to it once we get into the season. But the whole offseason, it just seems the only people who believe in what we're doing are in our football family, and that's fine. That's pretty typical around the country. Ah, I don't know. We've been to a bunch of bowl games in a row and done some really special things, and it'd be nice if we could continue to keep that going."
How does that motivate his players?
"I think it motivated us in the offseason. I think as we've moved forward, our focus has been on how we're performing or the lack thereof. I think that was all stuff in the preseason, stuff we talked about in camp."
We know he doesn't care about polls. But does the fact that the 'Cats are still unranked reflect that lack of national respect?
"I think so," he finally said. "But at the end of the day, it's totally out of your control. You've got teams that aren't playing very well who're still ranked because they were ranked preseason. It's the same kind of things that happened back when I was playing. I'm not so sure those things shouldn't be done until you play three or four conference games.
"We've had a good preseason. But we're going to learn a lot about ourselves over the next month. Typically, we've been pretty crappy in the month of October. So we got a lot of work to do."