BEEN THERE. LET'S NOT DO THAT: The linebacker David Nwabuisi is not only a much-experienced senior. He is also a captain, a leader, a ballast of this year's 'Cats, who now find themselves heading to Minnesota off their first defeat of the season. A fall ago that first defeat sent them spinning into a five-game losing streak and so here, with his stature in mind, we asked Nwabuisi just what he was doing to make sure a similar fate did not befall this team. "It's important to realize, one, you can't go back and change the result of that game. All you can do is push on forward," he began.
"You've got to be able to keep your guys loose, keep them confident, help them understand we've still got a great team here, we've still got a great chance to do something special. But if we hang on that loss for too long, or start to over-think everything, or doubt our abilities, it's going to come back and bite us. So I'm just trying to keep everyone loose, keep everyone confident and understanding that we have a great team here."
Is that what happened last year? Did that team hold onto the Army loss too long?
"I don't know if we held onto it too long. But I think after the Illinois game (a week later) maybe there was just kind of a wearing feeling on us. Guys got down. We just lost two games we felt we should have won, and guys kind of got down on themselves and started questioning some things and the losses just kept coming. We had to come back together as a group, get our confidence back and start playing out there and having more fun. That's what it came down to. Having more fun. For a while there, it looked like we were playing out there with no real emotion. We weren't having enough fun out there, weren't getting on guys' hats. We've got to make sure we keep that up now."
Earlier this week defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt said this team is different from last year's. In what ways is it different?
"We're a tighter group of people. We blend together a lot better. We've got guys hanging out from all position groups. At the same time, we're loose. We're loose with each other. We understand when it's time to get to business. But we joke around with each other all the time out there at practice. Between snaps, you might catch us joking around. But once it's time to focus, we all zone back in. That's one of the things we've got going for us."
LIVE AND LEARN: Last Monday, at his weekly press conference, Pat Fitzgerald was also asked how his 'Cats could regain momentum after losing at Penn State. He mentioned some practical matters, some Xs and Os stuff, but then -- not insignificantly -- concluded his answer by noting, "We're a different team. We learned a lot a year ago."
Just what did they learn?
"Last year, what did we learn, number one, I thought the difficulty of looking at it on a play-by-play basis. I thought we kind of got caught up in the snowball starting to roll in a negative way," he said. "And then I thought we learned we have to roll some guys out when they're not playing the way we need them to play. I think you've seen we've done that throughout this year. It's high expectations and if you're not playing up to expectations, we're going to continue to compete every day and every rep and go from there. I think those are the big things that we learned."
Is this year's team different from last year's, as both he and Arnfelt said?
"Yeah. I think when you go through something like we did a year ago, you look inwardly first and say, 'What could we have done?' There's some things, frankly, I'm not sharing with you. It's none of your business" -- he's smiling here -- "Not that I don't love you, but I'm not going to share it with you. But there's some things we definitely learned and we talked about those and how you correct it and how you steer the thing away. The big thing for us as coaches is put the ball in the playmakers' hands, let the playmakers go make plays. That's the big thing we've got to do."
High expectations. Continued competition. Rolling players in. These are themes he has touched on often this season. So is Saturday's game something of a test case for these tweaks he and his staff have affected?
"Yeah. I think so. And we'll see where we're at," Fitzgerald admitted. "What're playing now, eight seniors in the rotation? We're a young ball club. I'm not saying that as an excuse. I'm saying we're doing a lot of teaching. But it's awesome. I'm having more fun than I've ever had as a coach. There's so much that's going into teaching guys how to think, how to act. You guys know I'm a big John Wooden (the late UCLA basketball coach) fan. He used to teach them how to put their socks on right. We're kind of in that mentality a little bit. OK. This is how we do it. This is how we go on the road. This is how we respond to things. Eventually, they're going to get it. Again. I think we're a work in progress. We're far, far from being, 'Hey, we've arrived.' We're not there yet."
SHOE ON OTHER FOOT: The 'Cats, of course, use both Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian at quarterback, which gives migraines to the defensive coordinators who must face them. But now come the Gophs, who may roll out either MarQueis Gray or Max Shortell as their quarterback. Gray, a dual threat who was the starter when the season began, sprained his left knee and ankle on Sept. 15 against Western Michigan. But he returned to practice this week and, said his coach Jerry Kill, was "60 to 70 percent" on Wednesday. So the 'Cats may see him or they may see Shortell, who is a more conventional, one-dimensional quarterback. "Lot of stress," Fitzgerald said of that uncertainty.
"Everybody knows we're going to play two. We don't know who's going to play. I saw that Jerry did the old call-me-maybe yesterday. 'Hopefully, maybe, he's going to play sometime, we think, this week, maybe.' Jerry and I are good friends. So. He's going with the call-me-maybe technique, which I would too, if I were him. So we expect MarQueis to play. He's as dynamic a quarterback as there is in this league. A very athletic quarterback who can do a lot of things well. So it'll be a challenge that way. And if Max is in there, he's thrown the ball incredibly well."
QUICKLY NOTED: The 4-1 Gophs are coming off a 30-13 loss to Iowa. . . Shortell, on the season, is 51-of-86 for 688 yards and six touchdowns. But he has also thrown four interceptions. Gray, despite being out for nearly a month, is still his team's second-leading rusher with 280 yards on 45 carries. Its true leading rusher is the 5-foot-10, 219-pound sophomore Donnell Kirkwood, who has gained 394 yards on 93 carries. "A very physical back, very similar to what we saw a week ago," Fitzgerald said of him ... Fitzgerald, as he noted, is a long-time friend of Goph coach Kill, who held the same job at Northern Illinois before moving to Minnesota. "I'm a big fan of his except for one week of the year. He does a terrific job," he said of him. . . One thing Kill is noted for is his chicanery on special teams. "He's got a lot of tricks up his sleeve. He's a riverboat gambler," explained Fitzgerald. "He'll take some chances in the kicking game.". . . The Gophs' jerseys feature a GT51 patch and, in each of their games, one of their players wears number 51. This is in honor of their late linebacker Gary Tinsley, who wore that number, was their second-leading tackler last season and died of an enlarged heart in April. . . 'Cat defensive tackle Arnfelt, a native of Lake Elmo, Minn., expects more than 50 family members to attend Saturday's game.
AND FINALLY: On a lighter note: Both 'Cat offensive line coach Adam Cushing and Goph offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover are University of Chicago grads, which prompted Fitzgerald to say, "That's a good story there. Two of the smartest dumb guys in the country coaching college football with University of Chicago degrees. It's like us Northwestern guys. What are we thinking?"