Checking in with. . .
REDSHIRT FRESHMAN CORNER NICK VANHOOSE, who three Saturdays ago had a tough afternoon even as the 'Cats defeated Indiana. Afterward, in conversation, he said that it was his worst game mentally of the season, that he would soon be talking to his position coach Jerry Brown about his performance and that he was relishing the opportunity to redeem himself. "Yeah, I definitely feel I've done that," he more recently said to the last point. We were talking here days after he was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week for his work against Minnesota (which included breaking up three potential touchdown passes) and now he continued, "I've locked it in for the past two games a lot better with getting the coverages down. Mentally, I'm just going over things in my head a lot better."
And his conversation with Brown, what was that about?
"How, when things get tough, keep your head up. He still had all the faith in me to go out there and get the job done. He basically wanted to see what I thought about the (Indiana) game and I obviously told him I had a bad taste in my mouth about it. So I had to come out and prove myself the last two games."
SENIOR OFFENSIVE GUARD BRIAN MULROE, whose line opened up some holes against Minnesota that were bigger than the mouth of even the loudest TV bloviator. The smile on his face was nearly as big when we brought up those moments and then, when asked how it feels when things are working so well, he enthused, "It's awesome. Brandon Vitabile (the center) said it best. He said we had more fun on the offensive line (against the Gophs) than we had earlier in the season. It showed. We're in there talking. 'Let's keep it going.' It's fun. It's nice when things work out like that. No offensive lineman's going to complain about a 50-yard touchdown run. We're all running down after (Venric Mark). We're not going to catch him, obviously. But we want to chase him down before he gets back to the sideline."
Then we asked about the adage that offensive linemen like run blocking, where they are the aggressor, more than pass blocking, where they must absorb the first blow.
"It's awesome to have that feeling that you can grind, grind teams up four and five yards at a pop and then break one loose," he said, his smile still in place. "Pass blocking, you're more passive. Run blocking, you can cut it loose. You have to be on balance and everything, low pads. But you can cut it loose."
...MULROE again, who had this to say about quarterback Kain Colter: "He'll do whatever he can for the team. It's awesome knowing you've got a guy like that who'll do anything. I just hope he doesn't start playing offensive line. No. It's fun. It's always good having him out there. He's a great playmaker. I'm glad he's on our side of the ball."
COLTER HIMSELF, who had this to say about the dynamic Mark: "He fears nothing. He's always out there trying to pick a fight. He's not going to back down from anybody. He always talks like he's 240 pounds and can take it up the middle, and he's 150 pounds. (Ed. note: There was a smile here.) But that's good, that's something you need in your tailback. Fearless and just able, if we need a yard or two, he's not scared to go in there and get it. That's all part of his attitude and I wouldn't want it any other way."
COACH PAT FITZGERALD, who was discussing wide receiver Kyle Prater. He, of course, is the highly regarded transfer from USC who nearly scored his first TD as a 'Cat against the Gophs, yet is still finding his way to the Northwestern attack. "I'll go back to what I said before the season. I tried to temper some expectations for Kyle because he had not played a lot of football," Fitzgerald said here. "Now, what are we, going into week eight? Now he's starting to get himself in shape, get more comfortable with everything. You've seen how, the last few weeks, he's gotten more balls go his way. He's in a rotation with Tony (Jones) back there and both those guys are playing pretty well. So I'm excited about the future for Kyle. As we move forward, I just think his play is going to improve."
FITZGERALD AGAIN, since his 'Cats have faced Indiana coming off its bye week, have faced Minnesota coming off its bye week and must now face Nebraska coming off its bye week. "We've got two weeks until our bye and I told the guys that I'm going to drive them as hard as I can until then, then we'll rest. Then we'll take a little time and heal up," he said. "But right now we've just got to keep driving, keep driving, keep grinding. That's one of the things (Navy SEALS) Chief (Robert) Stella talked to the guys about in training camp. Embracing the journey, embracing the grind. (Ed. note: The phrase that afternoon up on the beach in Kenosha was actually, "Embrace the suck.") That's one of the hallmarks of the training we try to put our guys through. Embracing it and having a great attitude about it, kind of where the D line is now. They're talking about being on the Fun Train. I don't know who came up with that original idea, but they're on the Fun Train. I don't know. It's a nasty world in the D-line world. But they're on the Fun Train."
JUNIOR DEFENSIVE TACKLE WILL HAMPTON, who came up with the idea on one of those mornings the 'Cats were preparing for Minnesota. "Yes, I am the creator and the originator of the Fun Train," he said with a chuckle. "One day in practice, we're off to a slow start and the dance could have gone south. But instead the guys came together and we started doing the little choo-choo. It ended up being our best practice of the year and I think it carried over to the game."
But why "Fun Train"?
"You know, once a train gets started, it's really hard to stop it. And when we start having fun, I feel when the D line, when we all start playing together and having fun, it's hard for anybody to stop us too."
REDSHIRT DEFENSIVE END DEONTE GIBSON, who is experiencing the grind referred to by Fitzgerald for the very first time. He admitted it can be rough. He admitted it can get hectic. He admitted it can be difficult to find time enough to eat-and-sleep. Yet he is relishing this journey he is on and here is why. "I've talked to guys who've gone four or five years here without taking a varsity snap, a legitimate snap. Guys who have grinded their whole careers but just cannot stay healthy," he explained. "They tell me, 'You never know when your opportunity's going to be there and when it's going to leave you. So you just have to be humble and gracious and just keep grinding and accept it and embrace it all.' That serves as a lot of motivation. You're not only playing for yourself and your family. You're playing for guys who couldn't do it. You talk to them and you feel for their situation. I think about those guys who told me they couldn't play and I play for them too."