* Nick VanHoose did no dance and minced no words early Monday afternoon. He, instead, simply owned up. "I had a lot of mental mistakes and a couple coverage mistakes," the redshirt freshman corner said here, thinking back to his performance Saturday in the 'Cats win over Indiana. "This week was probably my worst game mentally. With the coverages, it was probably my worst game. But got it fixed today in film and I'll go talk about things to (defensive backs) Coach (Jerry) Brown later."
* He had been the 'Cats' most consistent corner through their first four games and early in Saturday's first quarter, on a simple fly down the right boundary, he was there again shadowing Hoosier receiver Kofi Hughes. But then, as the ball descended, he arose a heartbeat late and Hughes came down with a 39-yard reception. "I think the contesting was fine," Pat Fitzgerald would say Monday, thinking of this play and a pair of others. "But there's kind of an old philosophy out there in secondary coverage and wide receiver routes. It's, 'He who jumps first usually catches the ball.' In all those routes, we jumped second. We'll try to jump first this week. It's not a whole lot more complicated than that."
"Fifty-fifty ball. He got up before me," VanHoose would say of this play against Hughes. "We both basically had the ball. He just came down with it."
Then, midway through the third quarter, there again was VanHoose on Hughes's hip, this time tailing him as the Hoosier ran a deep post. Here, as the pass arrived, he dove, but once more Hughes made the reception, this time for 37 yards and a touchdown. "It (the ball) went, literally, right in between my arms," the 'Cat remembered Monday. "I should have definitely got that. I should have definitely got it. I was in perfect position to make the play and just didn't. Sometimes you have a good day and sometimes you don't."
This day, which was not good one for him, ended with VanHoose as an observer, his spot on the field taken by senior Demtrius Dugar.
* On Monday, in his opening remarks at his weekly press conference, Fitzgerald touched on those plays and then declared, "I've got great confidence in those guys. They're playing pretty well."
But on Saturday, in their immediate wake, he had also said, "We were in position and we've got to make plays. I don't have a magic pill for that. I don't have a drill for that. It's called competition. Next man up. Get the job done or the next guy's in."
So here, with VanHoose, we wondered if that competition might make a player look over his shoulder, might make him think he must be perfect if he hoped to keep his job.
"Yes and no," he said. "I try not to worry about it. I usually try to compete and do the best I can and if I get the job, I get the job. If I'm not good enough, I'll find a different role on the team. So I'm not really thinking about the competition. Like when I got taken out in the fourth quarter, I immediately went to Doogie and started talking to him about what the receivers are like. So we're competing, but at the same time we're on the same team at the end of the day."
* It is most probable, come Saturday at Penn State, that the 'Cat corners will again be tested by the long ball. This, after all, has been the M.O. of their opponents all season. "We all take that as a challenge. We're all pretty hyped," VanHoose finally said on Monday when asked about that. "I'm actually pretty excited for the next game so I can hopefully redeem myself a little bit."
* There was little looking back by Fitzgerald on Monday and there was good reason for that. October has arrived and, in recent seasons, that has not been a sterling month for his 'Cats. They entered it 5-0 back in 2008, but during it went only 1-2. They entered it 4-0 in 2010, but during it went an undistinguished 2-2. They entered it 2-1 a fall ago, but during it went a miserable 1-4.
That is why it was a focus of the coaching staff's offseason retreat, where it spent two of its five working hours on the topic of October, and why he and his coaches began talking to the players about it as far back as spring practice. Finally, and inevitably, it was more recently discussed with those players, who (not unimportantly) have just started classes. "We need to have an approach of no excuses," Fitzgerald would say Monday when asked about his 'Cats' October blahs. "We've got to time-manage. Obviously we started school full-fledged this week. We've got to be able to do a terrific job of handling our business appropriately and going to class and being where we're supposed to be, which our guys do.
"I mean, we had a 3.04 team GPA last year. I'm not worried about us academically. But we've got to play above a 3.04 on Saturday. How does that sound? That's what we've got to do. We've got to be more consistent on Saturdays here in the month of October. We've been pretty salty in September, we've been pretty good in November. October's our month. We talked about it in the offseason. We talked about having a plan of time-managing better, of making sure we get done what we need to get done when we need to get it done. Being really professional in how we approach it. I'm really challenging our leaders to bring the guys in and not allow the NCAA to hold them back. The NCAA gives you only 20 hours that we (the coaches) can work with them. They've got to be able to overcome that and be professional in their approach."
What has been the issue? Less film study? Less work in the weight room? What?
"Like I said, we're taking the approach of no excuses. I'm going to be really demanding on them this month and I'm not going to tolerate the past. I'll just put it to you that way. Our expectations collectively as a program have risen and we've got to be much better in this month if we want to achieve the goals we have for ourselves. We've started fast. Now we've got to sustain that emotionally, we've got to sustain that focus, we've got to sustain our prep and we've got to take it to a higher level if we want to achieve the things we set out as goals in the offseason. So I've taken a very hard line with the group and hopefully they'll come along with us."
* The linebacker David Nwabuisi and the running back Venric Mark were among the players who met the press Monday after their coach departed. "I guess a lot more gets thrown on our plates in October," the former would say went asked about this issue. "We're finally starting school and getting in the groove of things. But that's really no excuse. It's our job as the older guys to make sure the younger guys are coming along faster once school starts, to make sure they're getting to class but to understand that football's still a commitment too and you've got to spend as much time in the film room and the weight room as you did before in order to keep improving. We've just to keep everyone focused on going 1-0 this week."
"There's always a time for football and there's a time for school," said Mark. "Coming into this month, you have to make sure you still prepare, you have to make sure you come in early sometimes. You might have to lose a little bit of sleep to come in and watch the film."
* Quickly noted: The 'Cats are 5-0 and now ranked in both polls. But, Nwabuisi said Monday, "I've tried to remind my teammates this isn't the first time we've been 5-0. So the hay's not in the barn, as Coach Fitz always says. Just because we have this ranking now doesn't mean that Penn State's going to go, 'Well, we don't get to play Northwestern this week because they're ranked now and get an automatic win.' We've got to keep working hard because every team's going to bring it. We're going to get the best of every team week in, week out, especially now that we're ranked. We've got a big target on our backs. So we have to go out there and show them what we're about every week.". . . Even though he multi-tasked against the Hoosiers, Kain Colter is still listed as the starting quarterback for Saturday's game with Trevor Siemian as his backup. "The game plan will dictate how that gets adjusted during the week. I'd say that with every position," Fitzgerald said when asked about that. . . VanHoose, by the way, is also still listed as the starting left corner. . . One notable look back: Siemian was an impressive 6-of-10 against the Hoosiers on his third-down passing attempts and one of his incompletions was a drop in the end zone. . . Safety Ibraheim Campbell and receiver Christian Jones were both injured against the Hoosiers. On Monday Fitzgerald said, "I'm very optimistic (they) will be back for this game.". . . Done for the season are linebacker Roderick Goodlow (knee injury) and highly touted true freshman defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo (shoulder). The latter appeared briefly against Vanderbilt, but will get a medical redshirt year since he has played in less than 25 percent of his team's games.
* And finally, Fitzgerald, on the expectations that come with being ranked: "I'm not sure there's an expectation change internally. It doesn't really matter to me whether we are or not. It's completely out of our control. We focus on ourselves. Again. I may sound like a broken record. But that's kind of how I talk to the team. We have internal expectations on where we can be and how we can play. That's our focus here."