It has been an arduous month for 'Cat quarterback Trevor Siemian. He threw for 135 yards in their loss at Penn State; completed only one pass for four yards in their victory at Minnesota; and, last Saturday at home against Nebraska, connected on 42.8 percent of his 35 attempts for 116 yards. But Wednesday, after practice, he stood outside his team's locker room and said this when asked if his considerable confidence has been shaken. "No. No. I wouldn't say that. You can't (let that happen)," he said. "Obviously I haven't been lighting it up the last couple weeks. But I'm still confident. I know what I can do, I know what our receivers can do and I'm comfortable in the system. I think that gives us a chance to be pretty successful moving forward."
So why the lack of success in October?
"It comes down to me, Kain (Colter) and the receivers being able to win our one-on-ones," he said simply. "Win our one-on-ones. That's the biggest thing. People are going to put pressure on us. They're going to try to put their best guys on our best guys, and we've got to win. That's all."
Six times against the Huskers there were clear one-on-ones, the 'Cat receivers here running fly patterns along the sideline and Siemian attempting to find them far down the field. He did that once, on his 26-yard touchdown pass to Tony Jones. But three other times he and Jones failed to connect, and that was true too of the balls he threw toward Rashad Lawrence and Kyle Prater. "A couple balls I want back from last week. A couple miscommunications," Siemian would say on reflection. "But those are 50-50 plays a lot of times. I've got to do a better job of giving our guys a chance to get the ball and our guys have got to make the play on some of those balls. That's what they're on scholarship for. If we keep throwing them, we're going to get a couple of them like we got that one. So we're not too worried about it."
But is his frustrated?
"Am I frustrated? Yeah. From losing a little bit, yeah," he finally said. "As a competitor, I think everybody's a little frustrated. But I'm really not letting that affect how I play, or I try not to let it affect how I play. We've got a good team. We're a couple plays away from being 8-0 right now. We all know that, so nobody's panicking. That's not the sense right now...The guys have done a good job flushing it (the Nebraska loss), and we're really focused on this week and getting another chance to play. That's the good thing about football. You get another chance every week."
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Starting 'Cat corner Nick VanHoose had been injured earlier and now, in the fourth quarter against the Huskers, his sub Quinn Evans went down as well. That brought on the redshirt sophomore C.J. Bryant and Nebraska did the expected. They targeted him. "I knew it was coming. I knew exactly what was coming," he recently recalled with a small smile. "I saw them make all their checks and look my way, so."
So what did he think at that moment?
"Just bring it. That's the mentality you have to have. I felt pretty poised out there. Now I've got to continue to do that and continue to do the things I was taught to do."
We checked in with Bryant since VanHoose and Evans are listed as doubtful for Saturday's homecoming game with Iowa, which -- just like Nebraska -- is sure to test the callow corner who's expected to see time in their stead. Does he feel pressure in that situation? "No. Not really. To me, it's just go out there and do what you were taught to do. We've practiced a lot. So. Just take it like that." Has he sought advice from anyone? "I take it as my own challenge. Everybody is different in how they approach the game. There's all different mentalities." What's his mentality? "The best one is be ruthless and play with poise. I think I'm a physical corner. I think I can bring that to the backfield."
Now we brought up the adage that a corner is on an island, and told him that his will be in the spotlight Saturday as Iowa tests him.
"That's what you're taught as a corner," he evenly replied. "I remember in high school, my coach took me aside before my first varsity game. He pointed to (the opponent's) crowd and told me, 'When you play corner, all eyes are on you. You make a mistake, all eyes are on you. You make a big play, all eyes are on you.' This will be level two of that, I guess, with a bigger crowd."
And what does he think when he knows all eyes will be on him?
"I get to play in front of people and show them my talents, that's the biggest thing. I enjoy it when I get out there."
THE DECISION: Senior Demetrius Dugar, a starting corner when the season opened, got so sick last Friday that he did not even attend Saturday's game with the Huskers. But, on Wednesday, Pat Fitzgerald said he was back and available for duty against Iowa, which is why he was asked how he decides between experience and physical skills. "You just go with the hot hand, you know," he said, beginning another of those occasional soliloquies that offers a peek into the inner-workings of his program. "A great example is the World Series right now. (Giant pitcher Tim) Lincecum (who is usually a starter). You put him in the pen. Why? It's a good role for him and he can help them win.
"You can learn a lot from all that stuff. I think it carries over in all sports. With our ball club, we've got guys, we're going through competition every day. Every rep will count through tomorrow. We made changes a couple weeks ago based on our two-minute drill on Thursday, the way guys executed that drill. So. We're far from being where you know you're going to have (Lance) Briggs and (Brian) Urlacher and Peanut (Tillman, a trio of longtime Bears defenders). We don't have that right now. We don't have that luxury as a staff.
"So we've got to evaluate everything. We evaluate all the way to their Friday tests when they turn them in, the Friday video test. Through that, maybe we've had a little bit too much fluidity. I don't know. But the guys have to perform, they've got to perform consistently, and if they do that, by us giving them a good plan and adjusting it well for them, we give ourselves a chance to win. So we've got a big part of that too as coaches, making sure we're not putting too much on their plate and we give them the answers and solutions if we're struggling a little bit."
QUICKLY NOTED: Expect an expanded role for true freshman superback Dan Vitale, who caught the first touchdown pass of his career against the Huskers. "I think Danny's really grown," explained Fitzgerald. "As you could see a week ago, we've put more on his plate. We've gotten him more involved in the kicking game. We've brought him along probably a little quicker than we brought along (former 'Cat superback) Drake (Dunsmore). That's no slight at Drake. Drake had a great, great freshman year too. But Danny being a running back, he's seen a little bit more. He's got a bright, bright future.". . . But last weekend wasn't all bright for Vitale. Wheaton Warrenville South, his alma mater, lost to Wheaton Warrenville North, which happens to be the alma mater of running back Mike Trumpy. That would explain why Vitale was spotted wearing a Wheaton North T-shirt. "A little bit of humble pie after scoring his first touchdown, wearing his rival's jersey," Fitzgerald said with a laugh. "Yeah. It's illegal to gamble in the NCAA. But a little friendly rivalry is always fun.". . . We wondered if Fitzgerald checked on the mental health of place kicker Jeff Budzien, who missed a potential game-winning 53-yarder late against the Huskers. "Jeff's kicked the ball really, really well all year," he said. "He put a great swing on it, it drifted a little bit, faded a little bit to the right. If we executed one of the three plays prior, he makes that kick. He's had a great year. He's won us multiple football games this year. So." So he's not worried that the miss will adversely affect Budzien? "Not at all. Not at all. He hit a 54-yarder today in practice. So I'm not worried about it at all."
AND FINALLY: A shout-out to offensive tackle Pat Ward, who Wednesday was named a recipient of an NFF National Scholar-Athlete Award and one of the 15 finalists for the prestigious Campbell Award honoring the best scholar-athlete in college football. He is an engineering major; has started 34 straight games for the 'Cats; carries a 3.94 GPA; has not decided where he will use the $18,000 postgraduate scholarship that comes with his Award; and -- like most all offensive linemen -- has a pleasant, self-effacing manner. "It's really just a tremendous honor. It's real humbling to be recognized among the most elite student-athletes in the country," he said when asked about his award. But, we had to wonder, since the Campbell is considered the scholar-athlete's Heisman Trophy, would he be practicing that familiar pose. Here he laughed out loud and said, "I don't think so."