"WE'RE CLOSE:" Pat Fitzgerald has offered this assurance often this season. He did it again last Monday, some 46 hours after his team's enervating loss at Michigan, and he did it once more on Tuesday, just after his 'Cats completed their morning practice. It was then that we asked, "To what?"
"Being a championship team. That's what we're close to," he said with no hesitation. "We're going to win football games. I'm not worried about that. But we're close to being a championship team, and that's our expectation. I'll keep saying it until we get there. And then, when we get there, I'll say we've got to start back over. That's what our expectations are. That's what we aspire to be. Gone are the days of maybe-we'll-win, gone are the days of maybe-we'll-play-in-the-post-season. Our internal expectations are to be champions.
"That's not necessarily going to happen for us this year in the Big Ten. But when I say that, that's what I mean. We're close. Do you get tired of saying it? Yeah, you do. But it's a journey, it's a grind, and I think we're building it. We appreciate the support of the administration giving us the time to build it. We appreciate the effort and the fight our young men are giving to get us there. Got to coach them better. We've got to get over the hump and break that door down. You know. I think there's 12 teams that have the same kind of goal set. If it was just about us, it'd be a lot easier. But it's not."
GOT TO GET OVER THE HUMP AND BREAK THAT DOOR DOWN. Those words rattled around the brainpan as Tuesday went by, and eventually they shook loose the old chicken-egg question that goes like this. To get over the hump, to break down that door, a player needs confidence. But he does not get that confidence until he gets over the hump, until he breaks down that door. So Wednesday, after that morning's practice, we asked Fitzgerald if that was at work with his team.
"Yeah, yeah. I know where you're going here," he said, and then he was off on one of those discourses that offers a broad glimpse of him, his belief system, his methods and his program. "There's varying degrees of confidence here. For some guys, it's kind of like dating. It just works for them and you kind of wonder what kind of magic they've got. But for other guys, they've got to do some different things. So each guy, the way they gain confidence is a little bit different. You can't say it works the same for each guy. For a guy like (true freshman superback Dan) Vitale, took one rep and he was pretty good. (True freshman defensive end Dean) Lowry. Pretty good. (True freshman safety Traveon) Henry. Pretty good. Some other guys, they've got to go and fail at it a little bit and then they go, 'Aaah. I got it now.' Other guys, it takes a couple years for the light bulb to come on.
"I'll give you, for example, myself personally. It took me two years to mature, to stop worrying about a bunch of garbage that didn't matter. Now I couldn't tell you why that happened. It never happened to me in my life in any other thing I did. I think it has a lot to do with that transition to college. And so when you're looking at your ball club, as young as we are right now, we still have some guys going through that process, and honestly football is just a small part of it. I wish it was a lot bigger part of it for them and their confidence because they're doing so well. But in the whole grand scheme of confidence in themselves, it's almost sometimes as a coach you've got to pump their tires up. That's what I was talking about why I was a knucklehead on Saturday (when he celebrated a roughing-the-passer penalty against Michigan by jumping in the air countless times).
"We've got some guys, we're learning how to win. We've got a lot of young guys that are learning how to win. Having to be the guy out there, having to be on the sideline, a lot of it, things happen, the flow and momentum and on the road. A lot of guys haven't been here before. A lot of (negative) stuff had happened (to his team) and I'm listening, that's why I have only one headphone, so I can listen. And I'm like, 'I've got to do something here (to get them going).' Last year, I didn't have to do that. We had so many older guys who had played a lot. This year, you can say, 'Well, coach. It's week 12.' It is. But you know what? It's week 12 with a bunch of young guys who are learning.
"What I like is their attitude from the standpoint of, yeah, it stunk coming home. But we came back on Monday, they got it. They got it. Things happen. I think sometimes when you're young you're just young enough to not let it linger. That's kind of where we've been. After a couple tough deals this year, we've responded. So far, through two days, we've responded. Now we'll see what we do tomorrow (in practice). I'm going to learn a lot about us early us early in the game. I'm going to learn a lot about this ball club early in the game. So. I'm awful excited about where we're going. We've got to finish stronger. This is a big game, this has big-time implications about what's going to happen. Our guys get that, and I think they're excited about it."
QUICKLY NOTED: The 'Cats are not the only team to absorb tough losses this season. Michigan State, whom they visit Saturday, has fallen by one to Ohio State, by three to Iowa, by two to Michigan and by four to Nebraska. "I think that shows just how close both programs are," Fitzgerald said of that parallel. . . The 'Cats started all their practices for the Spartans indoors. But on Tuesday, midway through, the starting defense went outside while their offensive counterparts stayed behind. On Wednesday, the sides flipped locales. "We're typically concerned with tempo and things of that nature (at practice)," Fitzgerald explained. "But with the number of things Michigan State does on both sides of the ball, we wanted to get a few more specific reps down earlier in the week. So we were probably able to get, per side, 30 more reps per day. We just wanted to expose them to more things.". . . The Spartans lead the Big Ten in total defense (288 ypg) and scoring defense (16.3 ppg), and rank in the Top 20 nationally in a total of seven defensive categories. "This is, not only on paper, the best defense that we've seen. But also on when you watch them on tape," Fitzgerald said of it. "They play really well together, they know what they're doing, they can communicate well, tackle well, very fast, very physical. It's going to be a great challenge.". . . The Spartans have a half-dozen receivers with 20-or-more catches. But the bell cow of their offense is running back Le'Veon Bell, who's averaging 124.9 ypg. "We've got to tackle better than we did last Saturday. That's going to be key," Fitzgerald said when asked about stopping him. "I thought at times we tackled really, really well Saturday. Then at times we tackled as poorly as we had all year. So we've got to be much more consistent.". . . 'Cat corner Nick VanHoose, who has missed the last two games, will be a game-time decision come Saturday.
AND FINALLY: Fitzgerald, when asked if it was important for his 'Cats to win Saturday so they can end their season with a winning record on the road: "I don't even know what our record is. You guys know my feeling on stats. I think they're for losers. You can psychoanalyze, babble-ize, whatever you want, everything. When I wear a black sweatshirt, we're 7-0. C'mon. C'mon. We've got to find a way to win. We've got a huge opportunity this week and another one the week after. So our focus is obviously right now in the moment."