Checking in with. . .
. . .DANIEL JONES, the young corner who was all over Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree last Saturday as the 'Cats' game with the Wolverines rushed toward its conclusion. Now here came the Hail Mary pass from Devin Gardner and, Jones would recall, "I was just trying to knock the ball down. After that play, I think there would have been six seconds left on the clock. So I was just trying to knock the ball down and live to play another play and end the game."
"It was another of those luck-of-the-bounce type plays. I thought I was in great position. I was the first guy up. I actually hit the ball and, in my mind, I'd just made the play that ended the game. But it happened to fall into his arms. It was just an unfortunate bounce for us."
And when he saw the ball in Roundtree's arms?
"I couldn't believe he caught it. Like I said, I thought I did everything right. I was on top of the route, the first guy up in the air and hit the ball. I just thought, 'That's the way the ball bounces sometimes.' Lucky bounce for them, and we just have to play and finish from there."
That bounce, of course, set up the Wolverines field goal that sent the game into overtime, where they would close out the 'Cats. So, Jones was finally asked, would he do something differently if he had a chance for a Mulligan?
"I would be more aggressive and try to catch the ball as opposed to trying to knock it down," he said. "I would just be more aggressive to the ball, and just get the ball back, and assure the game's over."
. . .TYLER SCOTT, the defensive end and 'Cats sack leader who himself was involved in another of the memorable plays on which that game turned. This one came early in the fourth quarter and with the Wolverines backed up near their own goal line, and here he came clean off the left edge with Gardner in his sights. "I read the play. I saw it was a naked or a boot," he remembered. "I came in there and he caught (sight of me) at the last second. He's got great feet. He put his foot in the ground and came back up and I was just unable to get him down to the ground. He's an athletic guy and got the ball off somehow."
Gardner was in the end zone at that last second and so, by getting the ball off, he not only saved his team a safety. He also kept alive a drive that ended in the Michigan touchdown that gave it a 28-24 lead. "After the game, it was something that haunted me a little bit. It would have been a big play," Scott would say when asked if that was the case. "But there's nothing I can do about it now. I've just got to focus on this week and on how to get better."
That, of course, has been one of the 'Cat themes after that enervating loss, and so here we wonder about the difficulty of flushing such a huge disappointment.
"It's definitely hard to do in the moment and on that day," Scott finally said. "But once you watch the film and realize that game's over and there's nothing you can do, you've got to let it go. Just like everything else in life, you've got to put it behind you and keep moving forward. That's what this team's done well. We've responded as we've lost, and we're looking forward to this week (and their game at Michigan State)."
. . .VENRIC MARK, the diminutive tailback who was knocked out late in that game with the Wolverines. Earlier on this day his coach, Pat Fitzgerald, had said it was likely that he would play against the Spartans, which was now mentioned to him. "Likely to play?" he repeated, scorn just dripping there from his words. "I'm going to play this weekend. That's a given."
The pugnacity he reflected here was only appropriate since it mirrored the manner in which he operates on the field.
"My tenacity, the way I run," he will say when asked what he feels is his best trait, one that helped him again surpass 100 yards rushing against Michigan. "My teammates tell me to always be like that. You can see I'm not a very big back. But I use the way I run to my advantage. I'm always under control. Mentally, I'm not an angry person. But I do run angrily."
This called up an earlier conversation with Mark, who mentioned then that he has long had a chip on his shoulder since opponents always looked at him as just-that-little-guy. But after all his success this season, we then wondered, do opponents still call him out about his size?
"Yeah, that's the buzz. But that's part of football," he said. "Of course, I do a lot of talking back. I think it's all fun and games. At the end of the day, if we come out victorious, I'm going to shake the other guy's hand, if they come out victorious, I'm going to shake the other guy's hand."
What about the chip, is it still there? "It has to still be there. The season's not over. We still have three more games left and we plan on winning all of them."
. . .TIM RILEY, the superback who did the rarest of things against the Wolverines for a player at his position. He carried the ball. "That's what Coach (Bob) Heffner was saying. They hadn't had the superback run the ball since he's been here," he would say. (This is Heffner's fourth season with the 'Cats.) "So, yeah, I was definitely surprised when they actually called it in the game since we put a lot of stuff in during the week that we don't always call in the game. So when they called it, I was surprised. But I was excited at the same time."
He had been a star running back in high school, where he also played safety, and had been recruited to play linebacker, where he toiled until he was moved to his current slot as the 'Cats practiced for their bowl game last January. His last carry, then, had been smash up the middle on a successful two-point conversion in a 2008 state playoff game. Still, thinking back to that moment the ball was stuck in his belly last Saturday, he said, "It was weird. It's kind of like riding a bike. It took me back to the old days."
Did he have to change his mindset when he moved to offense after spending three seasons on the other side of the ball?
"At the end of the day, it's still football. And you can bring a lot over that you do on defense to the offensive side," he said. "You can take a linebacker's mentality to how you block people. There's different rules, obviously, on the two sides of the ball. But at the end of the day, it's still football."
. . .PAT FITZGERALD, who was asked "what happens" to the 'Cats in the fourth quarters of close games: "More times than not, we win. That's what happens. That's what happens. In that situation, we're very confident. The overwhelming majority of the time, we win. So. I love that we've raised the expectations, and the expectations are 10 times higher inside our locker room, inside our football family. But you've just got to keep playing. Like I said after the game, I've been in the other locker room and it's pretty special. Unfortunately, I've also been in a locker room like we were in Saturday. When you come back the next day is when you really learn about who you are. It's funny. A bunch of the guys tell me some of the (negative messages) they've gotten and received (after the Michigan game). But your program trudges on. The young men trudge on, keep grinding. To thee of little faith, find somewhere else to have little faith. That's all I'm saying."