* Running back Venric Mark sat out the second half of the 'Cats' Saturday win over Michigan State and quarterback Kain Colter was just a part-time combatant in that affair. But Monday, while looking ahead to his team's imminent fray with Illinois, Pat Fitzgerald said, "We expect both Venric and Kain to play. We'll see how it goes practice-wise. But we expect them to play this week."
But he was not as optimistic when it came to corner Nick VanHoose, who has missed the last three games. "I'd say right now the answer would be no, I don't expect him to play," he said. "But we'll see as the week progresses. He's close. He's real close. We'll see."
* Fitzgerald did not divulge the injury that sidelined Mark. But he did say the decision to sit him was collectively made by him and his coaching staff. Then he went on to tell this tale: "I talked to him (Mark) at halftime. I said, 'Listen, I want you to take your stuff off. I want you to take a shower. In the best interest for you not only this week, but long term, I'm going to shut you down for the game.' He wasn't very happy. But his response in the second half was unbelievable. He was ridiculous. I had to push him back on the sideline. We gave him our Twelfth Man Award for his juice and passion on the sideline on Saturday. I'd much rather see him scoring touchdowns, don't get me wrong. But I thought the way he responded was pretty spectacular. This morning I said to him I'm going to be asked if you're going to play, and he's like, 'Absolutely.' Take that for what it's worth."
* The week after the 'Cats fell to Penn State, they bounced back with a win over Minnesota. The week after the 'Cats fell to Nebraska, they bounced back with a win over Iowa. The week after the 'Cats fell to Michigan, they bounced back with a win over the Spartans. "I haven't studied it. Maybe you guys can, it might be a fun study for you," Fitzgerald said Monday with an eye on those facts. "But I don't know if anybody else in the country's responded the way we have. Those have been challenging defeats. It's not like we've walked into a locker room after a game and gone, 'Wow, we just got blown out there.' Or, 'Wow, we got outplayed.' Or, 'Wow, we got out-coached.' We just ended up on the short end, and that's frustrating. But it's also incredibly motivating, you know. And as I look back at the last two games we've played against Illinois, we have not played very well. And that's incredibly motivating to everybody in our football program."
* Still, last Wednesday, the Spartan win was in the future, and here the 'Cats were just days removed from a Michigan loss crushing enough to break even the strongest spirit. "After a couple tough deals this year, we've responded," Fitzgerald said here, but then --not insignificantly -- he added this. "I'm going to learn a lot about this ball club early in the (Spartan) game," he added.
"Number one, I love our character," he said Monday when asked what he had learned. "We talked Wednesday at length, you and I privately, I was going to learn a lot about this group, number one, how we approached the trip. I thought they were very focused. Then early in the game, I thought we showed up to play a Big Ten football game against a very physical opponent on the road. We knew we had to start fast. We got put into some difficult situations with field position offensively, but we were able to pick up some first downs, move the ball a little bit. Again, I'm very critical of our call there, we probably shouldn't have run what we ran. We gave up the safety. But nevertheless we overcame that. I thought we put together a great two-minute drive with a great defensive stop that set it up and put points on the board (at the end of the half). Then we came out in the second half, I thought, with an attitude."
* That game Saturday, of course, was a throwback, a relic from that past when all Big Ten affairs were back alley brawls and just-a-bit-less than wars of attrition. So an attitude was very much needed, and very much evident in the aggressiveness of the 'Cat defense. "I was really proud of the way the guys came to play from the standpoint of the way we responded based on what had happened to them the previous week. That started when we got back from Ann Arbor on the bus," Fitzgerald would say when asked about that group. "There was no question that we prepared properly for last week.
"Now, as I watched the tape, I didn't think we played very well. I thought we played well enough to win. But there's a lot of areas we need to improve. Third down, on both sides of the ball, especially on offense, we weren't very good. I thought our defense, though, did play very physical. We created four turnovers that were critically important. Two goal line stands that were critically important to us being successful. We can still be better on third down, and we have to fit better. There were some runs that we allowed that we didn't fit very well. But I thought the guys played with real solid effort on defense."
"I wouldn't say what we accomplished completely what we've been trying to accomplish because there were still mistakes made," the safety Ibraheim Campbell later added. "But I think there was a little more fight in us because the loss the previous week, it really hurt. It stuck with us, and the only way to get that taste out of our mouth was to win this game. That's what we came out to do and that's what we did."
* Saturday's winning points were provided by place kicker Jeff Budzien, whose 27-yard field goal with 7:30 remaining proved to be the difference. But the talk Monday centered on the 43-yarder he hit with 41 seconds left in the first half, which sent the 'Cats to their locker room with a 6-5 lead. He, you might recall, missed that attempt the first time he tried it, but the play had been whistled dead after Spartan coach Mark Dantonio looked to ice him with a time out. "I knew he called timeout," Budzien said Monday with just the hint of an impish grin. "Usually, at least for me and the other kickers I speak with, they prefer to have that. They can get a swing in. It's like if you were standing over a putt in golf and you could see the break on the green and you could re-hit the putt. Not many coaches who call timeouts have ever kicked a field goal, so they don't understand that it's actually a help.
"So I knew that there was a timeout called and our holder (Brandon Williams), he didn't know if I was going to kick it. So he kind of tipped his right two fingers because he was going to pull it (the ball). But, again, I got to get a swing on it and get a feel for the wind. So I have write a thank you card for that. I prefer to be iced, really."
* And finally, Budzien, who is 15-of-16 this year after going just 6-of-10 a season ago: "I had some unlucky breaks last year, missed a few by a couple inches, or hit a good ball but misplayed the wind. . . (So) I had an off-season of a lot of people questioning our kicking game. I took that personally and worked really hard this summer. It was just a matter of getting comfortable, and the more attempts I get the better I feel. But not much changed at all. I'm just getting attempts and the ones that were three inches right are now in by three inches. It's a good feeling. I'm in a good place. I think as a unit we're in a good place. But I still have two more games left to kick. So I'm not getting overly excited about my past success."