Sept. 16, 2013
Skip Myslenski files this Monday report following Northwestern's weekly press conference at the Nicolet Football Center, where Pat Fitzgerald is thankful to be back on a regular game-week schedule this week.
AT LAST: It has been an unusual three weeks for the 'Cats. In preparation for the late start of their season opener at Cal, they practiced at 9:30 in the evening. Then, after not arriving home from that game until eight on Sunday morning, their preparation for their home opener with Syracuse was abridged. Finally, in the face of both another late start and a flash fall heat wave, their preparation for last Saturday's game with Western Michigan was altered as well. "We have not been able to get into our practice routine due to the circumstances we've been under," Pat Fitzgerald noted Monday, but this week that will finally occur when they move into their usual morning-practice schedule.
"There's no one more ecstatic in the country than me right now to finally get into some normalcy," he then said of that reality. "Hopefully that will be a catalyst to what we've been in my time here, not only as a head coach but as an assistant. We've really embraced the improvement mentality. We've really worked hard in practice to improve fundamentally and execution wise. Hopefully we'll get into that groove now."
So that lack of normalcy has affected his players?
"Of course it's affected them," he said. "There's not been a consistency to what we typically do in our routine. All those excuses are over. Now we get to get into our routine. We're finally getting back to some normalcy."
THE MIND AND REALITY: Players are loath to admit that they are superstitious. But then, in the next breath, they will admit that they listen to the same songs before a game; or that they always sit in the same seat on the bus ride to a game; or that they must stand in the same spot as the National Anthem is played at a game.
We, in fact, recall talking to a former Ohio State quarterback named Rex Kern, who admitted that he made sure to put on his uniform the same way before a game and then told this story. He was late arriving one afternoon and so dressed without thinking, a fact he realized as he was warming up. That so spooked him that he now dashed back to the locker room, took off his uniform (jockstrap included), and put it back on in the order that set his mind at ease.
That is how important routine can be to a player, which should be remembered when reading Fitzgerald's response to a question about his team's performances this season. "We haven't put together three phases of four quarter football yet, and that's our challenge as coaches," he said here. "I'm not making excuses for the guys. But we have not put them into our typical routine in our preparation. Now we go into that. So I expect to see a lot of improvement this week. I expect to see a great week of practice. I expect to see a much-improved football team this Saturday. Again, I'm not making any excuses for our guys. I don't care if we have to go practice in Alaska or practice on Saturn, practice at midnight or practice at four in the morning. I don't care.
"But we are, as a sport and as players in this game, creatures of habit, and we have not been able to put them into that kind of routine yet. So now we'll start that. I'm pretty excited about it."
CAUTION SIGNS: Akron scared Michigan. Wisconsin blew a chance to kick a last-second, game-winning field goal when its quarterback mismanaged the clock. The `Cats stumbled out of the gate against Western Michigan, failing to put up points on three straight possessions they started inside the fifty-yard line. All of that happened last Saturday and none of it was lost on Fitzgerald, whose `Cats host Football Championship Subdivision Maine on Saturday. "I think you always have to have your guys aware of different things that are happening throughout the country," he would say when asked if he does just that.
"Like the tough play that happened to Wisconsin. We talked about that with our quarterbacks. Look at the NFL yesterday. The early games, there were nine of them, I think all nine went to a two-minute drill. Maybe eight-out-of-nine. So there's great parity in all levels of football and you just always remind the guys about the game of football. But it's about us. We've got to play better. An anomaly. Last Saturday night, we didn't play well offensively to start the game. The previous two weeks, we played pretty well. We typically started pretty fast. So I'm not going to overblow it, I'm not going to make too big a deal about it. But we've got to execute and start faster than we did offensively."
MIND MELD: The 'Cats, after starting slowly against the Broncos, began pounding the rock, and ended the evening with 332 rushing yards. Later, quarterback Kain Colter said, "I went and talked to the line after those series and said we need to stop being so pretty and to start running inside zone (blocking schemes), be a hard-nosed football team and start running the ball. That's what we did."
Then Monday, at his weekly press briefing, Fitzgerald referred back to that start and said, "I got sick and tired of being a little lethargic. So I just told Mick (McCall, the offensive coordinator) to run the ball."
Finally, after replacing his coach behind the microphone, center Brandon Vitabile did the same and said, "We stumbled over ourselves a couple times there and guys were getting frustrated. One thing as linemen that we like to do is run at people, so we went up to Coach Cush (offensive line coach Adam Cushing) and said, `Cush, run at them and see if that works.' It worked out pretty well for us, just getting physical. They moved a lot during the game. But (the idea) was let us do our basic basic stuff and be good at that before we do too much."
QUICKLY NOTED: Even though he's an offensive lineman, Vitabile was the `Cats Offensive Big Playmaker for the Western game. "He had 32 total finishes. Probably played his best game of the year," said Fitzgerald, explaining why.
True freshman Matthew Harris, who returned the opening kickoff 57 yards, was their Special Teams Player for that game. On the depth chart he is also listed as the backup to left corner Nick VanHoose, which is why Fitzgerald was asked if we'd be seeing more of him. "With all guys, we try to bring them along at the pace that they're grasping things. Especially the young guys," he said. "You look at last year what we did with (superback) Dan Vitale. Early in the year brought him along slowly and then, as things progressed and his comfort level with the scheme (progressed), I think last season speaks for itself. I'd love to see the same kind of maturation with Matthew. He's involved in game-planning things that we maybe haven't necessarily gotten to yet. But Matthew's got a bright future ahead of him."
Speaking of Vitale: he ended the Western game with just one catch for four yards, which are not the kind of numbers expected from such a dangerous threat. But, Fitzgerald noted, "I thought Dan probably played the most-physical game of his career on Saturday. He played 66 plays, which is the most he ever played. I thought Dan played really well. But his role was a little bit different on Saturday than it had been based on what we wanted to do schematically and what we saw."
AND FINALLY (SADLY): Mike Dunbar, the `Cats offensive coordinator from 2002-2005, died of cancer over the weekend at the age of 64. To honor him, they will wear MD stickers on their helmets Saturday. "Anyone that Mike touched, we're all saddened by his passing," said Fitzgerald, who was on the staff with Dunbar as linebackers coach. "He's a gentleman that will be missed, a friend that will be missed."
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