Oct. 7, 2013
The same hammer that shatters the glass forges the steel.
-- Russian proverb
WATCH: Full Monday Press Conference (All-Access)
There is no good loss. That is axiomatic. But the one the 'Cats suffered last Saturday night could well have been a season-shatterer, the one that brought the hammer down and pulverized their expectations. For they had long anticipated this moment, this game with Ohio State, and they were going to use it as their coming-out party, as their way of altering the nation's perception of their program.
Then the moment arrived and they did not blink, they did not flinch.
"We played our best football game of the year," Pat Fitzgerald would say Monday, yet still that was not enough. Now that, that is just the kind of loss that can gut a team, that can enervate a team, that can saddle a team with a severe hangover. But Monday morning, as he moved through a series of meetings, senior wideout Mike Jensen noticed an air about the 'Cats that was appreciably different. "This team feels like we're legitimate, we're a good team," he would say when asked about their mood.
"It just comes down to a couple plays, execution. So we're feeling confident. Really, we've just got to get ready for next week (when they play at Wisconsin). Another big game. Defending Big Ten champions three times. Going into their place. Coming off a bye week. It's a big game."
How, we wondered, could they be confident after losing?
"We knew we played good football," he said. "There were a couple plays that changed the game. That's the way it is in every game. But we felt like we played really good football as a cohesive team, which is great. Obviously you're disappointed with the loss and you're frustrated that the outcome wasn't what we wanted. But I guess we're a mature enough team to realize that we did make good plays and that we're coming together as a team and that all of our goals that we want are still ahead of us. So this one game doesn't cancel out a season. We still realize that we're a good team, and that we're building, and that we played our best game. Now we've got to build on it."
Shortly after the game, we tell him now, the linebacker Damien Proby said, "We wanted to prove something to ourselves." Did they?
"I think it was something we already believed," Mike Jensen said. "But I think we proved to ourselves that we can play with anybody in the league, anyone in the nation, no matter where they're ranked or what people say about them. If we play our style of football, and if we execute as we did for the majority of the game, we know that we can win. It was validation and proof to us that we can get that done."
Jensen, of course, had a highlight-reel moment against the Buckeyes, who ran a fake punt late in the second quarter. For not only did he smell out that bit of chicanery. He also stuffed it with a textbook, open-field tackle that turned the ball over and set the `Cats up for their final field goal of the half. "We knew that was coming," Fitzgerald said Monday. "They changed the formation. Our guys anticipated that. Terrific job by Mike."
"They came out in a new formation, one we hadn't seen on tape," Jensen himself later expanded. "They had a tendency, anytime they ran a fake, of putting the PP (punt protector) on the other side and running that way. I spotted the PP was on the other side, so trusted game film and expected it. If you see something pre-snap, you get your eyes up and you're looking for fake."
And what about the tackle?
"On film, I thought I stuck him," he said with a smile. "It was just fun to make that tackle. I've been waiting a long time for someone to try a fake on us. So it was cool to be able to make a play and just have that opportunity. It's been a long time since I've made an open-field tackle like that."
When was the last time?
"Freshman year, maybe. But you might have to go back to high school (where he was an all-state defensive back). I don't know."
We bring this up since we, well, find it interesting and informative and -- quite frankly -- hard to believe. First, late Saturday, wideout Rashad Lawrence was asked about hooking up with Trevor Siemian, who was his high school teammate as well. "To be honest," he said, "I really don't know when Trevor's on the field until we come off and he's asking me questions about routes. The game's so fast, I really don't know who's in the game. I'm just there to catch them."
Then Monday, on the subject of rotating quarterbacks, Jensen said, "Game day, when you're actually in there and getting plays, sometimes it's hard to even realize which quarterback is in. You're just concentrating on getting the play and, how fast we go, just rolling through it."
The injury report for the Wisconsin game will not be out until Thursday afternoon. But it's notable that defensive tackle Sean McEvilly, who sat out last Saturday, is not listed on the 'Cats' two-deep for it.
But Fitzgerald did report that the 'Cats came out of the Ohio State game "Probably as healthy as we have out of any game this year. So we expect everybody that we had (for Ohio State) to play in the (Wisconsin) game."
In his first appearance since the season opener, running back Venric Mark rushed 17 times against the Buckeyes for 60 yards, caught four passes for 43 and returned a kickoff for 38. Still, Fitzgerald noted Monday, "He'll be better this week than he was last week. We were able to get him a lot of quality touches. Would we have liked to have gotten him more? Yeah, and I think that will happen as we move forward. But we didn't want to overload him."
True freshman running back Warren Long played in his first Big Ten game Saturday night and was, said Fitzgerald, "An animal on kickoffs. I asked him what he was saying to those guys. He was asking them what they were wearing for Halloween or something like that. I thought that was hilarious."
AND FINALLY: Fitzgerald's take on his team and its mood after meeting with it Monday morning: "I think we're gaining on where we want to be. We want to be a consistent team that challenges for a championship. Obviously we didn't accomplish the goal on Saturday night to win the game, but I think for a lot of our guys, they improved. I thought we played our best football of the year and we can still be better. We can still be better ... The goal's to win football games. We didn't get that accomplished. So I think it's a very-focused group of guys I saw this morning, guys that I think flushed the failure of Saturday night. They've moved on and they're ready to get prepared for the next challenge."
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