Oct. 11, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
The off-week arrives, which means altered routines, and so it is that we gather early Sunday evening in the office of 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald. He had earlier watched the tape of his team's Purdue loss with his players and so here we wonder just what points he emphasized during this viewing session. "We've got to go out and play the way we're capable of for 60 minutes and when we do that, we're going to be a darn good football team," he said. "I challenged them, like I challenged my staff and myself, that we've got to look inward and say, 'What are the things we're doing well right now? What are the areas we need to improve on. And how are we going to solve the areas we need to improve on? And how do we accentuate the areas that we're playing pretty well in?' To me, what's fun, we're at the halfway point and, if you'd have told me we're going to be 5-1, I'd have said, 'Why aren't we 6-0?' But we've put ourselves in a position to have a special year."
And what's a special year?
"It's to be determined. You look at the last few years and we put ourselves in position to have a significant November. I think that's what each team aspires to have. To go into the month of November with something significant to play for. We've obviously got a few more in October that are critical games. . . It's going to be a fun challenge. I know our guy will be excited for it."
Quarterback Dan Persa, quite obviously, has been the prime catalyst of their drive toward a meaningful November, and one can hardly say the Boilers shut him down on Sunday. But their tackles, instead of rushing, often lingered near the line and that did keep him from gouging them badly with his legs. "They tried to create a fence. Yeah," agreed Fitzgerald.
Does he expect to see that strategy again in the future?
"That's great. That's great. I hope they do that. I mean, I really do. We'll pick people apart. Danny's still able to scramble. If he can't outrun a nose guard, we've got problems."
Throughout this season Persa, when asked about his numerous scrambles, has explained that he didn't like the look downfield; that he had been taught to protect the ball; that he has been blessed with legs; and that he felt it best run and live to fight another day. This is a perfectly sensible and defendable position. But, we suggest to Fitzgerald, all looks are not going to be perfect and the special quarterbacks have confidence in their ability to make the tough throw. So, we wonder, how is Persa handling that fine line that separates the two approaches.
"Well," he says, "I'd say look at his decision making from a completion percentage standpoint. Look at his decision making from interceptions. And I'd also say look at the big plays he's been able to create. I also think he's evolving in his confidence level from a standpoint of the scheme and weaknesses based on a coverage and how to attack it. But I think more importantly from the belief in himself. I saw that really evolve in Mike (Kafka) a year ago. Early, Mike was checking a lot of things down, he wasn't running. Then he just kind of cut loose and had a lot of fun as the year went along. I see Danny's evolution happening the same way, except Danny's been completing a higher percentage. So I think he's been really, really efficient. . . I don't have a lot of critiques on the way he's playing now. He's playing at a really high level."
So, bluntly put, he doesn't believe he has happy feet?
"No. No. I thought on Saturday, we and he knew this, he was going to have to move around in the pocket a little bit based on their ability to rush the passer. I thought he did. I thought a couple of throws he should have set his feet a little better. But a couple times he should have run for it. But he's trying to make plays and trying to do the best he can for the football team. I've got no critiques of the way he's playing from an overall standpoint. Macrowise. Microwise, yeah, there's a couple things. But he's given us a chance to win every football game."
Is he having fun like Kafka did?
"I think he's close. I think he's close. Danny's hard on himself. His best strength is also the area where he needs to learn how to flush some things a little bit more. I think he's really grown from the Vanderbilt game. . .to where I see him now just have a little bit more fun. Where I've seen it more is on the practice field. That typically is where it happens, and then in the game, it just kind of slows down for him. I'm starting to see that happen."
Back of the tape of Boiler game, which showed the 'Cats unable to make big plays. This, of all the viewing, most-disappointed Fitzgerald. "We had some guys in one-on-one opportunities. That's what this offense is predicated on," he said. "We're going to get you in space on that guy. Now go have fun and make a play. . . We were close. I think we're close. Watching the tape, it's kind of like the fireworks display after the game. There were a lot of ooohs and aaahs when we were watching the tape as a staff. We were really close. We've just got to keep grinding on it."
Then the defense, which faced a Boiler offense that had been refashioned after any number of starters went down with injury? "We had 17 new plays that we had to defend. Different fits, different things, so there was a lot of adjustment and I thought we handled it pretty well, I really did. We knew that going into it, especially with the change of quarterback. We gave up two plays that accounted for about 110 (rushing) yards of 265 (actually, 118 of 232). That's a pretty big chunk of real estate. We can't allow that to happen."
Next to place-kicker Stefan Demos, who had one field goal attempt blocked and pulled another wide that would have tied the game with 58 seconds remaining. "Stef's made so many of those kicks throughout his career, I had all the confidence in the world in him. Unfortunately, it didn't happen. But we've been on the positive end of that a number of times, so, yeah, disappointed in the outcome. Yeah, definitely. But they're on scholarship too."
Does he think his misses in the Outback Bowl are having a carryover effect?
"No. No. He has been a little bit dinged up throughout the course of the year and he has battled through it."
Is Demos dinged up enough that he might replace him with redshirt freshman Jeff Budzien?
"It's going to kind of play itself out. I have all the confidence in the world in Stef. He's done so much for us and he's been really successful. But we all have a job to do. It's about consistency and things of that nature. He knows that."
And finally, Fitzgerald, chuckling, when asked what grade he would give his team at the midpoint of its season: "Maybe incomplete. I don't know."