Nov. 19, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
There is nothin' you can name/That is anythin' like a dame!" That is what the sailors sang in the musical South Pacific. "There's nothin' that can get a gut reaction/Like some extraneous distraction!" That, you might say, would be the lyric sung by any coach of any sport in any kind of circumstance.
But distractions, of course, have been rife for Pat Fitzgerald and his 'Cats as they prepared for their showdown with Illinois at Wrigley Field. They are just part of the genetic makeup of any Event, which that game now is, and they will be there too through all of Saturday afternoon as the players adapt to a strange locker room and to sharing a sideline and to the one-way field and to who knows what other weirdness might arise. Still, and this is what intrigues, Fitzgerald reflects a not-uncertain equanimity under these circumstances that would drive countless other coaches bonkers.
"It's funny," he explains. "We talk a lot about it as coaches. We kind of want to have a lot of distractions around all the time because when you get to a high level, that's all college football becomes. When we made our run for the roses, it was a circus. It was just a sideshow. I want our guys to be comfortable in that kind of environment. When you go to bowl games, everyday is a distraction. You got this event, that event, then you've got to go focus in the moment and practice. It's the same thing with games. We feel if we put our guys in that environment consistently, then they'll be consistent when they go into that kind of theater, so to speak. That's what it's going to be on Saturday. So they'll be locked in, they'll be ready to go. They'll be excited, and I think we play better in those kinds of environments, I really do. I think we play loose, have fun."
Since it is so counter the norm, how did he develop that philosophy?
"It's similar to what I learned when I was a player from coach (Gary Barnett), and the same thing when I was here with (the late head coach Randy) Walk(er). He used to have his world-renowned distractions that we'd do, all kind of crazy stuff. We'd go to the beach, then have to come back and focus the next day. So I think I learned from those guys really well. It's like practicing here (at Ryan Field, which the 'Cats did on Tuesday and Wednesday). Why'd I do that? Well, it's going to be something different Saturday, so I wanted something different today and tomorrow. I wanted something unique."
Does the team function better in those different environments?
"I don't know that we function better. But I think our guys have more fun. I think that anytime you're in a sold out, raucous environment, something that's kind of unique, I think our guys get excited about that and play with a little more focus, a little more energy."
Fitzgerald, in fact, was not even bothered that his team would not be spending Friday night at the same hotel they had used for all their other home games this season. They would instead be staying at one closer to Wrigley, which is another kind of switch that would cause other coaches to gnash their teeth. "Road game. Road game. It's a road game," he said when asked about his lack of concern.
So he has no superstitions about that kind of stuff?
"Naaw, I'm not a superstitious guy. We have our routine. We could stay at the Holiday Inn Express. Maybe I'd be a little smarter. No. We're treating it like a road game (which is why he had crowd noise piped in during practice at inopportune times). We're operating from a preparation standpoint like the environment might be like a road game just because of the unknown of playing at a neutral site. I know there'll be a ton of our fans. But we want to be sure."
Not that the weekend needs any more plots or subplots, but: Brian Ward, the dad of 'Cat offensive tackle Pat, played for Illinois from '82 through '85 and the Illini were one of the suitors Pat himself spurned when he chose to play in Evanston. "Northwestern was just the school that felt right to me. I felt at home here and I just made my decisions based on that," he said when asked about his decision.
Was it a tough choice?
"Every choice is a tough choice. But, again, Northwestern is where I felt most at home and I'm happy here."
Did his dad push him toward Champaign?
"My dad didn't push anything. He wanted it to be my decision. And he's happy as well."
As for the Illini: "When we look at our opponent, especially this week when I watch them on tape, they're playing very, very solid, sound football," says Fitzgerald. "They're playing with great emotion, great effort and you see the new coordinators, their footprints are on everything. This is a Coach (Ron) Zook team. They play with a lot of passion, a lot of emotion, and they're very physical."
Those new coordinators would be Paul Petrino, who last year was at Arkansas, for the offense and Vic Koenning, who last year was at Kansas State, for the defense. "Offensively," Fitzgerald goes on, "they were an option team in the past and now they're more of a two-back option team. Their passing game has a lot of similarities to what we saw watching Arkansas tape in the off-season. Not as many just drop back, but play action passes. On defense, it's Vic's three-down (linemen) stuff and using the bandit linebacker and things of that nature to try and create confusion. But they're still running their two-seam coverage. . .that Coach Zook's done for a long time."
Quickly noted: The Illini offense has averaged 46.5 points and 412.7 yards in its last four games. In the previous six, those numbers were 21.3 and 320. . . No coincidence this: In those same four games, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has gone 53-of-87 (61 percent) for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns with no interceptions. He has also rushed for another 299 yards and a touchdown in them. . . Not only that: Again, in those same four games, the defense has forced 13 turnovers that led to 62 points.
And finally, since it's priceless and just might get him an ad opposite the most-interesting man in the world, this quickie quote from the 'Cat wide receiver and Dallas native Demetrius Fields: "I didn't know anything about Wrigley. I'm one of the most oblivious people that there is, to be honest with you. Football, church and school, and that's it."
Later, after the laughter died, Fields also added this: "I just know there's a lot of anxiety about the game because people are anxious to see it. I don't know a lot about the history. I know it's been awhile since someone played there. Outside of that, I don't know a lot about it."
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