Dec. 11, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
The 'Cats reconvened Saturday morning to pick up their preparations for their Jan. 1 meeting with Texas Tech, and now it will go something like this for them until they make their date in the Cotton Bowl. From now through Monday the 20th, two days of practice and then one day off. They'll also attend a Bulls' game and another of the Blackhawks, and then scatter to celebrate the holiday before heading to Dallas on the 27th. "We kind of have two bowl weeks," says Pat Fitzgerald, whose team is headed to its third straight. "It's been a good routine for us. Obviously, we haven't won. But we think we've been fresh for the games and well prepared."
Now, with quarterback Dan Persa absent and on the mend, it is inevitable that Fitzgerald will always be queried about Evan Watkins, the redshirt freshman who has been asked to fill some outsized shoes. "I'd just like to see him enjoy the moment," is what he said Saturday when asked what he'd like to see from him. "Four weeks ago, they (both Watkins and true freshman Kain Colter) weren't expecting to be playing right now. But they are and they're both contributing and you think about it. Today was their fifth full practice (in preparation for Texas Tech). That was more than they had to get ready for the school in Champaign and Wisconsin. So they're going to get so many more reps and, in the micro, it's going to make them better for this game. But, more importantly for our program, in the long run, to have these guys get this kind of experience is invaluable."
When he says he wants Watkins to enjoy the moment, does he mean that the quarterback has been putting too much pressure on himself?
"I don't know about that. I just think they were more comfortable in high school since they went through the whole maturation process. We've been fortunate. You think back, you go back to when I was playing with (Steve) Schnur. (Zak) Kustok. Baz (Brett Basanez). C.J. (Bacher). Mikey (Kafka) and Danny. They all had a chance to make mistakes on the practice field, and none of you guys talked to them. They were the second, third and fourth quarterbacks. Now these guys are thrown and thrust into a situation they didn't anticipate happening. So they'll be much more prepared for this game than they could have been for our last two games. To me that's exciting and encouraging."
As for the other side of the ball, which was battered by both Illinois and Wisconsin at the close of the regular season: "I think what happened to us at the end of the year was an anomaly," says Fitzgerald. "You go back to after the Iowa (game, in which Persa was injured), we're in the top five, the top three in a lot of categories defensively."
That brings us to a two-minute drill with the linebacker Bryce McNaul, who is again healthy after separating a shoulder before the Illini game and twisting an ankle in the Badger game. "Since I've been here, I don't remember back-to-back losses that have been so emphatic. They just haven't happened like that," he says. "Obviously, with the departure of Dan, there's a lot of, 'It's this, it's that.' But, honestly, it's just a breakdown of fundamental football. We didn't play our game in either of those games. Luckily for us, we have this bowl season where we can refocus and recommit to the ball that we were playing back in camp, back at the beginning of the season when we were successful. So I think the emphasis now, especially last week in the early practices, but still carrying through into the Texas Tech game plan, is just playing fundamental football. Not believing that any specific strategy is going to be the golden ticket to being a good defense. It's going to be fundamental football, playing hard, Big Ten football up front and, obviously, they're going to want to out-athlete us on the field. But we welcome that challenge. We're going to be ready for it."
Since fundamental breakdowns often occur when a player is trying to do too much, we wonder if that was the case in the wake of Persa's season-ending injury. That players were trying to make up for his absence.
"You'd be kidding yourself if you said it wasn't. It's a team game. Everything we do is defense, offense, and you're kind of limited to that. But definitely there was kind of a safety blanket in feeling Dan was there. Then, when he wasn't there, there was probably an attitude like, 'Oh, no. Poor us. We need to go and do that much more because we can't count on our offense being good.' And the same thing when we get scored on. Our offense feels, 'Oh, no. Now we've got to do so much more.' That attitude is not going to win games. Like you said, doing too much would get us out of the fundamental football we need to play to be successful, and that we have played and been successful."
Have the players talked about this among themselves?
"Yeah. Yeah, definitely. From the moment the final whistle blew in Madison, right there in the locker room, it was, 'We need to trash the way we've been playing. We need to trash the attitude we've been coming with. We can play as hard as we want. But if we don't play focused, it's never going to translate into success.' So, like I said, this whole bowl season is about refocusing."
But isn't trying to make up for a loss by doing more just human nature?
"Yeah. Absolutely. You've got a lot of egos out here. Every guy does not want to lose. Obviously, right? That's a given. So with that attitude, it's like, 'I'm going to do everything I can within my power so that we don't lose, so that we don't get scored on.' A lot of times that's going to come out on film as you trying to do someone else's job and vacating your own at times. Those little man-to-man breakdowns sum up to a poor performance by a defense. So. Like I said, we talked about it.
"Not doing too much is the key. It's doing your job and doing it well and knowing the guy next to you is doing the same. It's kind of a promise made one man to another. I will get my job done. That's a championship team when all that clicks."
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