Dec. 27, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
YEAH, OF COURSE, THEY HURT BAD. BUT THEY WEREN'T FATAL: The 'Cats suffered a pair of beat downs at the close of their regular season and so, not surprisingly, constantly confronted Mr. Gut-Check-Time as they labored toward their Jan. 1 bowl game against Texas Tech. "To be honest," explains the wide receiver Sidney Stewart, "we came off those losses, we were at a point of, 'OK, where is this team?' We aren't where we want to be, but Coach Fitz (Pat Fitzgerald) gave us an opportunity. He said, 'We may not be where we want, but there's still an opportunity left for us to correct what went wrong.' And I think that's the mentality and the mindset we took on coming into these practices we've had."
NOT ONLY CAN YOU TEACH OLD DOGS NEW TRICKS. YOU CAN ALSO TEACH OLD DOGS OLD TRICKS: "The main message was get back to the basics, fundamentals like tackling, staying in your gaps, things like that," says the senior linebacker Quentin Davie. "We worked on that a lot in practice. It took up the bulk of practice."
PLEASE ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE MYSELF: The 'Cats, of course, suffered those beat downs in the wake of quarterback Dan Persa's season-ending injury. "We had a couple guys banged up, we had guys in different positions than they had been earlier, the offense, we had to change that around a little bit," says Stewart, trying to explain what went wrong in those games. "You've got to get repetitions with a lot of that stuff and now I think we're beginning to breath in a new team. It's at a point now, we're at the end of the season, I think we're coming along fine."
NEVER FORGET. THERE IS THAT ONE GAME PLAYED ON THE FIELD AND THERE IS THAT OTHER GAME PLAYED IN THE HEAD: "Mentally, we were beat down a little bit," says Stewart with a quick look back. "But we've responded well through adversity my whole career and, more specifically, this season when things didn't go our way. With the last two games we lost back-to-back, it was tough. But I think, overall, our mentality is where it needs to be now. That's what's important."
JUST TO REITERATE. THERE IS THAT ONE GAME PLAYED ON THE FIELD AND THERE IS THAT OTHER GAME PLAYED IN THE HEAD: The redshirt freshman Evan Watkins took over at quarterback when Persa went down and he was the 'Cat choreographer in those season-ending losses. When asked what he (Watkins) needs to do as he finishes his preparations for Tech, Fitzgerald said, "Get prepared to win. Really. Mentally, he's obviously further along than he's been. Physically, he's further along because he has more reps. And now he's just got to get the poise, and have some fun, and get ready to win a football game. He won a lot in high school. He did a nice job through that. Now he's got to get that first win under his belt and then his confidence will just take off. But I've been pleased with the way he's progressed. Both those guys, him and (true freshman) Kain (Kolter, now Watkins' backup), they've both played well so far this month. Now we'll see if they can take it down to Dallas with them."
WHAT? ME WORRY? "I feel a lot more confident than I did before," Watkins said early Monday afternoon.
YEAH. THE SAME OL' CAN BE BORING AND FAMILIARITY CAN BREED ENNUI: The 'Cats returned from their holiday break Sunday night and, Monday morning in their indoor facility, held their 12th bowl practice before heading off for their date with the Red Raiders. "Like I said to them, their energy level needs to go up as we go to Dallas, but it will when we get to the site," Fitzgerald said following that practice. "I think they're kind of tired of hitting the same colored jersey in the same room. So it'll be nice to either get outside or into a new indoor (facility), one or the other."
MEDIC!!! The injured linebacker Bryce McNaul, said Fitzgerald, "Should be fine. He should be fine." But the injured running back Mike Trumpy, he went on, will "be a game time decision. But the other guys, I feel good about them from the standpoint of health. And if he can't go, the other guys have played well. We'll have Jacob (Schmidt) back in the mix. It's been since Michigan State that he's played. He brings a physicality with him that'll be nice to have. Then, for Steph (Simmons) as a senior, it'll be a great opportunity from him, and I thought him and (true freshman) Adonis (Smith) played well at Wisconsin. I thought we ran it well. So if Mike can't go, then that'll be the way we go. If he can go, then we've got four guys."
DON'T FORGET YOUR LUNCH BUCKET OR THAT SHIRT WITH THE BLUE COLLAR: A bowl bid can well be viewed as a reward for a successful regular season, and a trip to any one of them comes replete with appearances and activities and untold amounts of extravaganzas. Beside the game itself, does Fitzgerald look forward to any one of those events in particular? "Nothing," he said. "No, really. Hank (defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz) was talking to the defense, he's been in a lot of bowl games, he doesn't remember any of the events. He just remembers the games. That might be a little bit of the coach in us. But I'm not going for the events. I'm very appreciative of what they have prepared for our players. But our job is to get the team prepared to win. It's a great opportunity."
YOUR MISSION, IF YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT IT: "Obviously our mission is to win. That's the main mission. . . That's all that it is," says Stewart. Says Davie: "We're excited we can make history, win the first bowl game in a long time. We're just hungry, coming off those losses."
THE GAME ISN'T EXACTLY A MULLIGAN. BUT, WELL, IT COULD BE: The 'Cat team that closed the regular season little resembled the group that toppled Iowa in mid-November. So, finally, we wonder if there their mission might also include erasing those late images and showing all a truer vision of this team. "I think there's definitely a sense of that," says Stewart. "Like I said, we were coming off a couple injuries, we had guys in new spots, and that was not the team we want to show the world. With Illinois, we had a big stage, let that down. With Wisconsin, we had a big stage, let our fans down there. That's not the team we want to show the world. So I think we'll come back in this bowl game and play very well."
"We," concludes Davie, "want to show ourselves as well. We want to put that behind us, move forward and play like the team we know we are."
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