EVANSTON – A little stress could be forgiven after a most unusual start for his football team this season.
Pat Fitzgerald, who returned a number of players from a ten-win Northwestern team a season ago, watched his squad lose to Western Michigan then get knocked off at home by FCS opponent Illinois State.
After the latter game Fitzgerald said his team was playing like they were afraid to make a mistake and that was causing their erratic start to the season. Perhaps they were a little better in Week 3 as they came up with a critical win over Duke for their first win of the season at Ryan Field.
Does that mean that all is well in the mind of Fitzgerald’s team? The coach isn’t ready to say that just yet in what is turning out to be a unique season in Evanston.
“I just don’t think we have enough guys that trust themselves,” said Fitzgerald. “I don’t think we have enough guys that cut it loose. They get into their own head.”
A little while later Fitzgerald had the most memorable moment of his weekly news conference to further explain his issue with the 2016 Wildcats.
“The old ‘Woosah, Woosah’,” said Fitzgerald while putting both hands on his head, referencing the line from the movie “Bad Boys II” about getting mentally right. “I’ve done more of that this year than I have in my career here.”
That would seem like an ongoing battle for the coach for the rest of the 2016 season but getting it better sooner than later would be best if they hope to make something of the year. On Saturday the Big Ten season begins at Ryan Field at 6:30 PM against 20th-ranked Nebraska who is fresh off an upset home win over Oregon last week.
While the Wildcats have a lot of things to get right on the field – their offense is 118th in the country in scoring with 17.3 points per game – a good conference start for Fitzgerald starts in the mind.
“We’ve got a couple of guys who are way too sensitive,” said Fitzgerald. “You miss a block? Who cares. Learn from it, go block him the next play. You miss a tackle? Who cares. Keep playing, good things are going to happen. I think if I had some depth in more areas I would make some changes. Just to get guys, if anything else, just to step back for a second, exhale, relax and then go back in and play some more.
“Sometimes when you’ve got experience you can handle that. Some guys just right now they’ve just got to settle down and play.”
NOTRE DAME: Kelly has no problem yelling in his “office”
SOUTH BEND – Since he arrived on the sidelines in 2010, Notre Dame fans have seen Brian Kelly’s fiery temper on occasion.
Many times his anger has been directed towards his players after a bad play. Last year he had an issue with assistant strength coach David Grimes and pushed him back from the sidelines, an action which he later apologized.
Once again some anger came out towards an assistant coach late in the Irish’s 36-28 loss to Michigan State at Notre Dame Stadium last Saturday. Following a third down conversion by the Spartans in which Donnie Corley got wide open by five yards on the reception, Kelly was wondering what in the world was going on with Brian VanGorder’s defense on that play.
Kelly turned towards his defensive coordinator and gave him an earful. NBC cameras caught it and broadcasted it live then replayed it shortly before the end of the game. The sideline conversation came up in Kelly’s weekly news conference before Notre Dame’s game with Duke at 2:30 PM on Saturday.
For the head coach, it was nothing different from what happens in all types of workplaces.
“My office. My office. If it was in your office, they’d probably see your interactions with your employees on a day-to-day basis too. It just is what it is,” said Kelly of his yelling at VanGorder. “If we were up 55-0, we’d probably have no interaction conversations, but there’s going to be conversations on the sideline because it’s on national TV.”
He does have a reason to be angry because the Notre Dame defense is struggling. They’ve allowed 439 yards a game (102nd in FBS) and 32 points per game (T-94th in FBS). The Irish offense lost games in which they scored 47 and 28 points and a young defensive unit has struggled to get their footing early in the season.
While Kelly understands the growing pains he will not tolerate mistakes – like that third down which a receiver got wide open – and let his coaches know about it.
“I have great respect for all my coaches. They have respect for me. We have a chain of command. If I don’t like something, I’m going to make my opinions known,” said Kelly. “It’s just business as usual. It’s not personal,” said Kelly. “It’s about getting it right, and, again, it’s my office. So I think, if you have a camera in your office, there will be those moments that we all have that people would ask what was going on.”
ILLINOIS: A Needed Break
CHAMPAIGN – Since March things around Memorial Stadium were pretty positive for the new leader of the football program.
Lovie Smith was welcomed with open arms by fans and players after being the surprise pick to lead the football program from AD Josh Whitman. Lots of praise was heaped on the coach who many hope will put a dark period of Illinois football in the past.
Reality was bound to hit at some point. That’s what last Saturday was all about.
The Illini not only were dominated by MAC opponent Western Michigan but they were dismantled. They allowed 437 yards to the Broncos and turned the ball over twice while committing seven penalties in a 34-10 loss that makes winning seem like a long way away for the program.
Good news for Smith is that his team gets a week to lick their wounds after back-to-back 20 point losses at home. They’ll get two weeks to prepare for 20th-ranked Nebraska whom they’ll visit on Saturday, October 1st.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS: No Underestimating for the Huskies
DEKALB – As bad as things have been for Illinois, whats going on with Rod Carey’s Northern Illinois team is a bit worse.
The Huskies are 0-3 on the season and likely will be without starting quarterback Drew Hare for the rest of the season. Last week they fell behind to San Diego State 28-0 – their first game without Hare – and never recovered in a 42-28 defeat.
Perhaps some relief comes this week with FCS opponent Western Illinois rolling into DeKalb for a 2:30 PM contest. But with the Leathernecks ranked 13th in FCS, Carey is taking little for granted this week.
Western Illinois is already 2-0 on the season.
“We know it’s going to be a four-quarter battle. This isn’t going to be one kiss, walk out and have things go your way,” said Carey of Saturday’s game. “They’re a good team. They have good football players. We know a lot of their football players through the recruiting process and a lot of respect for them, and how they play, and their program in general.”