Nov. 16, 2010
"OK, if you can't get excited about all the things that are going on this week, you probably need to get yourself checked in. Obviously this is a great, great opportunity and it's an exciting opportunity. We let one get away that we shouldn't have, but there is no use feeling sorry for ourselves. We have to fix it and go on and get ready for this game. I think there is a lot on this game, obviously. It's a great, great venue. It's going to be exciting for college football. The fact that (ESPN) Gameday's coming there kind of says it all. As I said, we can't feel sorry for us we just, go man go."
Have you played (on fields that are oriented) east-west? Somebody's going to be in the sun...
"Well it is east-west and we knew that when we first looked at it. But that's not the only field we've ever played on that's east-west. There have been a couple fields we have played on that's east-west; you always talk about north-south but that's not always the case. There is nothing we can do about that."
Will it be strange with both teams on the same sideline?
"Yeah, it'll be different. Coach Petrino, you know, where he's from, it was like that all the time. It's not anything new to him, really. I've played, in the NFL, matter of fact we played the Bears in Ireland and we were on the same sideline. You know we've got from the 45 to the 5 and when the ball's on their end, obviously it's a little bit different."
You want to treat this like a normal week, but how unusual does it feel?
"You know, it's a 100-yard field. I don't think it's really that different. The locker room's going to be small; there's small locker rooms in the Big Ten. We got a couple sidelines, a couple areas of the sidelines where it's close; there's a couple fields in the Big Ten that are like that. It's a Big Ten game. The excitement comes in with obviously the mystique of playing at Wrigley Field and all the things, Gameday and all those things. But other than that, we're going to try and treat it as normal as possible. What we do, our Friday routine is going to be the same."
What do you know about Northwestern's new starting quarterback Evan Watkins:
"I don't know a lot other than that every year I've been here they've always had a good quarterback. Well, I mean we know about him because we did recruit him. He was a big strong-throwing guy and at the time we were more into zone-option stuff. But I mean a good player. I can assure you they've always had a quarterback since I've been here and they'll have some answers."
How hard is it to try to figure out what they're going to do with the change in quarterback?
"Well, in a week's time you can't change everything, obviously. They'll have some plans I'm sure for him and if there's anybody else they happen to use in that spot. If you remember before now, the last two years in particular, they've brought in the back-up guys, a lot of times he would come in for running situations, almost a wildcat-type situation. You know they can go to things like that. We'll have to make adjustments in the game once we get into it."
Do you sense any tightness within the team having gone through the last two games?
"Like I said, there is no use feeling sorry for ourselves. We've got to go play. You know, we've got to play the way we played in the beginning of the year. There is nothing we can do about what's happened, it happened. Let's go back and play like we played in the first eight games of the year."
Are the receivers joking or commenting at all about running into padding one foot past the end zone?
"No I just told them they're getting for the Arena League. If they don't make it to the NFL, you go to the Arena League. I don't think it's as big a deal as everybody's trying to make it myself. Now, in looking at the pictures, there are a couple areas that are tight. But I really don't think it's quite as big a deal as it's made out to be. Now, I may get there and think differently after the game."
Do you remember as a kid watching games there?
Do you remember what it looked like?
"Well, I don't remember that, but I do know that maybe three, maybe four years ago, it might even have been when we walked around up there, not this past summer but the summer before, I think talked about there had been more NFL games played in that stadium up until just three or four years ago, than any other NFL stadium in the country. And then the Meadowlands took over because they have the Giants and the Jets both playing there. Now there's no longer the Meadowlands, so it's probably had more NFL football games then any other stadium in the country. I don't know that for a fact but there's been a lot of football played in it. I think that's the exciting thing about having this opportunity."
How do you get the spark back on defense?
"I think we've just got to go back and play the way we played in the past, like I said the first eight games. There're some things I think we can do to help that. I think we've got it rectified, now we'll find out if it works."
A couple of the coaches were saying that the players might have had a sense of entitlement. Do you think that was it?
"I don't know, it could be. I personally don't think that's a lot of it. I have a pretty good feeling what it is. I think we've got it rectified and we'll find out if it works or not."
Coach Koenning said he's never seen or experienced a defense kind of go "backwards this late in the season. Are you as mystified as he is?
"Well, I don't know if mystified is the right word. But once again, they are the same guys, the same coaches, that played in those first eight games. They're still a good defense, they're still good coaches and they're still going to play the way they are capable of playing. I believe that and we're going to go from there."
Some of the players after the Minnesota game talked about maybe having a team meeting, do you know if anything like that took place?
"I do not. I do not know."
Have you seen them take responsibility?
"Yes. Yes, I have, which is good. And once again, like I told them Monday, there is no use feeling sorry for ourselves because no one else does. And people love adversity and this is a great opportunity for us. There are so many exciting things going on this week. First of all then environment you are playing in, number one. Number two, you've got an opportunity to prove to people that `Hey, you are the guys that we thought you were.'"
Northwestern isn't very good statistically except for Persa, yet they still play well. How do they do it?
"Well since I've been here they've been very well coached and they play extremely hard. They play with a chip on their shoulder. They play till the end, they really do. They've done a great job that way."
Did you talk to the Big Ten about the lateral/incomplete pass call from last week? Did you think it was wrong?
"I did. It doesn't matter what they said, we're not going to play the game over. I don't think they're going to let us. I'd like to."
Is that a play that they need to address?
"I don't want to get into that because I'm worried about this week. There's been things that happened with inadvertent whistles before, play the play over or whatever, get it right. That's why you have replay is to get it right."
Playing the play over was not an option?
"Apparently not. Not that day it wasn't."
Did you suggest to just try it again?
"It doesn't matter what I said. There's no use. Very rarely, I guess, I've never seen an official change his mind. I voice my opinion but I don't usually yell a lot and yell at them because it's not going to do any good. If anything, it will make them mad."
What can you tell us about Northwestern's defense?
"I think it's a defense that number one plays extremely hard, extremely well coached. They don't do a lot of things, but I'm not so sure that the head coach doesn't coach the linebackers because they play the way he played. They're the energy, they're the leaders, they're the guys that you can tell keep everybody going. They're very, very sound in what they do. They pressure a little bit, not a lot, but there's no particular area or down and distance or place that they call the pressure, so they're going to keep you off balance that way. They're just very, very sound; very, very well coached; play extremely hard and the linebackers are the guys that kind of lead it."
Has Terry Hawthorne been feeling better?
"Yes he has, he practiced yesterday and the thing they have on his foot bothered him a little bit, but not the foot itself, so that's good news."
What's on his foot?
"They have something to take the pressure off of that part, a brace-type thing. They fixed it and after that he was fine."
Do you anticipate him playing more?
"Yes, sir. Once again, it will depend on how he, so far, as I said, I saw him this morning and he wasn't sore or anything like that, so I think probably what we did last week was the right thing that (head football athletic trainer) Nick (Richey) and the doctors felt, the right thing to do. He had that problem in high school and that's what they did in high school."
What led to your decision to dismiss Evan Frierson?
"Once again, I made a statement, I'd really rather not talk about that, it's an unfortunate thing. I take those situations very, very seriously, as we do. I wanted to make sure I got all the facts before I did anything."
He's still enrolled in school?
Who replaces him?
"Aaron Gress will be the guy, and Aaron's kind of bounced back and forth anyway so we won't miss a beat."
Why such a quick, harsh reaction where in the past you've seemed to wait much long to gather information?
"Once again, I think every situation is different. My big thing is I wanted to get all the information and all the details. I'm all about giving opportunities and giving chances, but as I said it's something that I take very, very seriously. I think it's very, very important to not only this football program but also this university, and I think it was important that I make a statement right away."
Talk about Graham Pocic. Didn't I hear he's a Cub fan?
"Big Cubs fan, big Cubs fan. I remember from recruiting him, he's a big Cubs fan. In fact, it was back when you were allowed to text and many, many times he'd text me from Wrigley Field. I think he's had an unbelievable year and he's a lot like the quarterback, just gets better every week. You notice the quarterback situations more so than you do the offensive center, but what he does is obviously critical to any success that our offense has. He not only starts the play but he makes a lot of decisions up there. I'm very, very proud of him because, once again, a first-year center and a guy who we started playing (at) center in the spring, so it's not like it's a position that he grew up playing. It just shows you that Joe's done a great job with him and he's done a great job of learning the position."
Is he an all-league kind of guy at this point or getting there?
"I think so, I mean he's pretty good. I really think he's pretty good. I a lot of times that goes to the seniors and stuff like that, but I think he's done a heck of a job."
As you grade your lineman is he first or second repeatedly?
"Oh, he's always going to be in the top. He has not played a game that, has he made some mistakes, yeah, all of them have, but he's never been a guy we've been concerned about in terms of making mistakes that are going to cause you to lose the game."
What do you remember about seeing him in high school that showed this kind of promise?
"First of all, the type of person (he is). He's a big guy, the type of person. His father's a fireman, great family, his mother's a nurse, just great people. We had to work, we had to work extremely hard, because like I said he had a lot of opportunities a lot of offers to get here, and as I said, that was back when you were allowed to text, I couldn't understand here's the offense lineman, and there'd be times we'd text back and forth 30-40 minutes and I'd come to find out it was his girlfriend that was doing the texting. I never knew that, but it was his girlfriend doing the texting, she's probably still doing the texting."
Was he originally brought in as more of an outside guy?
"Yes, tackle, that was original. But I think that's the beauty of it: you've got a guy that's athletic and can do those things, and he's very intelligent, so you can play him in the middle. Graham doesn't say an awful lot. He's just kind of that gentle giant. He's been great for this program, he's just a great ambassador, he's got a great family. You see his mom and dad - I see them every home game walking up the Illini Walk - and I'm sure they're proud of the kind of year he's having as well."
Is it better to be coaching at Wrigley than singing?
"That wasn't me. I know this, I'm not doing it. They may be, but I didn't pass that audition."
People outside the program are worried about where the program is going, do you think a win would settle some of that?
"I would hope so. I don't blame them, we all want the program to be where it's supposed to be and I'll be the first to say that. The first thing I said is what's happened happened, there's no use feeling sorry for ourselves, no use blaming or pointing fingers, let's go to work. It's what the Illini Nation deserves and what the Illini Nation wants and I understand that. I don't have any problem with that."
Have you been getting advice/suggestions from the fans? Are people able to get to you?
"Yeah. But this ain't my first rodeo, Bob. I've been through that stuff."
Have you gotten some supportive ones as well?
"Oh yeah, I really have. Probably almost as many supportive as the other way."
Do you generally write them back?
"I try to, sometimes it's a week later or two weeks later. I try to just because they're not expecting it, number one. And number two, as I said, I don't take it personally. Sure, it's `Ron Zook, blah, blah, blah' but it's the University of Illinois. If you were sitting in that chair, they'd be saying it to you. You'd rather have people who care than didn't care."