Northwestern Talks Holiday Bowl and Utah Utes

Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about the upcoming Holiday Bowl clash with the Utah Utes

PAT FITZGERALD: Thank you. On behalf of Maury Schapiro, our president, Jim Phillips, our great director of athletics, all our great alums in the state of California, excited to see them. Saw them in Berkeley, great experience.

We are honored to be here at the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl. Our guys have earned this opportunity. It’s been a long road, a long journey for us this year. Really challenging, challenging season. But our guys really responded well, dealt with the adversity we had to fight through. I’m incredibly proud of them.

I’ve had a chance to get to know Kyle well over our years, being part of the Under Armour family. To watch his team on tape, absolutely outstanding football team. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us. Hopefully we’ll prepare well and come out and put on a good show for everybody here in Southern California.

Our first time obviously here in the Holiday Bowl. To be in San Diego, Mark, thank you, all the great volunteers that make this bowl special. Someone that has had the privilege of playing two bowl games myself, now lead our institution to a number of bowl games, I’m a firm believer in the bowl system. The opportunity it presents for our student-athletes, a majority of our guys have never been to San Diego, this opportunity will be absolutely outstanding for them.

There’s nothing like a bowl game to bring a university together. All of our West Coast alums, to get an opportunity to come here to San Diego to really enjoy, especially for us Chicagoans, the wonderful weather. It was great leaving 32 degrees on the airplane, landing everybody was excited, the weather was bad. I am like, This is pretty good. We’ll take this anyway.

An honor to represent the Big Ten. We found a way to win the West this year. Ran into a tough challenge in the Big Ten championship game. Our guys have earned this great opportunity. We’re honored to be here.

On behalf of our entire football program, thank you for the invitation, thank you so much. Go Cats.

I can answer some questions.

Q. Coaching philosophies in bowl games. Your attitude about how much flexibility you’re going to give regarding curfews. How much for fun, how much for business?
PAT FITZGERALD: I wish I had Kyle’s record. You’re 11-1. Unbelievable. I’m going to ask him after the game what he does.

Quite frankly, I think a bowl game is a reward for a great season. I want our guys to have fun. We’re in finals right now in Evanston. We had practice this morning before I got on the plane to come out. We’ll practice again Wednesday and Friday, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday of next week. I’ll give the guys about five days off. We’ll come down Christmas night.

I want them for a couple days to enjoy the sights, scenes and sounds of San Diego. Our seniors have been to four straight bowls, four unique places for their lives. I want them to enjoy it, have fun.

But it’s about motivation and preparation. You have to be motivated the right way when you show up for meetings and practice. You have to prepare the right way, especially with a great Utah team that we’re playing. We’re going to have our hands full on the field, we know that. We have to prepare properly to make sure we’re prepared for the game.

I want to bring our family together, our football family, our university family together, really enjoy the moment being here in San Diego.

Q. Holiday Bowl has a history of high-scoring games. Do you think defense might take a night off?
PAT FITZGERALD: It’s funny, we’ve been a part of a lot of interesting matchups throughout our year in the Big Ten, gone into some games and Monday press conferences both defenses are highly ranked. You think it is going to be a low-scoring game. We give up more points than we ever gave up.

Their defense is absolutely outstanding. I can read through the stats. When you pop on the tape, they play tough, they play physical, they play with grit, they play together. It’s really impressive to watch. Then the adversity they’ve overcome at Utah with the amount of injuries they’ve had, especially on the offensive side of the ball, has been so impressive to watch their young players mature, then to win obviously the Pac South.

You pop that on, right, you just go to yourself, Wow, we have our hands full. As you look to this matchup here on New Year’s Eve, I think it really comes down to, quite frankly, typically who executes well based on the way you prepare. I assume both teams are going to prepare really well. You don’t win a divisional championship without preparing well.

I’ve seen some articles, press conferences this year, what they’ve done, really impressive. Going to be a huge challenge.

Q. As you said, four straight bowls for the seniors, first ever Holiday Bowl. What milestone does that say about your program versus where it was five, ten years ago?
PAT FITZGERALD: Well, I say a lot in Chicago: We’re not your father’s Northwestern. Back in the day, it was obviously a different time. Quite frankly, the support that our players received was not where it is today.

We’re very grateful, thankful for what we receive. We just moved into a brand-new $270 million facility on the shores of Lake Michigan. Very thankful for that.

This is a reward for our great year. Proud of our seniors. Hopefully we’ll prepare well and play an outstanding Utah team.

Q. Your first time out here. What does the Holiday Bowl mean to your players? Were they curious about what it’s all about in San Diego, the history?
PAT FITZGERALD: Yeah, some of the guys came to me after they heard the announcement they were coming out to the Holiday Bowl. They were like, Coach, these games have been shootouts. It will be a wild one.

Go to class, I’ll see you at practice tomorrow. Whatever.

This is one of those games as a kid from the Midwest you would watch growing up. You dream of going to California, playing in the post-season, getting a bowl opportunity. The great, rich tradition and history here of this great bowl game.

For our guys to be part of it means the world. Four great bowl games for us is spectacular. We’re excited for the opportunity. Wish it was against an opponent that wasn’t as tough as Kyle’s guys. It’s going to be a huge challenge.

It’s an amazing opportunity for our young men. We’re excited for it.

Q. Coach Whittingham has a history with this game. Do you remember what you were doing from 1978 to ’81?
PAT FITZGERALD: 1978, I was four years old (laughter). 1981, I was eight years old (laughter).

I’ll leave that between my mom, my dad and myself. I’m sure I was not the greatest kid. I think I was a little bit of a wild hair. But it was a lot of fun, yeah.

Q. The fact that it is being played on New Year’s Eve, does that add to any of the fun of it?
PAT FITZGERALD: Yeah, absolutely. It’s going to be great playing on New Year’s Eve. I think number one, how about everybody here in San Diego coming out to the game, starting the New Year’s Eve party at 4:00. You can roll out of the game, take a shower, rally, go out and celebrate the new year.

We’re anticipating having a lot of fun. That’s what bowl games are all about. It’s exciting, fun. We get an opportunity to bring our young men, very few have been to San Diego to have this unique opportunity to be a part of this amazing community, to share in the culture, have a lot of fun, hopefully give back a little bit, really experience what bowl season is all about.

Indiana Squeezes Past Louisville

ARCHIE MILLER: Credit Chris and Louisville. Just in watching them on film, I think I said it a couple times, they’ve improved from day one to today as much as any team that we’ve seen. They do a great job on both ends of the floor. I think they’re going to have a fantastic season.

For our guys, I give them a lot of credit. It’s a tough environment to bring anybody in here and play. It’s also finding a way to hang in there when things aren’t going well, make some adjustments on the fly, then finding a way to get to the last couple minutes of the game.

There was a lot of winning plays again. We’ve been in this situation it seems like for the last few weeks. I anticipate it being this way for the rest of the season. So to know a group can finish or find a way to finish with its offense or defense is good.

I’m hopeful, to be honest with you, our team, as long as we continue to stay as healthy as possible, that we can even take it to another level because we have such a long gap in terms of the potential on how much better we can actually get.

But there were some really, really hard plays in the game that guys had to make. I was proud of them. They did a great job.


Q. Rob hits a three to give you your first lead. He hits another one to give you the lead for good. Talk about that.
ARCHIE MILLER: Yeah, Rob did a heck of a job I thought in general. He only turned it over one time, six defensive rebounds. We need him to hunt more shots. He’s very reluctant right now to shoot unless he’s wide open. He’s a good shooter. The two that he hit in the second half were big. I was glad that he read it. Clearly the shot at the top was really well executed. He stepped in and drilled it.

He continues to do a really good job for us. He had a good week. Our Penn State game, this game. He was big in the last four minutes of the game. You need your point guard to be able to do that.

Q. They spurted out on your several times. You got three or four possessions where you could have taken the lead, didn’t get it. What was the message to your team during that time?
ARCHIE MILLER: From a defensive standpoint, continue to bring the energy on the ball. They’re a team that really moves and executes. If you allow them to move and execute, they’re going to get good looks.

The second part was to continue to emphasize defensive rebounding. When we gave them long rebounds or second shots, they made us pay. That was discouraging.

From an offensive standpoint, it was just continue to trust and move the ball. Move the ball, move yourself, let’s get good action. I thought at times being able to play through the post, De’Ron had a great session there, Juwan was good at times feeding in and out.

Romeo in general continually being aggressive, drawing 10 fouls in the game, that’s what he does. Being able to get to the line 14 times, kept us right in there.

50/50 plays, whether it was a stop or we were able to get a basket, hang in there, then the last two minutes a couple key winning plays.

Q. You were a little bit up and down sometimes in games like this last season, where you had to be patient, wait for the opportunity to get a lead. There’s new guys on this team. What is different about maybe the way they can approach these tight games?
ARCHIE MILLER: I would hope they would think our defense can carry us when things aren’t going well. Doesn’t mean you’re going to shut them out. When you need a run, when you need the ability to get back in the game or you need something to happen, sometimes it’s not offense, sometimes it’s defense.

The one thing that’s been evident with this group, we’re much better, we’re much tougher, we’re much bigger at times on the floor than we’ve been in the past. We’re able to get key stops at times to help us.

I think we had a window about four minutes where I don’t think they got a field goal in that stretch. That’s what you need to have, especially as you start to look towards January and February in the Big Ten. It’s going to be tough. You have to hang your hat on that.

We have a lot of room to free throw on offense. We have to keep getting better there, make the game easy on ourselves. As we continue to elevate that side of the ball with more chemistry, more movement, more sharing, we’ll be even harder to deal with.

I think this team has a leader in Juwan that we trust. I think Zach being back out there continues to give a guy that trust. I think as our new guys have sort of approached the floor, they’re gaining trust a little bit, as well.

Without question, there’s a go-to guy, go-to guys, there’s also the go-to ability to get some stops at times. Not that we’re perfect. We’ve been able to dig in in a lot of games, find a way to get our defense to be able to give us a little offense.

Q. De’Ron had eight points in 14 minutes. How huge is it to be able to have a big guy like him come off the bench and score in the post, make similar passes like Juwan does?
ARCHIE MILLER: When he plays minutes, he gets fouled, you can obviously play through him. I think he’s very shifty in the blocks going against other big guys. He’s comfortable down there. He’s a willing passer, he is unselfish.

His 14 minutes tonight were really, really big. He did a great job. To be honest with you, to credit him, he’s had to fight through that body pain, soreness, getting in shape while you’re injured.

Right now he’s been able to practice the last few weeks really consistent. I think he’s in the best shape he’s been. He’s in the best shape he’s been in. He has another month before conference play starts where he can take one more jump conditioning-wise, which will help him play more minutes.

Without question, De’Ron is a big part of what we’re doing. When he’s able to play a lot of minutes, he gives us another presence on the floor against other big people.

Q. What has made Rob so good in the first couple months of the season? How big has it been to have a guy like that step into that role so quick, so young?
ARCHIE MILLER: Rob, without realizing it, how physically strong he is, how sturdy he is as a guard. There’s very few freshmen guards that can do what he does for 33 minutes in terms of the defensive side of the ball, which we ask him to do.

He’s also a tough kid. You don’t really know how tough a guy is, what they’re made of, until you get them going. He’s taking advantage of the opportunities he’s been given. He’s played well. He’s had a great work ethic about it. He’s also learning how to play point guard in college, a lot different than playing point guard in high school. I think he’s doing a better job running our team.

He’s been a great, great addition to the program all the way around, on and off the floor.

Q. When it comes to Romeo’s ability to drive, either score or get fouled, is that in his bag of tricks despite how he’s shooting on the perimeter, or will that get more effective for him?
ARCHIE MILLER: Romeo is as gifted as it gets in terms of getting to the basket. Shooting the ball well, not shooting the ball well, that’s not his MO. His MO is he’s obviously been a great attacking guard off the dribble. I don’t think a lot of people understand how physically big and strong he is as a freshman, how gifted he is in his length offensively as he’s approaching the paint.

I thought he was as aggressive as he’s been all season tonight. You draw 10 fouls, shoot 14 free throws, that’s pretty impressive against that team as a freshman. He’s definitely a guy that I think sees himself more as an attacking guard than just a shooter.

Q. How do you feel like Romeo is holding up physically? Do you worry about the grind of an entire season?
ARCHIE MILLER: I think the wear and tear of all college basketball players plays a role. That’s why you got to be smart during your opportunities with practice time. He’s diligent in terms of taking care of his body off the floor as well.

I think if you’ve watched him play over the course of the last couple years, you have a feeling he’s at the basket quite a bit, up on the rim quite a bit. He is going to get hit. He takes contact well. He’s not a little guy. He’s not a little guy. He’s 6’6″, 215 pounds. The blows that he delivers, he gives some as well.

We want him to play even stronger, got to get him rebounding the ball a little bit better. I think he’ll be fine with that. I think as we get into Big Ten play, definitely will be something that our team in general will have to deal with, is just the battle of the physical.

Q. You played 10 games in a little over a month. Now you have one in the next 10 days. How does your approach change in terms of practice?
ARCHIE MILLER: It won’t. We have to be mindful of our players. We’re in finals week. You have to be mindful of those guys, giving them enough time, enough attention, making sure their exams are being taken care of.

We’ve always approached the finals week with our team as being able to give them multiple days off to concentrate on the testing. But it’s like I told them, when we work, we’re going to work. We have to get better this week as we approach our next opportunity against Butler. We can take a few steps here if we’re smart in terms of our team.

I think as long as we approach the everyday process the right way, we’re going to continue to get better because we do have a lot of upside and room to grow.

We’ll approach this week as we normally do, exams first, then practice times go to work. Mix up the week with a little of the weekday off to let them recuperate, then get to our Saturday afternoon game up in Indianapolis.

Q. (Question about Justin Smith.)
ARCHIE MILLER: Justin played a terrific game. Our staff and team saw a film from Penn State the other day, he did as good a job on Lamar Stevens as anyone has done all season long.

We were worried about Jordan, his three-point ability, ability to play on the perimeter. We just felt he was too big and too strong for maybe our guards to be able to stay on him.

I’ll tell you what, again Justin has delivered a really good defensive performance. We knew he was going to make some tough ones, not that he’s perfect. I thought he really competed late in the game. He was able to rebound the ball again, nine more rebounds.

If Justin is getting nine rebounds, playing 30 minutes, he gets nine points, doesn’t turn it over, that’s the guy he has to be for us now.

We put him in a couple different positions here in the last game that I think will help him take care of the ball a little bit more, as well.

Q. Romeo, what are some things you’re seeing him struggle with at the line? He still hit a couple shots he had to at the end there.
ARCHIE MILLER: I don’t know what he’s struggling with, to be honest with you, at the line. I think he’s a good free throw shooter. The fact he gets there quite a bit, he’ll only get more comfortable there.

He’s fearless. I knew when he was going up for the late ones in the game he was going to be able to step up because that’s what he does. He’s a gamer. He’s able to finish.

I think more importantly is the amount he’s getting there. That’s the key number for him. He’ll get better as the season goes in making them. He’ll get better just in general because of who he is as a player.

He’s approached the month of December as good as you can as a young guy that has enough on his shoulders. Gotten better in October to November, November to December. Now let’s get December to January. He knows that. He’s got to put himself in a situation where he gets better every month of the season. He has a great attitude.

He’s going to have more opportunities to go to the line, and I think he’ll get better as the season goes.

Q. Were you pleased overall with how you were at the three? The 10 turnovers, something you also are happy with?
ARCHIE MILLER: Defending the three-point line, we weren’t very good I didn’t think in the first half. A lot of it happened with broken plays or long rebounds that we weren’t able to secure. They did a good job of hitting a couple. They have a good shooting team.

I think the second part of it in the second half we did a better job of being able to get there, challenge them, make it harder. Nwora is a really good three-point shooter as well. He’s a difficult matchup. He’s a really improved player. He’s one of the better players we’ve seen all season.

The fact they took so many, the percentage was what it was, you have to say hopefully the law of averages comes back around.

But yeah, I think if you look at the percentages by the game, I don’t know what this new stat sheet looks like, I think they shot 6-15 in the second half, 5-17 in the first half. The second half was a little bit hard. 11-32 with 34% isn’t bad. 38% overall is a much different number when you think about it because their two point field goal percentage coming in, the way the get fouled, coming in with their size and ability to get to the line. They went to the line 13 times, shot 38%.