MGo: Not much. How are you?
MGo: How’s kindergarten?
“Kindergarten is wonderful. Every day is just a new experience. It’s awesome.”
Think you’re going to pass?
“I already passed.”
Word of the day?
“I don’t know. I didn’t get one. I’ve been kind of -- no I didn’t get one. I’ll get you one next week.”
Not an easy loss to sit on for two weeks. Did you work on rebuilding Denard’s confidence over the bye?
“Yeah. I think to a degree. I don’t think his confidence is waning too much, though. The biggest thing about that situation is getting back to some of the basics of reading the defense and making good decisions and things like that. I think that’s really the biggest factor. A couple footwork issues that hadn’t shown up until that game too much. … The good thing about two weeks is you get a chance to really evaluate everything you’re doing, and that’s what we’ve kind of done is look at how we’ve played, you know, on the road particularly because we haven’t played well on the road, but overall just see what the structure of the offense is and get back to sending a message and knowing that we’ve got to play better in those scenarios.”
Is there a common thread with the road games and offensive inefficiency?
“I don’t know. Not any more than any place else I’ve been, I guess. It’s harder to play on the road. It’s always an issue, but you can’t always use that as an excuse because good teams win on the road. I mean the biggest issue, we had some breakdowns, but we just can’t turn the ball over. That’s the biggest -- you hear it every week and it sounds like coach speak but it’s so true. When you turn the ball over as many times we turned the ball over you have no chance. We were fortunate it was as close as it was.”
Are you re-emphasizing to Denard that he doesn’t need to force plays?
“Yeah. Yes it is. It’s a re-emphasis of that. And you gotta understand that he’s been the dominant force in the last two Notre Dame games, you know. I think that he feels some of that, whether it’s spoken or unspoken. As coaches we have to reel him in a little bit, but he’s going to be fine. I really believe he’s going to be fine. He’s shown some great progress going into that game. The good thing about it is you do have two weeks to remember your problems. We just take the turnovers out. We’re going to be fine. We did some good things in that game. It wasn’t hard to find good plays in that game. Problem was it just wasn’t hard to find bad ones either. ”
Taylor Lewan said some of your calls didn’t even make it onto the field. What was the issue there?
“… There were a few deals, and I don’t want to go into them, but there were a few problems. Just communication issues from sideline to box, but that really wasn’t our issue. That happened a couple times, and we called timeouts, and the timeouts really didn’t hurt us that much, but that’s something else. We’re working on that too as we go, to see what those issues are, but those really haven’t been issues. Haven’t really been, and a few things came up in this game that were game-specific. I’ve been saying that from the beginning. I’ve been telling the players that. Certain mistakes are game-specific. You don’t see them in practice. You don’t see the issues in practice because the game’s different, and things come up. You don’t necessarily not anticipate [them], but they do happen.”
Do you feel like the passing game is making progress week to week despite the turnovers?
“Well, that’s hard to say that when you turn the ball over like we did. It’s hard to say it, but by the same token there wasn’t any problem finding some good plays in that game. He threw a couple really good balls. He threw a beautiful comeback -- a couple comebacks. He had some good passes, he did some nice things, but it’s always going to be blurred by the fact that there were too many turnovers.”
What got better in the second half that you can take and move forward with?
“Well we kind of put the game a little more on the offensive line, you know. Came in at halftime, said we’re going to come at these guys. Not that we weren’t in the first half, because we were, but we had picked more shots early in the game, and a lot of our bombs didn’t land, so the second half we said we’re really going to take control of the line of scrimmage, and I think they answered the call in a lot of ways.”
Are you worried that Denard has reached his ceiling in your system?
“You can’t ever think that. I can’t ever think that. If I think that you might as well get somebody else to coach. I don’t believe that. You have to coach with the intent that you can make the kid better in every way, shape, or form, and I believe the kid can get better. He’s not the first guy to throw four interceptions. We’re going to continue to work on decision-making and footwork and those kinds of things, because going into that game, we had a couple of deals, but nothing you could say, ‘Oh my god, that’s a step backwards,’ you know. Until this game, we just -- we looked like we were making some headway, but we’ll get back to it. ”
Do you feel like you’re making some headway with getting Fitz going?
“Yeah, and like we’re saying every week, he’s got to be more and more of a factor. We got him more of a factor last game, and we’re hoping to do the same next game to take the pressure off the quarterback. We’re best here when the quarterback isn’t the whole show. We’re not as good when he’s the whole show, particularly with regard to the running game.”
The less experienced receivers -- Gardner and Funchess -- where will they get better from now to the end of the season?
“Well basic overall awareness of the position. There’s so many things they’re kind of learning on the job a little bit. We’re coaching as fast as we can coach them, but you know, just the detail in route running particularly and Devin Funchess is really improving his blocking on a weekly basis. He works at it. He’s a tough kid. That’s one big thing with him, but Devin it’s an open book. He’s still learning how to route-run, and he’s pretty good at it considering he hasn’t done it much, so those are the biggest areas I would say.”
MGoQuestion: Record aside, can you compare and contrast how you feel about the offense going into the Big Ten season this year vs. how you felt last year?
“I feel like we can win the Big Ten. If we’re playing like we’re capable of playing, we can win the Big Ten. We’re as good as anybody, and if we play like that, we can't get beaten by anybody. I think the kids feel the same way. This is going to be -- there’s a lot of parity in this conference for a lot of reasons, but if we go out and play like we’re capable of playing, we can play with anybody in this conference, and I think we can also -- if we play like we played last week, we can lose to anybody in this conference. It’s a matter of shoring up the plays that are getting us beat. If we just shore that stuff up, I think we’re fine. It’s not like people are pushing us around. We’re not getting pushed around. We’ve got a few deals where we self-destruct, and not just the turnovers now. There’s other issues, too, and so much of it goes on the quarterback and all that, but it isn’t all the quarterback. We had some other issues.”
You ran Gallon on a couple end-arounds and things. Is that to get him in space? Is that to have people account for him?
“Yeah. Just a little more equipment for the offense. He’s good with the ball under his arm. That’s why we’ve got him returning punts and those kinds of things. He does that stuff. He does it pretty good.”
You said you can win the Big Ten. Is that just based on what you’ve seen from yourself or is it also based on what you’ve seen from other teams?
“The whole thing. Yeah. The whole thing. Just watching the conference and seeing how we’re playing and seeing how other people are playing. I’m not making any bold predictions here now, but I’m just saying. We’re as capable as anyone else to win this conference, and I don’t think that’s an overstatement.”
Did you have a similar feeling a year ago?
“Mmhmm. Yeah. I think so. Yeah, I think so. I think we’re confident if we … do what we need to do …”
After the Notre Dame game Denard said he has to be more of a role player. Is that something you want him to do?
“Yeah. The biggest thing about that is the mindset, you know? He is the centerpiece, and he’s going to be a huge part of our approach and our production, but we said when we came here that we didn’t want him to be the whole thing. We didn’t want him accounting for all that offense. We wanted other people to be involved. That would just help him, and more than that, it would help our team. We’ve tried our best to do that, although there’s been times it hasn’t worked out like we’ve thought. That’s why I never commit to how many times he’s going to carry the ball or how many times Fitz -- because you don’t know. You get on the battlefield and the battlefield changes. The strategy and the tactics change, and you have to adjust accordingly.”
Offense struggling away from home … what do you make of it?
“I’m never sure exactly what to make of it. All I know is to look at the raw data. We’re turning the ball over too much. What’s our rushing statistics on the road. How’s the play-calling? I looked at that and what I did over the last two weeks is I took every game we played on the road and went over every tape and looked at how I went about calling the offense on the road as opposed to how I went about calling the offense and took every single play we ran and evaluted.
Play-calling is an interesting deal because when you look at a play, you look at the play -- is it over-defended or under-executed? You’ve got really three categoreis. You’ve got a play that’s a potentially successful scenario where it should really work becaues all the pieces are in place, and then you have a play that has a chance to be a successful play, but it’s going to require a little more. Then you have a play where you’re working uphill on. The advantage is more for the defense. So when you look at your playcalling, you have to go through all those things, you have kind of a play 1, play 2, play 3, and look at all those situations, how you did on the road, how you did in [home] games.
And as a play-caller, believe me, as hard as the fans are on me, I’m about eight times harder on myself. … When we meet with the players we’ll go over even the plays that I didn’t call well so that -- you gotta understand that in football, if you’re honest with yourself and you’re honest with your team ... you have to show them, ‘Okay, this is where I put you in a bad situation,’ so they trust you that you’re not always blaming them for the mistakes. It’s our responsibility to get them to do what we want. Even when there’s errors, it’s still our responsibility. You have to kind of take that approach, although people, when things aren’t going well, want to point to one thing all the time. It’s very seldom one thing. It’s generally a bunch of things, and I think that’s probably what happened last week.”
Without giving anything away, what did you learn from this self-review?
“I’m not going to address that, because that would give some secrets.”
How far back did you look?
“Every game since I’ve been here.”
“Right. Just every game since I’ve been here.”
In general, what’s the best position you can put Denard in going forward?
“Well, keep him out of as many third-and-longs as possible number one, although the turnovers, there was only one in that situation. Still, that being said, he has been a pretty good third-down quarterback if you look at our numbers over the last couple years. I think we’re around 47 [percent] this year and right around there last year. We were over 50 for a while, and that was a lot because of him. He was making some throws, making some runs. Again, those are situations -- the third-and-sixes, the third-and-fours, those aren’t all bad. Those are manageable third downs. But going forward, we have to keep him out of the third-and-longs where any quarterback, not just Denard, but any quarterback feels obligated to make something happen so the chains can move. Particularly if the offense isn’t moving well during the game, you feel even more obliged to make something happen. But [we have to] keep him out of those situations and make sure we’re taking care of the ball.”
When Denard talked to you after his interceptions, was there anything he told you that you couldn’t see from where you were sitting?
“No. No. He knew. As usual, he usually knows exactly what he did wrong. He can half-coach himself before he ever does it, but I don’t ever assume that.”
As far as the offensive line goes, was the second half progress just the natural product of those guys playing together for three or four games now?
“Partly. Yeah. I think some of that was being challenged, but playing together, getting in sync. The biggest thing, and I think I’ve said this before, but offense is about getting in sync. Running one good play behind another good play behind another good play behind another good play behind another good play, or even if it’s not a good play, it’s at least a good enough play so that you’re in a second-and-seven so that you’re not in a bad situation. You have to get in sync, get in rhythm, and get going. Problem in this game is we showed signs of that. Did we have a three-and-out? I don’t know that we did. Problem is there were breaks because of the turnovers. The rhythm breaks when you give the ball to the other team obviously. That kind of deflates you, but they were showing signs of that the whole game.”