Nov. 11, 2003
Q. Your record at Notre Dame now in single-digit games is 9 and 3. To what do you attribute the ability to win those close games?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think we have been fortunate. I think our kids have been poised. I think our coaches have provide the right mix and blend of play-calling and discipline and teaching that’s allowed us to do fairly well in close ballgames.
Q. Largest lead this year I think is only 7 points. Does that inhibit the growth of a football team? In other words, it prevents you to play maybe some of the backups as much as you would like in order to develop them as the season progresses?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Number one it does allow the coaches or the fans to relax. It will be nice to have one where you can kind of get a nice lead and stretch out and then have those No. 2s and sometimes No. 3s get some playing time that they so badly need. For that matter even include some of your walk?ons in that to give them opportunities to play. So I would answer that by saying it does limit your growth because it limits the opportunities to play and you really don’t get better ’til you play in a game.
Q. What is Anthony Fasano’s status? Will he be available to play this weekend?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’re not sure yet.
Q. BYU, do they look familiar at all in a sense that they kind of struggle, hot and cold defensively, and had a disappointing season from what they expected at the beginning of the year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I am not familiar with their beginning of the year expectation. But I do think they have been subject to a lot of injuries that have kind of limited what they have been able to do. It’s unfortunate but injuries do have impact on seasons.
Q. Julius has had a season where it has been obviously a couple of really good games but couple of games where he hasn’t had much production. Is it because of the situations you think more than his ability, I mean, that you have been forced to pass more in some of those games than giving him the opportunity?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I have said that, one, we have to have patience and to continue to put the ball in the running back’s hands if you are going to have a running game. The games that we have played in, many of those we have been in kind of a chase position where we have been behind and it really forces, at least I force our coordinators to get away from running the football and encourage them to throw it more because you do want to get back in the ballgame.
Q. Seemed like in the game Saturday you just decided to go with Julius rather than go back and forth. Is that something that you expect to do for the rest of the season or is that just for one game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, it’s consistent, I think, with the philosophy that we have had; that runner, we like both our runners we think Julius is playing very well and doing some great things. And that runner that’s hot, you try to get them the ball a little more often.
Q. In this game you are not going in with the idea of Julius carrying the ball more, it’s whoever is playing well, whoever seems to be doing well will get the carries.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Health issues we consider also.
Q. Ryan is not healthy?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He’s nursing a little foot problem a little bit.
Q. Have you been impressed by Julius’s attitude this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I have. I think Julius has really accepted a leadership role with his return and that has been very positive and I think that has been picked up not just by Coach Willingham but by his teammates.
Q. Is it first by example or is he one of the vocal people in the locker room?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think first by example.
Q. Talk a little bit about teams — especially in the Navy game a lot of the times they were winning the field position battle. I think they have had 7, 8?yard edge every time they get the ball. How big a concern is that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is even more distinctive than that. I think it was almost, oh, I want to say their starting field position was in about their 42, I think it was and ours might have been our 20 or somewhere like that. That makes a huge difference because you look at that statistic alone, if they are starting at their 40?yard line and they get one and a half first down or two first downs depending on their field goal kicker, you are in range. And that changes the football game.
Q. Kind of piggybacking off of that a little bit, I mean, what do you think about your special teams’ play as of late?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it’s been good in some places and other places not so good. That’s changed week-to-week, it seems like, sometimes. One week your return teams are good and you get good kick teams and the next week you don’t.
Q. Also in the last couple of weeks it’s been noticeable that Julius Jones has moved off of the kick return team. What has been the reason for that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think to give him a little bit more rest and also to ?? because he’s carrying the ball in many of those cases a few more times.
Q. I’d like to ask you a question as to what you think this win does for you, the team, and what kind of spiritual emphasis has this win brought because there’s a lot of prayers been going up for a win like this?
COACH WILLINGHAM: (Laughs). There are a lot of candles being lit at the grotto, okay.
No, I mean, any time you win, it uplifts everyone’s spirits. I have said it many times, even the water tastes better when you win. People are tired of hearing that, I know that, but it is true. When you win, you feel better, the team feels better, the step is a little faster, so when it positive it’s good. And it’s a good thing to win. We’re excited about being in the winner’s circle and what we have got to do is really work hard and fight to maintain that because the next opportunity will be as difficult or more difficult to get a victory.
Q. Talk a little bit about the offensive line development; especially in pass protection against Washington State you guys gave up seven sacks and have not given up one in the last three games. How much is that just a matter of maturation?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I wish you wouldn’t ask that question. That’s almost like the kiss of death. Okay, because we have play a team this week that’s going to blitz and stunt unbelievably, I almost call it one of those maniac defenses that we’re going to face that you really don’t know where they are coming from or what alignment they are really in. So can I ask to you just go back and strike that one? (Laughter).
Q. I might be able to do that.
COACH WILLINGHAM: But as the guys continue to get more time on the field, I believe they develop, what I call a library of football information, which really is more experience. And the more experienced you become, the more accustomed you are to gain speed, the more accustomed you are to changes and adjustments that take plays, little things, just like getting set at the right — at the same level; which when you face a stunt, everybody can still have the right guy that they are blocking, but if you are not at the right level you will allow penetration and therefore you give an opportunity for a sack. So it’s little things of that nature that as they become more experienced, they get better and better at performing run blocking and also pass protection.
Q. I think a lot of times when people ask a young quarterback about going into a system, speed of the game usually comes up first. Is that true for a young offensive line as well, do you think the game slows down a little bit?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is true for everyone. When you first do something everything seems blurry; then gradually as you do it more and more and more, you become, I guess, acclimated to all — more of the things that are going around you. And because of that, mental process seems to slow down.
Q. Dan Stevenson, his status?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’re not sure yet.
Q. Maurice, I think everyone had high expectations for him. You look at him he’s 6’5: 215, 220, 225. What maybe has prevented him from, you know, being kind of that difference?maker type guy that I think people believed he could be or would be this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, No. 1, I think there’s still a great future for Maurice out there. But sometimes you go back and forth between making plays and not making plays. Sometimes the player nor the coach can figure out the reason why one day you do and one day you don’t, but what we’re going to hope for Maurice is that he continues to work hard because we believe in him and we will continue to work him hard.
Q. Is that a situation where it would be more as much a mental situation than certainly a physically one?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I say most of the game is mental; not physical. There’s sometimes when physical expertise is clearly visible, is lacking, or there, et cetera, but I think in most of the game it comes down to being able to mentally concentrate and focus and get your body to work as one.
Q. Coaches may look at players, some guys need a kick in the butt; some guys need to be kind of brought up slowly; some need a pat on the back. What is kind of Maurice’s personality in that regard in how you kind of coach him up through this tough time?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You use both. Sometimes you kick and sometimes you pat.
Q. Last week you indicated that Nick Setta would be ready perhaps in two, three weeks. Assuming he is and looking ahead to the end of the season and the success of Fitzpatrick who — any likelihood you would continue to use Fitzpatrick even if Setta is healthy?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. First of all, I am not optimistic about Nick for this coming week. But if Nick is ready, he’s our kicker.
Q. Foot? Leg? Ankle? What can you tell us?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I can’t.
Q. What was the problem with the field? A lot of players were losing their footing last week.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I believe as I label it, this time of the year because any moisture that accumulates on the field there’s not the true kind of heat to kind of dry it out so you always have kind of a slick layer on the grass to some degree, so we try to alert our young men they really got to do a great job of getting their feet down and making sure that they are cutting off that outside foot in most cases and not off an inside foot.
Q. Any way to practice for that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We practice everyday (laughs) on a very like surface, our practice field, because nothing right now, the earth is just — there’s moisture this time of the year. So we’re working on it everyday. You try to just constantly remind them about it.
Q. How important is the crowd, home crowd in your support?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, our home crowd is critical to your success because I tell our football team that there are moments that we need to do something great to pick our crowd up and there are moments that the crowd needs to do something to pick the team up. And together, when they work well, you can have a lot of success.
Q. The report of 300 or so students turning their tickets in before the Navy game, did that surprise you to support you and how did the team react?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I am just becoming aware of that so I am not sure that our players even knew that number or that statistic.
Q. Maybe that’s good. If indeed that happened, I know it would be hard to police something like that, but suggest that perhaps can’t do it with the seniors, but next year deny ticket privileges to those who did that, what would your reaction be to that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say that would be the least of my concerns. I focus on a lot of other things other than that.
Q. You indicated last week I think I understood you to say some of the other teams in the country and the recruiting process promised recruits that they would play. Does that happen to Notre Dame and what is the recruiting process, anybody promised if they sign with Notre Dame, they will play?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That will probably be one of those recruiting secrets that stays between Coach Willingham and that player. But honestly, no. I tell our young men at the recruiting process that we’ll play the best player and that’s a very honest approach; it’s a very sincere approach and it’s one that I think offers great integrity with your football team which is important to me.
Q. Maybe give us a brief comparison of the teams coming up, strength against weakness for this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: For this week, we have to make a 180?degree turn. We go from facing the option to facing a team that is going to throw the football probably more than we might have seen it thrown this year. They are going to give us a variety of formations, of personnel groupings, and it going to be a difficult task just to identify most of that and then play it in the proper manner. So we have got to make a turn, a change, adjustment. We still have to do what we do best and right now offensively that’s — we are doing a great job. We’re at our best, shall I say, when we are running the football and it mixes in our play-action passes; that’s when we’ll be at our best.
Defensively, even though this team is a passing team, and we anticipate a great deal of pass, we have got to limit their ability to run the football, force them to be one-dimensional, and then hope that with the normal law of averages that they will throw enough incompletions that we’ll contest enough that they have incompletions and pick a couple also in between.
Q. Brady Quinn the rest of the season I know you have said repeatedly since he’s been the starter that you like the job he’s doing and you have seen good things from him. Are there any specific things you would like to see him work on and improve in these final few games of the season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There are some things that we think that he will just get better and better at, but most of it has to do with just gaining experience at the game and I think each game that he plays he gains a little bit more knowledge about how to play the game, so probably the biggest thing is just the overall knowledge and experience I think he’ll gain from each game.
Q. I know ball control and keeping the ball is big every week, but you mentioned BYU might be the most pass-happy you face this year. Is it more important to run the ball and to keep control of the ball and keep control of time of possession in this type of game so your defense doesn’t get worn out?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, yes, it is, but that was really as critical last week with a team that ran the ball so I mean, that’s always an important step, but I think the thing that you probably gain a little bit this week is that when you have a team that we believe is eager to pass the ball as a BYU, they probably give you a few more possessions that you might not get some weekends.
Q. Given DJ’s performance this year, coming in and what happened on Saturday, is that the kind of kick at the end of a game that could make or break a kicker’s career?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Gosh, I guess you have to say yes and no to that. I think it depends more on the individual; those that are really strong of mind, if they miss one at the end of the ballgame they come back and kick the next one. I have always — few opportunities that I have had to talk to our team about situations like that, I have reminded them of something that I read on Michael Jordan, I think it was, I think he exaggerated the numbers, but I think he said somewhere that he missed a thousand game?winners and I know that’s not even close, but I think he did that for impact, but he’s really stating the fact that you keep doing it, because you are going to make some; you are going to miss some. I am quite sure he’s made a lot more than he’s missed to win games.
Q. Knowing DJ, what side of the equation would he have fallen?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think he falls to the positive side of that; that he would have come out if he had missed it and kicked the next one the very next time because I do believe, if I am correct, that we did miss two field goals. I think he made one or two, but missed — maybe made one and missed two and then came back to kick the game-winner. So I think there’s already a demonstration on what side he fits on.
Q. Last year at this time you had four veterans in your secondary. This year with the injury to Glenn Earl, your experience has gone way down. Why is it so important essentially in the secondary where so much is being out there alone and sort of being able to react to things and figure out what you need to do on the side?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think experience is such a positive in making a better player because when you have experience and you have shown that you can do things well it allows you to play with much more confidence, much more aggressive, you are quicker to react, and all those things allow you to make more plays and when you miss that, then, gosh, it just makes everyone a little tentative ’til they can really gain their footing and become confident, become experienced and become more experienced in their play.
Q. Talk about how important getting a win is in learning the process. How important is it for the kids to see the fruits of all that effort they have put in in practice?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I don’t think there’s a substitute. I know there are people that say you can learn a lot of lessons when things don’t go right. But I think you learn a lot more lessons when things go well because it does reinforce everything that you work on that week. It allows you to have confidence in those that are teaching you and confidence in yourself and teammates. So I just think you benefit so much more with success and I think if you want to develop a great cycle, it’s a cycle built on success and not failure.
Q. Is Glenn Earl is out for the season now and can you tell us any other of your starters that are ailing and perhaps miss this game or the rest of the games?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think we can say that Glenn Earl is out for the season. I think we anticipate that Kyle Budinscak will be out for the season. I think mentioned this morning Anthony Fasano, I think there was a question about him, maybe I am getting to him before there is a question, but he will be questionable. Dan Stevenson will be questionable. Nicholas Setta, not optimistic about him this week. Those are a few.
Q. A question about recruiting if you can address it. Doesn’t seem to be an enormous amount of running back depth in the program right now. Is running back going to be a point of emphasis in recruiting? Have you seen enough of Travis Thomas or whatever to comment on how he might be doing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think Travis Thoms is doing very well. He’s shown himself to be a physical runner and also to have some elusiveness. So we’re pleased with what he has done and he seems to be adjusting well to the protection aspect of learning our system which is important because if you do pass the ball also that back has to have a prominent role in your protection. But is running back an area of emphasis for us? Yes, because I think every program always needs as great a runner as they can possibly have and we’re seeking that guy that can be just to feed on.
Q. I am curious, obviously Senior Day you will have a group of seniors playing their last game at Notre Dame stadium. I am curious how have the seniors sort of handled the adversity of this season? Have they all stuck together and done pretty good job handling it?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I have been extremely impressed with the leadership offered by our seniors and that’s also inclusive of a group of seniors that have really haven’t touched the field this year because of injuries, Sean Milligan, Gary Godsey, guys of that nature that have provided, I think, some very positive leadership even though they have not been on the field. But I think our group that has been on the field has done a great job of keeping the football team together, because I think when you are struggling as we have on occasion this year, it is extremely easy for things to unravel and people to point fingers and go in different directions, but I think our seniors have taken the lead in that and have kept its team working hard and believing that good things can happen.
Q. Can you share some of the goals you still talk with the seniors about for this season or is that something you want to keep between yourselves?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Usually I keep most of that between myself and the team. But I think we always talk about pride. We always talk about being the best that they can be as individuals and as a football team. And just trying to represent our university and our football program in a manner that still makes the former players proud.
Q. Will you do anything different in the game or in preparation for the game being that it is the last time around for these guys?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There are some ceremonial things I think will take place around the seniors’ last outing that are tradition in the program that you do.