Oct. 5, 2004
An Interview With:
COACH Tyrone Willingham
Q. The kick return that went for a touchdown, obviously the missed tackle at the 22-yard line, but the kick returner wasn’t touched after that, either. When you analyze that play, what went wrong there besides the missed tackle?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We didn’t hold in the correct manner. All of the little things that go along with it to create a big play, we didn’t do well.
Q. The philosophy there, they are trying to set up the wedge and you have a group of guys that are trying to break up the wedge, and it was almost there was like a pile of ten players, five on each side and once the ball carrier got around it, then he was free. What did you see there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is usually a breakdown in your lane structure that you don’t cross the space at the right time and you don’t push the guy back into the wedge. And (Purdue’s) was more of a double team in a couple of places. You don’t break or penetrate the double-teams; therefore, you widen the lane and allow them a chance to get up in there and we didn’t constrict it.
Q. The one that occurred two games before that, what was the assessment of that one?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Very much the same thing.
Q. For Victor (Abiamiri), I know the stat sheet says he only has four tackles, but it would seem that he’s been a little more productive than that number indicates. How do you assess especially a defensive lineman? It’s difficult to assess based on tackle holds, but how do you assess his play up to this point?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The play of all of those guys, not just Victor, is based on the productivity of the group. What we try to do is rotate those guys in such a manner that you’ve created one with the many and to keep them fresh, keep them active and keep our defense being productive. You want to look at their individual statistics, but you have to look more at the group statistics and the statistics of your linebackers to see exactly how they are doing.
Q. What skills does he bring to the field?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Victor is growing each day. He is becoming more of a mountain of a man in his physical presence and he has a physical presence along with the quickness and I think you saw like he had one of the sacks Saturday, it was a very nice move (when he) busted inside. It was a marvelous play.
Q. The last thing, there was one point during the game where you were talking to Brady (Quinn) on the sideline and you just at one point just handed him the headset I assume to Coach Diedrick. Is there a point where you’re trying to communicate with him, but your perspective is not as good as the guy upstairs and rather than try to be the intermediary between that conversation, it’s best to hook him up with a guy that can see it best?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say sometimes that could arise but in that case it was just a definite question you needed to ask upstairs.
Q. Three of the games, you have had key plays that have really hurt.
COACH WILLINGHAM: You constantly try to find the right personnel to put in the right positions to get them to execute the job, but it still comes down to execution. And sometimes you search and the guy behind that guy is not as good as the guy you recognize. And as a coach it means you have to coach our guys better to do their job.
Q. I know you work on special teams every week, but do you put that extra emphasis now or spend more time on it now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, you try to, yes.
Q. Justin (Tuck) was talking about calling a senior meeting to talk to the younger players to make sure there’s no loss of confidence or whatever. (Are) you for that? Does that need to be said to the players at this point?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You never say that you regret good leadership and when our guys step forward and give us very positive leadership, you always welcome that.
Q. Do you think at this point that there are some players that maybe are taking this loss in a way that they need to have a talking to?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would think that what our leadership would be doing is ensuring that that’s not the case.
Q. And I think several players, one of the things they talk about is was the team, the fact that there’s still a whole lot to play for. There are a lot of teams that last year had two losses that went to the BCS?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think my statistics were correct. Absolutely.
Q. Did you feel you had to remind the guys?
COACH WILLINGHAM: But that’s something we started the year with. That’s not something that has popped up this moment. But you always touch on things that you think are important to your football team and keep them positive, keep them moving in the right direction. Not that anybody has dropped their head, but you want to always keep them moving in the right direction.
Q. But some players might have thought after this loss, might think, well, the whole BCS — do you think there’s a need to remind them?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Some of them don’t have the memory that I have, don’t have the history that I have. So therefore, yes, that’s part of educating them and making sure they are knowledgeable of the total environment.
Q. And you always say win by one point, a win is a win, loss is a loss, but players, some players are going to see differently. Do you think that players need reinforce after a big loss like that? It was a pretty wide margin, do you think that players need reinforcement that there is still a lot to play for and that you — that they are actually a good team or can be a good team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. I think we’ve demonstrated that we are a good football team. The fact is that Saturday, we played another good football team and the season will tell just how far they go with their season. But there’s no question they are a good football team, and I think we showed them we are a good football team.
Q. It would appear you’re playing another good football team this Saturday. Talk about Stanford and what concerns you have.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Stanford is coming to town probably the best that we’ve seen them in the last two years. They are coming in here a very confident team. They have got one loss, that one loss to co-National Champion USC, and they took them right down to the wire.
They are coming in believing that, one, their defense is very strong, they are aggressive; that their offense has big play potential in it with the runner and the receivers that they have. So I think they pose a lot of threats.
Q. Do you see anything that they are doing differently this year? You talked about confidence and big play capability, but is it just a matter of their players getting more experience in Buddy (Teeven’s) system? What do you see them doing that allows them to be 3-0?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, confidence is the number one thing, confidence and experience. You blend those together and then you start getting good, sound execution, and you’re making plays. (When your) making plays, you put yourself in position to win and they are doing that
Q. Given the points that have already been made about special teams, the fact that they are number three in the nation, the kick return, is that a particular point of emphasis?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We are very much aware that — I think it was T.J. Rushing and he is dynamic in his abilities. He has done a very good job against some other very good teams. We’ll have to put in some safeguards to make sure he does not have that kind of success against us.
Q. They have also shown a knack for blocking punts.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Three and one field goal. You always focus on those things.
Q. Talk about having to coach against players that you were responsible for helping bring to a university. And I know you’ve said before with Michigan State, that once the game starts, the emotions go out the window.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think that’s true. And Stanford, even though some of them were recruited by myself, hopefully they have some fond memories of our relationship.
But when the game starts, I’m quite sure that they will forget who is on the other side and see only Notre Dame and see only that they want to defeat Notre Dame.
Q. Do you think that the margin of victory that you were able to put up last year in Palo Alto will serve as a motivator for them?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it should, and I say that because as a coach, you try to use every tool that you can to motivate your team and we would be no different.
Q. Can you evaluate your team here as we are approaching mid-season mark, where you think you are and where you think you need to go from here?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I guess I could to some degree. As you know, I’m usually prone not to have any evaluations till the season is over, because that is the final mark of where you are and what you’ve done.
I would say we’ve done some good things, and in some areas, we still haven’t been as complete as we need to be. That would probably be a general statement.
Q. When you are going through a season and so forth, do you ever think about next year — and what I’m saying in terms of that, do you ever say, you know what, I’d like to give some people in some experience in games that are one-sided or for young people that will be starters next year, do you think along those lines ever, or not really?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It always depends on the game and where you are at during the game. I think it was the Washington game, we were able to get a few guys a little bit more experience. I thought that game dictated that.
Some other games, one way or another, it may not feel that way; so therefore, you don’t get them in. But you want as many people to play as often as you can get them, provided it does not hurt your team; but at the same time, you are adding that experience.
Q. And I ask it in the context of, for example, if you’re losing a lot of people in a particular position group, and I imagine your answer stays the same here, but that’s where I was going with that.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Okay.
Q. Offensive line play, can you evaluate at this point both in terms of the running game and the pass game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s that same old good and bad; that we’ve done some good things. To be able to throw the ball as many times as we did Saturday and produce the yardage that we produced, you have to have some good things in our protection.
You look at our run game, we did not run the ball as well as we’d like to; therefore, some things we did not finish and we didn’t complete.
So you are kind of always juggling and walking that tight wire of being good in one area sometimes and not good enough at other times.
Q. What do you account for the inconsistency, because this is a group that is now somewhat experienced; that has played together some.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Some of it has to be the guy that you’re playing across from. Sometimes they do some good things that make it very difficult for you to do your best at certain areas.
Q. Brady Quinn has continued to move up in terms of passing efficiency and so forth. I know he had some sacks, but his statistics keep getting better. Can you evaluate that part of his game, and also, maybe the intangible things that he brings to the team.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I said all along that I have a great deal of respect for Brady, his skill level, his leadership, his focus and his concentration. We have an excellent quarterback to command our system. He keeps getting more knowledgeable each day and he’s driven to be the best.
Q. How would the Carlyle Holiday figure into the kickoff return, I don’t know if he got dinged on that play, just evaluate him, what you thought of his first kickoff return in the game. And if you’d like to see him back there some more.
COACH WILLINGHAM: He might not ask to be back there anymore for that one, because he did get dinged on that one. He was aggressive like we’d expect him to be.
Q. How close are you to getting (Maurice) Stovall and (Ryan) Grant back?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know yet. We’ll see as we progress through the week. Tuesday is usually our first day when we have an opportunity to really see him on the field. We start to evaluate today to pace them on the week and see where they are at.
Q. The lopsided losses that have happened since you’ve been here, I know that probably from — I heard your answer about what you tell the players, but how about you as a coach, though, how do you process that? Do you count it the same as a close loss or a loss is the same, or does that disturb you and so forth?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say that every loss disturbs me. There’s not one that I’ve had that doesn’t bother me and that doesn’t sit well.
Q. Did the big lopsided ones hurt more, any more than the others?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Every loss disturbs me.
Q. Can you talk about how much the offense misses Ryan Grant, and how does that maybe change the dynamics of what you feel you guys could do well?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Ryan Grant has a leadership presence, he has a performance presence and he has an experience presence. And all of those things you count on in a play in your system; that players around him feel very comfortable with what he adds to our football team. His running style is that of a slasher; so therefore, he can do things that some of the other backs can’t do.
We miss his presence.
Q. When you look at this season, and this is just going back to what Tom (Coyne) asked earlier, when you look out there, what do you see that you guys are still playing for at this point? Obviously there’s still a lot of games and a lot that you guys could accomplish.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Right now, we’re playing for the same thing that every other team out there is playing for. Everybody would like to be the National Champion. We say that with two losses that percentage of a team that makes it is reduced, but there are a lot of things that are going to happen this year. We don’t know what’s going to happen. But what we have to do is position ourselves best and the best position we can be in at the end of the year would be with two losses.
Q. After the Washington game, you talked about how a win like that could go into the core of a team, paying off the hard work that everybody put in. When you lose that way, what effect can that have on a team in terms of the psyche going forward?
COACH WILLINGHAM: As you know, you can go both ways. When good things happen, it can elevate you and when bad things happen, it can take you down. What you have to be careful of is that you don’t let that happen and that’s where you have good, strong leadership, and there’s where your perspective has so much to do with what your response is.
Q. What did you do last season when you had some tough losses, that affected the team going forward —
COACH WILLINGHAM: I saw last week that our team kept battling and that is the mentality of our football team. That hasn’t changed. Our guys will keep battling.
I keep saying there’s a great deal out there for us to accomplish. I truly believe that and our young men believe that. That’s why — I think it was Tom (Coyne) mentioned that the players were talking to each other about that and that’s what you do as a teammate, you talk to him about the things you want to accomplish and what you want to achieve. So to me, that’s a very natural process.
Q. When you have a team that doesn’t quit like last week’s team didn’t get Purdue and the results don’t turn out the way they want to, can that have a cumulative effect that at some point they feel the work they put in is not translating? COACH WILLINGHAM: If you went directly and looked only at that game, you would have to say yes. But our players understand that we can get things done and they can get things done.
Q. Wondering if you can talk about Trent Edwards and what you’ve seen of him on film this year, is he living up pot potential you envisioned him when you recruited him at Stanford?
COACH WILLINGHAM: When we recruited Trent, we thought he was one of the most accurate high school quarterbacks that we’d seen and it looks like he’s getting back to that level. I think he as a freshman had some very difficult times and was thrown into the fire and it’s very difficult when you’re in that situation.
But now he’s emerging and becoming a quarterback that we thought he could be. His delivery is very quick. He gets the ball to a lot of good and right positions for their receivers and he is impressive. If I’m correct, they are completing about 61 percent of they are passes.
Q. And Justin Tuck said that he attributed a lot of Stanford’s offensive success to the offensive line. He said what from he’s seen it says the offensive line is starting to gel. Can you start to talk about what you’ve seen of them on film?
COACH WILLINGHAM: They are a sizable line. I think their smallest guy is about 290, and they seem to have good athletic skill. They seem to be working well together and yet at the same time they are still fairly young, when you look across that front. So it’s kind of an impressive group that has size and good athletic potential that seems to be playing very well together.
Q. And finally, can you talk a little bit about Corey Mays and the improvements that he’s made even from the start of fall camp to now at the beginning of the season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The thing with Corey Mays that I’ve been most impressed with is that each day he seems to become more knowledgeable of the system and provides the leadership and the direction that you need on the field with your group and within your front seven. Because part of their job is to make sure that everyone is in the right position. And I see Corey is really having much better grip and understanding of where everyone is supposed to be and getting them in the right places.
Q. One of his teammates said to me that if Corey were anyplace else, he would probably be a starter, and you said you know the talent that he has. Can you talk about the leadership he’s provided in terms of not complaining or making a fuss? He obviously has three very big guys in fronts of him, but it seems like he’s done very well with the role that he does have.
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, we are blessed that we do have guys of that ability in front him. But I don’t say necessarily “in front of him.” I say alongside with him.
What we do as coaches, we respect Corey’s ability and we get him in there in certain packages and really we look at him like he is a starter and count on him to give us that kind of leadership and that kind of role.
Q. Can you just talk a little about Anthony Fasano, his development at tight end and how he’s progressed last year to this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: With Anthony’s increase in experience – he’s starting to get back, to get over his surgery now – he becomes more of the athlete and player that we knew he could become and that manifested itself in his play on Saturday. It was a career day for him in terms of catches and yardage. He just adds a complete element to our tight end position an ability to catch the ball and hopefully run after the catch and be a physical tight end and aid our running game.
Q. Is that the most impressive thing, his completeness as a player, his well-roundedness?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is because it’s what separates tight ends. There are some guys that have the ability to block and are not very good receivers, and there are some guys that have the ability to be receivers and not very good blockers. But when you have a guy that can give you something in all of those areas and give it to you in a very strong manner, I think that separates him from the rest.
Q. When you have so many people at that position and they are all skilled and they are all athletic, how do you prevent, as a coach, from players getting frustrated with sharing playing time and not getting enough reps, how do you make that work?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is very difficult. It is not easy, but what you try to do is find the things that they do well and then build their playing time around that. In some cases it may not show up in one particular game, but it may show up in another game; and that for a player is very difficult because a player wants to be on the field all the time.
Q. Given the fact that your offense got so much yardage on Saturday and was only able to put 16 points up on the board, are you concerned about their ability to finish drives out and get them into the red zone and finish them inside the red zone?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, that’s something that we work on and we talk about and make a major focus for us. We have to complete drives. That is one of the big differences on good offensive teams; that is not just about yardage.
Q. And also, Stanford has shown it was very strong against the run. They only gave up 99 yards to USC. Talk about having a 325-pound nose tackle to try to move out of the way to get the ground game going?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I don’t think it’s just him. I really think it’s their entire defense. Their entire defense is very aggressive. They are doing a great job because the stat that you mentioned is quite impressive. I think they have had only one team in the four games that has had over 300 yards, and if I’m correct, it might have been San Jose.
Q. Do you feel like you have to get a ground game established against them in order to be successful?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We think our chances are much better to have success if we have our ground game with us. But if not, if it’s not there, we have to find another way to be successful.
Q. The decision to move Ambrose (Wooden) from offense to defense when he was a prolific high school performer offensively, what went into that decision?
COACH WILLINGHAM: What we tried to do is put Ambrose in a position where we can further his career as an individual and also help our football team. And we feel like he will develop and be a fine corner for us.
Q. What didn’t translate from the high school level offensively to the college level for him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He would have been a good receiver. But I think if you look down the road at his ability, he may be an outstanding corner.
Q. Talking about some of the lopsided losses, when you look back, more recent ones, it seems to come on the heels of some of your bests performance, Pittsburgh win with the then the 57-7 win against Stanford and then now three straight wins before Purdue. Do you feel like it’s a step-forward, step-back type thing, is that a concern of yours?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Consistency is a concern. You are always trying to be consistent every week out to prepare yourself to play a great game.
And at the same time, you were playing a pretty good football team during that stretch, I don’t know if we would have had 12 men on the field if we would have been able to stop him that day because he threw as perfect a pass that day.
Q. You’ve been asked this question a couple of times now about playing Stanford and the meaning of that game; is there any extra for you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: As I said, there always is. Before the game you have a chance to see and meet and great people that have been especially important in your life, and that’s always important and always has a great deal of meaning. But once the kickoff starts, it will be Stanford and Notre Dame.
Q. You’re halfway into your third year in the program. Is this where hoped you would be; is this where you thought you would be as a program?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That is an interesting question and I’m usually one takes it day by day and try just to make the most of every day and be prepared to make all of the adjustments necessary to make that next day a good day.
I would hope that I would have more wins and more success as I sit here today. To me, that’s the goal. The goal has been always to win every game that you play. And that has been my focus and will continue to be my focus.
Q. What do you feel like are the biggest challenges for you as a head coach to getting to maybe where you want to be where you have put those high standards for yourself, because I know you say your standards are higher than everybody else’s, what are your challenges to getting this program to that point?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We have all of the normal challenges that any program continues to have. Players that we have, you have to develop them to be absolutely the best that they can be. We have to continue to recruit young men that can help us be a better football team; and in the process, starts all over again; that once they are here, coach them to be the best they can be. And we have to do what I think are all of the other things you want done in a collegiate football program. You want to have great students, great people, etc. Those are all challenges.
Q. How close do you feel the program is, you mention Purdue and said that is a pretty good football team, and they really did look like the better team on Saturday. How close is your team to being a team like that that people are going to say — just have to take our hats off to Notre Dame?
COACH WILLINGHAM: People do have respect for our team and respect for our program. But the thing that you have to do, you have to win and you have to win consistently, and that’s the thing that we’ve got to do. It can’t be win two weeks, (then) fall back. We have to get on one of those rolls.
Q. Do you worry that the fake punt will add a little motivation?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say, if I were sitting on the other side and I could twist that in such a manner to use it as motivation, I would try to use it.
Q. Later do you regret —
COACH WILLINGHAM: No.
Q. So you don’t worry about a decision this year affecting —
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. If we were to get the same rush which we had, we’ve had it twice this year in games and if we are that situation where we’re not backed up on our goal line and the percentages are not favorable, we’ll try to complete (the play again).
Q. In games where Brady throws more than 40 times you’re 0-7. It shows that the other team — COACH WILLINGHAM: I said this some time ago and hopefully I phrased it the right way, and I would say that probably in 80 percent of the cases, this is true.
The only time that a team wins when it passes for a lot more than 300 yards is when two teams pass for 300 yards. Usually when you’re throwing the ball that much that many times, usually it doesn’t mean that you win and we are aware of that. That’s why the run game, the addition of the run game is so important to what we do. And yes, we need to have a run game.