Nov. 23, 2004
JOHN HEISLER: Just a couple of quick notes for you. For those of you connected via satellite, we’ll have five minutes of highlights from the Pittsburgh game from a couple weeks ago at the tail end of the satellite feed. Kickoff this weekend will be a little bit after 5:00 p.m. Pacific time, that’s 8:00 on the East Coast. This is our last teleconference of the year. Anything that happens beyond this is to be announced, and we’ll start by taking questions from people here in person, then we’ll go to folks on the telephone.
Q. Why do you think it is that Notre Dame seems to play better when its back is up against the wall?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s just the natural tendency, that you seem to focus better when you have fewer distractions. Putting your back against the wall eliminates a lot of distractions. It’s just natural that the team would fall into that mode.
Q. You talked a lot about the need to play with confidence. Is it tough playing with confidence with a team you lost to the past two years by 31 points each?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is to a degree, but I think if you talk to our young men, they don’t focus on that number. That is more for other people. What’s upsetting to them is the fact that they lost. And their focus goes to working themselves to be the best they can be and find a way to defeat that team.
But when someone has beaten you, it always shakes your confidence a little bit. You have to gather your focus, refocus and go out.
Q. If you lose close, you say there’s one or two plays that caused it. Both those games, you were close last year for two series, USC it wasn’t close at all.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I guess I see things a little bit different, okay? I guess that’s why I coach.
But in almost every game, you can go back and say that there are probably five or six plays that make a huge difference, and even sometimes the score doesn’t indicate how close a ballgame is.
So, again, to the player, the reaction is a lot different. The point differential I don’t think weighs as much as some other people think.
Q. Is there any extra excitement just because you’re playing the No. 1 team? Does that add a lot to this or is it already so big it doesn’t really matter that that number is there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: If you go back and follow this game and the series through history, that number has been important because I think this rivalry has involved so many No. 1’s at some point. To have that be in place again adds something to it. There’s no question that the game is big, but when you have that number there, it does add something to the ballgame.
Q. The fact that they’re coming off a bye week, do you think that’s kind of a wash, not a big advantage for you having the bye week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would think it’s a huge advantage for them. Not that it is just one bye week or equal bye weeks, but when you look at their schedule, this is the third bye week that somehow has been worked into their schedule. This is about the third time they’ve had this break. They’ve been able to really split their season up. I think it really benefits them.
Q. Usually you talk about trying to stop the run against a team. This team is so balanced, which one do you focus on?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You still have to focus on the run here. There is no question, they’ve got some great weapons at the receivers. You thought one of them had left, but they seem to find a way to replace him.
You still have to start with the run because one of the major differences that has made this team a better team is that they have a physical runner at that tailback position. And that’s what (LenDale) White gives them. He gives them almost, in my opinion, their soul, their heart, the drumbeat of that football team. If you can stop that, now you’re better able to focus on some of the other areas.
Q. On your coaching ballot, do you have them No. 1?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I do.
Q. We were speaking with some of the players yesterday, and they agreed that going up in the crowd during a game is probably not a real wise thing for them to do. Brady (Quinn) said the numbers weren’t in his favor, so he’d stay out of the crowd.
COACH WILLINGHAM: He has been a smart quarterback.
Q. I was wondering, have you had that specific conversation with the team with regard to how they deal with fans when they go on the road? Obviously, they’re going to be verbally abused. They said they’ve been hit by batteries before. Is that a specific discussion you’ve had with the football team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, it is a sad commentary for all of us to even have to talk about that or discuss that. It shouldn’t have any place in sports, period.
But if the conditions do exist, then, yes, I will instruct our team, first of all, to keep their helmets on. That would be number one. Then, number two, we don’t retaliate. We’re there to compete and play the game the way it should be played on the field.
Q. Three players were suspended this year. Can you give us an idea what their future is at Notre Dame? Do you anticipate them back for the next semester, spring practice, next fall?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Right now, as you know, that is really under the guidelines of the University, okay? We would hope that their decision would be to be back. But as always, there are certain things they have to do within the University in order to be back. When those things are completed, we will know.
Q. Coach (Lou) Holtz retired yesterday. I was wondering about your paths crossing during your coaching career, just what your thoughts are on his coaching career.
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is sad that you have to see or witness a legend retire from the game. There is no question that he has the utmost respect of all those that are in the profession, and he’s done great things. Bringing a championship to Notre Dame, without question, will be one of the high points of his career.
I had the opportunity to work with him, and I think it was the Hula Bowl or one of the All-Star Games out there. It is a tremendous experience of learning how to motivate young men. And he is absolutely tremendous at that, as with all facets of the game.
But college football will miss Lou Holtz.
Q. In-home visits start Sunday. I was wondering if you could kind of relay to us what that whole period is like from a coach’s standpoint.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know where to begin with your question. What it is like to recruit the young man in his home? There’s so many directions you can go with that. Can you pinpoint me a little bit?
Q. From a busy standpoint, how busy you are, a understand from the importance of the visits in the whole recruiting process standpoint.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Let me give you my perspective a little bit on that.
My getting out into the home is really determined about the needs of the young man. And that’s where we have to do a great job of identifying of where he’s at in the recruiting process, exactly where the head coach’s visit fits in and the timing of that. Some will be early, some will hopefully come later in January, depending on that young man’s timetable and how you place him within our Notre Dame structure.
You are extremely busy at that time because, one, you’re hopefully wrapping up a season. Two, there is hopefully a Bowl game in line. Then, three, you’re still trying to prepare and maintain continuity within your own team structure. So it does become a very busy period. Trying to get into all the homes takes a little organization.
Q. Logistically, going to a Bowl game, Bowl preparation, that’s a good problem, but talk about the challenges you face with that, with having some coaches on the road and others trying to prepare for a Bowl game.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Most of our young men, I would say, respond best when their coach is around, when his eyes are on them watching every step they take, being able to monitor that. So you lose a little bit of that impact at your practices.
Yet it is a great time because you do have a Bowl on their minds and they are excited about that. But at the same time it makes the continuity of your program lessen just a little bit in terms of the sense of urgency, but at the same time you have to be out and making those contacts with the recruits because, if not, there is somebody else that will be occupying that living room, and we need to have a presence there.
Q. We talked about the three-year factor at the beginning of the year. Notre Dame coaches in their third year, (Lou) Holtz, (Dan) Devine, Ara (Parseghian). Pete Carroll in his third year won a national championship. You’re in your third year. You’re 6-4. What do you see as the difference between the route that Pete Carroll was able to take in building a national championship versus what you’re going through now here at Notre Dame?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The difference in the route between?
Q. Why was he able to build a national title in three years where you’re at 6-4 right now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think Pete has done a great job of bringing a very talented group of athletes to being a team. I felt like when I was at other places, playing SC, the talent was there in abundance, but they weren’t functioning as a team. I thought the strongest thing he’s done is bring them together as team.
Now, to be able to parallel those our paths could be totally different. It could be that my path is the fourth year, could be the fifth. I don’t know.
Q. Reggie Bush is a young man that you tried to get here at Notre Dame. It’s obvious why when you see him play. What is it that stood out about him during the recruiting process? What do you see in his development now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He’s physically getting stronger and more physical in his play each year. What stood out about him more than his athletic skills, because they were tremendous, I think he was the fastest 200-meter high schooler in the country the year he came out, or pretty close to it, so the athletic talent has been there.
I really enjoy the person. I thought the goals that he set for himself, his personality, his values I thought were very impressive.
Q. Another thing that they’re doing with (Dominique) Byrd back in the lineup midway through the season, they’re utilizing the tight end even more than they did early in the season. How much does that pose a threat to you, that weapon, and your defense?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is consistent with their overall scheme because when you first mentioned Reggie Bush, you think of him as a halfback, but he’s not. He is a halfback plus. He is a wide receiver, he’s a slot receiver. They employ him in a lot of positions. And they have the ability to do that with several of their other athletes. You see their fullback, see them line up at wide receivers, and they function fairly well in those areas.
When you look at Byrd, you’re not looking at a traditional tight end. You’re looking at a guy that is probably like (Tony) Gonzalez with the Kansas City Chiefs, that they have as a wide receiver, and he’s able to function fairly well there. That gives them a great deal of flexibility in their offense.
Q. Does Norm (Chad’s) offense compare at all with any of the other offenses that you see throughout the year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He does quite a few of the things that a lot of the offenses that we see in the course of a year. He’s just got great people doing it and that has a tendency to make a difference.
Q. Is there any one where you see this is like Purdue’s or BYU’s?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. They are still unique to themselves in the fact that you very seldom see anything much more than once or twice. They have a lot of variety.
Q. When talking about all the weapons that USC has on offense, can you talk a little bit maybe about the stress that that puts on the defense to try to make up for or keep everything in front of them, so to speak?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The biggest stress is if you consider yourself a match-up defense, it is very difficult to match up because they will give you a base personnel in terms of the people that run onto the field, a fullback, a halfback, a tight end, two wide receivers. But now when the tight end lines up as a wide receiver and has the ability to perform as a wide receiver, now when you’re trying to match up, if you put in a base package, you’re not playing apples to apples.
So they do that from a personnel standpoint, which puts the primary stress on you. Then if you just try to be vanilla, then they’ve got you from that standpoint, too. So the ability to interchange personnel is the biggest stress that they place on you.
Q. Is there some concern about just the ultimate match-ups, they’ll probably put a linebacker on a tight end, you’ll maybe have a linebacker trying to cover a running back?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Absolutely. You have to try to guard against those situations. That is one we found ourselves in a year ago when I think (Reggie) Bush caught the one going up their sideline toward the north end of the field.
Q. Could you talk about Derek Landri, kind of what he’s meant to that defensive front?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Derek Landri has been extremely active. That would probably be the biggest change from a year ago, is that we’re getting more productivity out of Derek than we probably did our other two nose tackle and tackle, that he is making a lot more plays, being more active, and that makes you a better defense.
Q. Is it a foregone conclusion, people were asking you about Bowl preparations, that Notre Dame will go to a Bowl regardless?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I don’t think we’ve received an invitation yet. So, no. We’ve got to play to win in order to believe we have the best chance.
Q. And how about you as a coach? Is it something that the team talks about? Do you put it to a vote? Do you say, “We’re going if we get an invitation”?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
Q. I also wondered in terms of your philosophy, would you like to play the best possible opponent, what I mean by that is the highest-ranked opponent? Do you think that’s the best thing? There’s a lot of people saying Notre Dame should be playing a middle-of-the-pack team, or should they play the highest-ranked team you can?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You always play the highest-ranked team you can. But as you know, those options may not be at our choosing.
Q. Could you evaluate, we’re not to the end of the season yet, but pretty close, the offense, how you felt the offense developed or didn’t this year.
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s amazing that I’ve used this word, and everyone has agreed with me, and that’s rarely that everyone agrees anyway, but the word has been “inconsistent,” okay? That is where we are. We’ve had our Pittsburgh game that we moved the ball fairly effectively both halves to some degree, still not as well as we’d like to do it. We’ve had other games where we’ve not moved it and lost that movement, had it for a while and lost it.
My thing is that we’ve been inconsistent. In some areas we’ve improved. We’re probably a little more passing yardage this year than we were last year, but at the same time we’ve dropped off a little bit in our run production. So we’re trying to see if we can maximize all of those so that we can be a much more consistent, a much more productive offense.
Q. In your opinion, does the offense take a step forward next year naturally because you have so many returnees or do you tweak it? What goes into the coaching process on that when you’re saying, “Here is where we are, we’re No. 75, we want to move up, how do we improve?”
COACH WILLINGHAM: You cannot rely on the fact that you have returning players. You’ve got to get better, okay? All of our guys that are returning have to be better. We have to, again, constantly, just as you do from game to game, week to week, year to year, you’ve got to go through and look at all the statistics, see what’s really important, identify those areas that you can most improve in and see if you can do that.
Q. The numbers that were produced by your offenses at Stanford were pretty overwhelming at times, pretty consistently good. Was the fact that you were coming into a similar system helped getting things moving faster there offensively than perhaps here?
COACH WILLINGHAM: In that system, you got to believe that there was pretty much carryover for the last 20 years. You go back, when I was there as an assistant, that was ’89 we arrived, Denny Green was a student of Bill Walsh. Walsh was there in ’77, I think it was, might have been the last time he was there. Then you had Paul Wiggins, some other coaches. But that style of play has been very consistent at that particular University for quite some time. So in terms of continuity and the ability to understand that, it has always been there.
Q. And then I would imagine that plays into the personnel that you inherited that maybe was better fit at Stanford? I don’t want to put words in your mouth.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Please don’t.
Q. You’re a more eloquent speaker than I am anyways.
COACH WILLINGHAM: You give me credit for that. I love you, Eric (Hansen), thank you.
There’s a learning curve in every situation, and you hope that you can make that as quick as possible so that you can have the production that you’re seeking.
Q. Has the learning curve here, in your opinion, taken longer than you expected or did you go in with a blank page and not have expectations about that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I try to just develop and grow as fast as you possibly can. My goal has always been to have as much success as soon as you can and adjust along the way.
Q. You mentioned both last year and today about USC being a pretty talented team when you played them, or talented group of individuals, that they become a team. Is there anything else in USC’s rise that you can look at and say, “That was a great idea, I like what they’re doing with that”? Anything you can take from their model? Are USC and Notre Dame such different models that there are not parallels?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think there are some things that we could take. If you look at them outside of the talent, they’re doing a great job as a team, which means they’re doing all aspects of the game well. They’re coaching well, they’re doing a great job with defense, they’re doing a great job at offense, they’re doing a great job at special teams. Those are all the things you want to look at.
Are there particular plays or schemes that you would take from them? Oh, yes. There are things that you incorporate. There may be a zone blitz that they’ve used particularly effectively, maybe a different variation that might help us. There would be things like that you notice from opponents, not just them, but other opponents also.
Q. In terms of recruiting, do you feel that you need to have guys on your team, do you think it’s important when you’re recruiting, guys on your team that will eventually end up in the NFL? Do you think that’s an important component in terms of your talent level?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would like to have about 60 of those.
Q. Do you have a sense of whether Justin Tuck will be back next year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I do not have a sense of that, and I have not spoken with Tuck on that issue.
Q. You used the word “inconsistent.” We played at times, quite a few times throughout the season, very, very well, which means, as I see it, the talent is there. Why is the inconsistency, in your opinion? Is it a fair question?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, every question I think is fair, okay? I don’t think you hear me ever say, “That’s not a fair question.”
But I would imagine, and I hate to be so general to talk about human nature, but I also believe in it, but I also believe that most of us that have been parents, good parents, that we teach our kids certain things. But why do kids do something other than what we teach them? So we all pause for that answer, is that right?
Q. That’s right.
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s the same thing. We hopefully instruct our guys well and try to bring them to do all the things you want to do. But things happen. They don’t respond. I don’t think, if I’m correct, even as we look at the No. 1 team in the country, that every play that they’ve run has been a great play for them. They’ve made some mistakes also. So it happens.
But the better teams are more consistent than other teams, and that’s why they win, and that’s why they’re successful.
Q. And the USC game, what do you look at as Notre Dame’s strong suit?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Our strong suit will have to be our attitude going in. We’ve got to carry in there a `don’t worry, have fun’ loose attitude, nothing to lose in this contest, and go play some very physical football.
If we take that, the right mindset, then I think our bodies will be able to perform at a level that we’ll be very comfortable with.
Q. You and I were talking at another time, I indicated it must be really a thrill to knock off Michigan. Your response to me, I’m paraphrasing was, “No, it wasn’t a surprise. We expected to win.” I think you’re talking about attitude.
COACH WILLINGHAM: That is exactly what I’m speaking about. You have to believe something can happen before it can happen. It doesn’t happen in most cases by just hoping and wishing. So we’ve got to take the right approach in there, and you’ve got to execute on that approach.
Q. Where along the line do you get the feel that the team attitude is going to be where you want it for Saturday?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Usually I say that when you start the game, that’s when you really know exactly where you are.
Q. You can sense it?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Oh, yes. You know, you can sense whether you’re a little off, you’re a little ahead, your attitude is right, and then that’s where you really have to adjust.
Q. If you don’t feel it’s right, what do you do?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I start figuring out a way to get it right quickly, because I probably only have about 20 minutes to do that.
Q. Coaches like to say the extra month of practice for a Bowl really helps. Could you understand a circumstance under which you wouldn’t want to go to a Bowl?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t think so. All the good teams have that luxury. When you have a chance to add as many as 14, 15 days potentially of practice or the ability to work with your guys in some degree, that’s a plus. So to me it’s a real win for your football team in the long run, not just for that game. If you talk about building a team for the future, you start to gain when you can get more practice and more opportunity for those guys to develop and get better.
Q. Have you looked further if you prefer to go to the Insight Bowl?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I’m not there. I’m trying to beat SC.
Q. You addressed it a little bit, but what have you seen that Pete Carroll has done out there to get this thing turned around really so dramatically?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Again, my biggest thing, because I was a few miles closer when he first arrived, is that I thought the real difference was team. I thought they are playing as one, and because of that the talents that they have, the great coaching that he’s doing, it’s all working together. And they have a level of confidence right now in their play that allows them to really be as good as anybody in the country.
Q. When you look at some of the lines that are out there, I’m sure coaches don’t pay a lot of attention, but a 23-point underdog, how much will you use the underdog as a coach to motivate the team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The first thing is, no, I don’t follow the line. But second of all, I wouldn’t need to in this particular contest. This team has been on an amazing run. Almost everyone that they play is an underdog, probably a decided underdog. So hopefully our team won’t be influenced by that. We’ll go in there and play our best football game and come away with a victory.
Q. Could you talk to me a little bit about Matt Shelton? Could you kind of sum up Matt’s contributions this year in his role with the Irish?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Matt has had just an outstanding year, and that year has been one that obviously has been highlighted by his touchdown catches and his average per catch. But he’s been a little bit more than that. Matt has added a great deal to our football team from a leadership standpoint and a performance standpoint, which is always most important.
But he has continued to develop, continued to get better action and not rest on the accomplishments that he has.
Q. Do you think Matt (Shelton) would have a chance to play football in the future?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You know, that is one that I say I hope he has that opportunity to play. You have to be very careful because some teams look for certain things, and you have to find the right match-up. But I would hope that he would have that opportunity.
Q. How much of a priority do you place on recruiting in Southern California? In general, do you think it’s harder to sell kids on Notre Dame these days because of the parity that exists in college football?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We place a fairly significant emphasis on Southern California recruiting, and the state of California in general, because the large population base. That was something I heard many years ago, they said any time you have a collection of a million people, that you will have an Olympic-style athlete. So if that is the case, then California is truly one of our largest populated states, then there will be some very elite athletes that come out of that population, and you need to get in there and see if you can get one or two of those elite athletes out.
The parity around the country? As always, with the change in scholarships and television over the years, I do think it’s made a difference in everyone’s recruiting around the country. So we face the challenges that all teams face. But regardless, recruiting has always been one of the more difficult things that you do.
Q. Do you believe there are inherent advantages and challenges when it comes to recruiting at Notre Dame that are unique to other programs?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There are some great benefits of Notre Dame. I still think that tradition is important. I don’t see many people talking about throwing out Thanksgiving or Christmas, so I do think traditions are important. That’s something that people respect and believe in.
So we just have to get back and execute, get to the top, and add that as one of the other fine features of our great University that will attract young people.
Q. In your three seasons at Notre Dame, have you found anything in particular that is a big challenge that is particular to coaching at Notre Dame as opposed to where you’ve been before?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ve used the word, I think, “more.” As a head coach at Stanford, the transition to Notre Dame has been highlighted by the word “more.” Everything is larger, everything is greater. There’s a much greater following, a much greater sense of urgency surrounding the program.
Q. It seems to come with so much more attention. Does that mean everything you do is scrutinized far more than anything you did at Stanford?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say yes to that. I don’t think there’s any question about that. This program is one of America’s great programs, and it has a tremendous following, not just in this country but around the world.
Q. Does that mean a season that doesn’t include a national championship isn’t necessarily going to be accepted by many people because that’s what they’ve come to expect out of Notre Dame?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Absolutely.
Q. You’re the most recent coach to beat USC at the Coliseum. Have you seen that building has actually turned into a strong home field advantage for USC where it might not have been in the past?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s always been a pretty good advantage for them. But at the same time you have to block out those distractions from the Coliseum, the natural trappings that they have there, and focus on the game, focus on your execution. If you can do that, then you can minimize those things and minimize that advantage.
Q. When you were at Stanford, there was no question what the big rivalry game was. I know there have been a number of surveys by both USC and Notre Dame fans about what they think is the big rivalry game. Is this the big rivalry came for Notre Dame, considering all of the rivalries they have?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it is. And that always depends oh than your populous because there are some that look at BC, some that look at some of the other games on our schedule as being the game. But I don’t think you can say Notre Dame and not put the SC game in there as one of the top games or the top game.
Q. You talked about how the schedule for USC with the three bye weeks kind of broke up the season. At the other end, they have now their two big rivalry games back to back, then there’s the whole BCS thing down the road. How does that impact a team coming into a game like this where it’s not just this game, it’s all of that at the end of the season now? How does that affect coaching a team on a week like this when you have other things to think about besides just the big game that’s coming up?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, any time as a coach, you want to see if you can secure the focus of your football team. And I’m quite sure that Coach Carroll and his staff will be trying to get them to focus on just one game. That’s where having strong leadership comes in, and that’s where having a clear vision of what your goals are becomes important. And I’m quite sure that they will do that and they will have their team prepared to play just one opponent this weekend: Notre Dame.
Q. Could you describe your emotions as a coach, the ups and downs from the time you went into Tennessee and played a great game there, won, to the aftermath of Pittsburgh, elations, the lows, how you felt in that arc?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The Tennessee ballgame, without question, any time you’re playing a Top 10 team, and you’re playing them on the road, and can you go in their dwelling and come away with success, it is a tremendous feeling and sensation of accomplishment.
Then we turn around the next week and we stumble right at the end. We just don’t make those plays. You know, to me when you lose, it’s like somebody just took a body part out. You don’t feel the same. You don’t feel whole. You’re disappointed, you’re hurt. But you learn in life that you have to recover. So the thing that you do is you go about the process of being disappointed, being angry, being upset, but you channel all that into a manner in which you can drive yourself to go out and get the next one.
Q. How significant is this game at USC in terms of everything you’re trying to build, things you’ve been building?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It gives us another step up in that process of having the confidence and having the success against the best in the country. There are really, if I am correct, eight or nine teams this year that have had an opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country. That is special. To have that opportunity to line up against them makes this game extremely important.
Then you add into it the fact that it is one of our rivalries. I think it’s described as – and rightfully so – as the greatest intersectional rivalry in the country. And you have the history and the tradition to match that. You have an opportunity where, again, it features a team that is trying to be the national champion, and that No. 1 is at stake.
This is an awful important game as we try to build and take the right steps in our program, but also because of the tradition and history of this game.
Q. Going back to your days as a player at Michigan State, is there any USC-Notre Dame game that you remember, an OJ Simpson game or any game that comes to mind?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The one that comes to mind is the one that Coach Parseghian had in which we were going in as the No. 1 team, roughly 30 minutes away from finishing the year in that manner, and all of a sudden SC came back.
Q. Could you talk about how much attention USC’s offense gets? Its defense is a top five unit in every meaningful category. What makes them so effective on that side of the ball?
COACH WILLINGHAM: They are well-coached, they are very aggressive and they play very fast. Those are the things that jump out at you very quickly about this defense. And because of their speed and because of their aggressiveness, they create the one thing that helps you win a football game: turnovers.
The second thing would be field position. You don’t get many yards against them, be it through the air or on the ground. Therefore, it becomes difficult to maintain the ball possession, field position. So they make it extremely difficult. By doing that, they put a very explosive offense in great positions to score and score quickly.
Q. With your PAC-10 background, could you qualify the significance of being ranked fourth in total defense and second in scoring defense, but playing in the PAC-10, which is historically known for run-and-shoot type offenses?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The PAC-10, as you mentioned, is known to have usually quarterbacks and skilled players, so it becomes very difficult with those athletes and it is way that they spread the field to kind of contain them.
But obviously they’ve done a great job of playing a lot of pressure with their zone blitz concepts and keeping the safety free in the middle, not giving up any big plays, which is almost contradictory to the PAC-10 conference.
Q. When you’re going against a defense that is statistically as sound as this one, how do you avoid your offense feeling maybe over-tentative, looking at this game as, “We need to play a perfect game”?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The first thing is I don’t know any team that’s played a perfect game. So we don’t even let that thought enter in. Do we have to play our best game? Absolutely. But what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to walk in with a mindset that we are aggressive, but at the same time we’re not reckless.
Their defense does take some chances, it does take some risk. What we’ve got to do is be able to see those, adjust, and then hit them at the right spots. If we can do that, then we can have success.
Q. As it relates to fifth-year seniors next year, what is the time frame for inviting guys back? When do you make those decisions? Post Bowl?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’re in the process of trying to work through some of that right now. I’m not at liberty to speak on it. But you want to make those decisions hopefully as soon as possible so the young men can prepare themselves for their future if they’re not invited back.
Q. In terms of making that sooner than later, what impact does that have on recruiting in terms of how many scholarships you’re going to have to work with or not?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It could cause that number probably to swell up possibly from a high teen to possibly low 20s.
Q. In terms of behavior, since everybody in America has been talking about the Detroit situation, I was wondering, it flows into what you’re trying to accomplish as an educator, what has gone through your mind the last couple days as you’ve seen all this unfold from a distance?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Unfortunately for me I go back much further than this particular incident. I go back to a day when grocery stores were not open on Sunday afternoon. Some may say that, “That sounds very strange that you would make that correlation or that connection.” But we’ve changed our entire thought process in our culture. Some of our values, I think there was a survey in USA Today about rating our values, if I am correct. And I don’t say it’s at the lowest point in terms of that percentage, but I would think a lot of people believe that we have changed over the years.
It’s because of that you see that there is very little respect for most individuals within the structure of our society. So when you have that kind of mindset, it is not surprising that you get the events that have happened over this weekend.
Q. Do you have a sense of fan versus player? You mentioned at the very beginning you teach non-retaliation.
COACH WILLINGHAM: In this particular case, most people will agree that all the parties were wrong. I mean, there is really no right in this whole situation. That, again, to me speaks to a much larger picture than just the athletic event and that incident. So my belief is that we need to possibly see if we can find a way to do some changing in our culture, the way we think, the way we believe, the way we respond to each other.