Football Notebook: Fitzgerald discusses missed tackles


Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

JR Pace makes a tackle. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said the defense had an outstanding performance Saturday.

Peter Warren, Print Managing Editor


CHICAGO — The Northwestern defense had an “outstanding” performance Saturday against Stanford, but was a few criteria away from being dominant.

At Thursday’s press conference, coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about the defense, and praised their performance. He did mention some of the things that kept the defense from having a dominant performance, including missed tackles on the perimeter on “zero-yard throws” and a few failures on third down.

He also talked about three players and explained what led to their tackling woes. For junior linebacker Blake Gallagher, it was due to overrunning the ball on one play and not playing to his help on another. For redshirt freshman AJ Hampton and junior safety Travis Whillock, it was lunging, ducking their heads and playing out of control.

All of the changes needed to correct those mistakes are easy fixes, Fitzgerald said. In the case of Whillock, Fitzgerald said he had 13 tackles and 28 missed tackles by the team’s count.

“He would have been All-American in one game if he made all those tackles,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a guy we trust…He just missed some tackles, it happens.”

Week 2 bye leads to unique practice schedule

With the team having a bye this week, Fitzgerald gave the team Labor Day off. He then went recruiting on Tuesday and Wednesday and before returning to the practice field Thursday. The former linebacker said he believed this was the first time in his 20-plus years of coaching that he was not working on the holiday.

He said the team did not return from California until 2:30 a.m. Sunday, and that the trip in totality was tough. He said this bye week was scheduled in order to give players a chance to recharge after a draining weekend.

“When we scheduled this year’s schedule however many years ago, we had an option of having a game this week or a bye,” Fitzgerald said. “(Athletic director Jim Phillips) and I chose to have a bye for this specific reason…It was kind of by design.”

TJ Green out for the season

During the presser, Fitzgerald announced senior quarterback TJ Green had surgery Wednesday on his foot and will be out for the year.

Fitzgerald said there has not been any discussion of Green returning for a sixth season, and said “we’ll cross all those bridges down the road.”

He also added that senior cornerback Trae Williams and running back Isaiah Bowser — who participated in practice — are feeling better and the bye week came at a good time for them.

Following the injury, the team moved redshirt freshman Jason Whittaker back from superback to quarterback. Whittaker was a quarterback for his first season until being moved to superback in the middle of August.

Sophomore Hunter Johnson is now the undisputed starting quarterback, with junior Aidan Smith and sophomore Andrew Marty serving as backups.

Fitzgerald wants Johnson to ignore the naysayers

Johnson’s first appearance in purple and white was one to forget. But he did improve throughout the game, and as Fitzgerald emphasized Thursday, had the offensive in opposing territory with a few minutes left in the contest.

“I just hope and pray that he’s not listening to anybody that is being negative about him,” Fitzgerald said. “I would love to have those people flip roles with Hunter and I’d love to see how they would do.”

Fitzgerald said he had a long talk with former quarterback Clayton Thorson after he signed with the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, and when they talked about the quarterback situation it was like “going back through memory lane.”

He added that Johnson had a really good practice Thursday, and thinks the Clemson transfer will “learn and grow” from the Stanford game.

“We’re in a one score game with a first-time starting quarterback on the road against a top-25 team, he’s got a lot more room for improvement and he will,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m excited about it.”

Four Northwestern alumni play in NFL kickoff

Thursday night was the opening of the 2019 NFL season with the Green Bay Packers edging the Chicago Bears 10-3 at Soldier Field. Four former Cats played in the game. The Packers featured defensive linemen Tyler Lancaster and Dean Lowry and fullback Danny Vitale, while defensive back Sherrick McManis dressed for the Bears. In total, 11 former NU players made NFL rosters, with three others making practice squads.

Before the game, Fitzgerald hoped all four guys played well. But the Illinois native wanted the hometown team to wake up Friday morning with a 1-0 record.

“If you cut me open, outside of purple and white, I’m a Bear fan,” Fitzgerald said.

Following that statement, he was asked what it was like to be courted by the Packers for their head coaching job. Fitzgerald’s response was brief.

“I don’t know what that means,” Fitzgerald said.

New food options for Ryan Field announced

Thursday’s presser was held in Chicago at Spiaggia on North Michigan Avenue as the Athletic Department and Levy — their hospitality partner — introduced and sampled new menu items for Ryan Field this season.

These new items included the Asian meatball sandwich, Bacon-Avo Half-Pound burger, Beyond Meat burger, Breaded Steak sandwich, Loaded N-Zone nachos and Piri Piri Chicken Naan sandwich.

While he said he did know what a Beyond Meat burger was, Fitzgerald was pretty excited for one of the options.

“I heard there’s a breaded steak sandwich,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m pretty stoked about that.”

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