Sept. 7, 2004
Q. On one hand, it's a bit of a must-win situation for a team that's not in a conference, because obviously you don't want to fall 0-2, but by the same token if you put all of your regulars in one basket with the players and don't come out on top, how do you balance that fine line of, hey, we have to win this; that things might start spiraling downward?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That's always a concern when you're in a situation where you're starting a season without being successful in the first ballgame. But you quietly tell your football team that we look at every football game as being very important. There's not one that's more important when you look at it, but at the same time, you know where your big games are. That's something that just comes naturally.
So we have to balance that. I have to keep giving the proper perspective and understanding that we are playing the nation's No. 5 team, depending on who you listen to or the No. 7 team, but somewhere in there, we are playing one darned fine football team. And we have to be prepared to go play our best game and be prepared then after that to take whatever else comes.
Q. At half-time when Alex Flanagan interviewed you, you said had to give the team, the offense something they can hang their hat on. When you can't decipher an opponent's scheme or the players can't put that in play, and you talk about the confidence being so important for your team, now do you run the risk of maybe the players starting to question whether the staff can give them the answers that they need in order to be successful?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That's why you look at your film very closely and you evaluate the film to see whether it's the scheme or individual breakdowns; and usually, it's always a combination of both. You're trying to get them in the right situation and you need them to actually make and execute the plays.
Q. Brigham Young used three punters with fullbacks; I haven't seen that, is that something new and now you have to adjust?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It's been floating a little bit, but it's not been very active or a lot of people haven't adapted to it. That was a surprise scheme that you don't see very often.
What they did was try to position themselves where they can release as many people as possible to cover the kick, but at the same time, make it very difficult by placing basically a wall right in front of the punt.
Q. Try to get the best of both worlds, being able to cover. Now you can't really even block a punt like that.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you can. I don't think you can say that you can't get there, but you've got to make sure that you hit all of the pressure points just right to get that done.
Q. The field position game was crucial the other night, and that certainly came into play last night. What do you do now in order to reverse that trend, because if they kick off to you and you go three-and-out and your punter, though he nailed a couple the other night, he's generally a less than 40-yard punter; you're going to be giving away field position all the time. How do you compensate?
COACH WILLINGHAM: If you noticed at the start of the ballgame, we were very fortunate -- well, not fortunate. But they deferred, which would have been our choice to see if you could start that positive spin on field position.
But the key is when you get caught with bad field position, you have to understand how important that is and see if you can get those couple of first downs to put yourself in good position, and then you don't have to be as dependent on your kicking game to bail you out if you don't have a spectacular kicking game.
Q. The field position, was it a case of, Rhema (McKnight) caught the punt on the one-yard line, is that a case of a kid trying to make a big play and not thinking about where he is on the field?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think so. But at the same time, those are all things that you try to make sure they are very clear on. Coming into this ballgame, we knew that their kicker, going back one year, had done a great job of putting two or three of them inside that ten-yard area.
So what you are trying to get them to do is one, get Rhema to be aggressive, to have a very close decision-making process that you can field one and return it; then you really take away that weapon that they are trying to gain on you. And in the process of doing that, he was a little too aggressive in trying to make something happen.
Q. And talking to players, the offense getting close, what signs are there? To me the offense looks similar to last year; some games you have a good running game and some you pass a little better, but didn't seem to be close to having the full package together yesterday.
COACH WILLINGHAM: We are all very disappointed because I felt comfortable in my belief that this would be a good, solid total offensive performance for us. And saying that, I still have great respect for BYU's defense. They were ranked in the top 20 last year, and I thought they were a better defensive team this year than they were last year.
But still I felt like we would be able to come out and have an excellent performance and have a balanced attack and we didn't do it.
I'm disappointed, not disillusioned, still confident that we can do some things offensively. But at the same time, really disappointed that we didn't.
Q. Was it a matter of positioning?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I'm always a believer that you have to have everything in the right place to have a great offense. As coaches we have to put them in the right position and our players have to execute. We've got to throw, catch, run, block; and if you do those things, then you can get the job done. But if we don't put them in the right place, we're hurting. If we do put them in the right place and you don't get the execution, you're hurting. So it's all got to come together.
Q. Will you talk to Brady?
COACH WILLINGHAM: After looking at it, Brady did a good job for us. There are some things that he would like to improve on, some things that I'd like to see him improve on.
And one of the things that's very dangerous about a quarterback and really forces his hand, is that when you get pressure, it's usually difficult to maintain that internal clock. Usually it speeds up on you; and therefore, you do things a little quicker than you need to be.
Q. And can you talk a little about the problem finding the middle linebacker, somebody who has no scheme -- what makes that hard?
COACH WILLINGHAM: When you constantly change the lineup - and that was what their scheme was designed to do, to make it very difficult to identify their personnel. (Difficult to see) who the linebacker was, when he was coming, which one would it be in the down line position, walking up in the line of scrimmage, and we didn't do a good job of that.
Q. Can you talk about Michigan's receivers and the problems they are going to pose to you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: They may be -- as I know USC has had a wonderful group the last couple of years, but the Michigan receivers may be as good as any group in the country. Of course, I watched a couple of catches, it was (Braylon) Edwards had against Miami (Ohio) and they are circus-type catches that just average guys don't make. You have to be very special to make those plays. So they are a very talented group.
Q. Brady said yesterday that maybe he has to, in order to spark the offense a little bit, force a couple of passes. Do you agree with that in principle?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. What Brady will do is just go through his normal progressions. And I hate to try to cover somebody's conversations secondhand, first of all.
But second of all, what he might be implying is that in relationship to what I just said, that internal clock; just try to be a little bit more patient. Try to hold things a little bit over, not try to force things. I don't think necessarily ever forcing a pass is the right thing to do.
But what we may be talking about is trying to be a little bit more patient, hold onto things a little bit longer in order to have things open up.
Q. Can you talk about the move of (Tom) Zbikowski to strong safety, what the thought process was and how quickly has he adapted to that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: If you had studied and followed our defense, you will know that really our two safeties are almost interchangeable, depending on formation, motions, adjustments that we make. Either one could drop down in the box. So we felt like to give us the best play and put our best people on to the field in this particular ballgame that he was included in that.
Q. How would you evaluate your secondary at this point?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think -- and you can't go back and say with the exception of, you can't do that. You can't take those plays out, but I thought if you took out those three deep balls, our guys in the secondary basically held our own, because our defense did a pretty good job.
Q. How about your offensive line play, how would you evaluate that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don't think we were pleased, nor were they, with the performance we had. We were not as aggressive and tentative to some degree.
Q. One thing people asked me was on third down and seven, why do you throw a 5-yard pass?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Maybe the reads eventually took it there. Maybe there were other combinations at a deeper depth that would have got the first down that weren't available; so therefore, you bring it down to that and you hope on that five yards he can take that extra two to make a play.
Q. I know that your philosophy was that the best players play, regardless of year, freshman, senior, whatever. What is the biggest challenge to getting young players ready to play, getting freshmen ready to play when they are the best player?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, the biggest challenge, and I will say this to any player, is not necessarily the physical aspect of it. It's really the mental component of trying to understand what to do, how to do it, what the adjustments are and the complications at the collegiate level.
Q. Do high school programs and coaching and scheme figure into that mix, too?
COACH WILLINGHAM: In some cases it can be a real plus. But right now with our high school systems and the lack of funding in a lot of areas, you're struggling to get a lot of the detailed coaching that you need.
Q. And the last question I have is the rule about the penalties and calling out the numbers, holding on number whatever, do you like that as a coach?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I gather from the first game, it's been a pleasant surprise for me. I was once not necessarily in favor of that, but it didn't seem to create any undo problems. The officials did a good job with it and structurally it went well.
Q. When you talk about your offensive line, a lot has been made of fact that you brought back four of five starters, but a lot of those guys, three of the four guys are playing new positions. How much of a difference does that make in terms of how much time it takes them to catch up to what they need to do in their different responsibilities?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It does take time. It's like learning a new job. But at the same time, I don't say that in order to say that's an excuse for us not executing and performing the way that we should, because I have great confidence in that group in that they can do some very good things.
But it does take time. You are asking for guys to change hands sometimes and change stances, which doesn't seem like very much. But when you've got a pretty good pass rusher coming off your right tackle, changing hands could be significant. So all of those little things go into it but it takes time. The communication takes time. But skill, that's not any out for absence of performance.
Q. When you looked at your running game on Saturday, what did you see as the major problems?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We were tentative both in the backfield and up front. We did not sustain and we tried to get it to the right places, but sometimes we didn't.
Q. Marcus Freeman is a guy that didn't see a lot of time on special teams last year. What did you see in from him in the off-season to elevate him all the way up into the starting lineup?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Marcus has had an excellent winter. He has gotten himself bigger, stronger. He understands the scheme and the responsibilities better.
The strength of his game is his pass receiving and route-running ability, but he's also added the ability to be a much better blocker, and that's exciting to add that into the mix.
Q. Was that what kept him out of the rotation last year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say probably the biggest thing was blocking.
Q. In regards to Brady (Quinn) forcing a ball and somebody asked a question about third and seven, running a five-yard pass, how do you coach that with your quarterback in terms of balancing when you need to throw the ball and trying to squeeze in a tight spot, as opposed to just taking what the defense is giving you all the time?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You always want to take what they can give you, that's one. But you hope the option they give you is the one that you prefer in those situations.
We are constantly working every day, the times that you've been able to see us practice, you see that the down-and-distance markers are right there. They are always practicing game-like situations, so that our quarterbacks, running backs and receivers have that awareness of knowing down-and-distance, third down situations, how it affects what you have to do, whether it's go an extra yard or not. You are always practicing those things.
But if it's not there, then you give yourself your best option, and I believe that's what Brady had done.
Q. The challenges of getting a younger player on the field, so get specific in regards to Darius Walker, what does he need to show you or the coaching staff to prove, to get you comfortable to put him in a game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He's shown right off the bat that he has excellent vision. He can be a very fine runner.
The concern that you always have for any back is his ability to integrate himself into your protection and route and running. He's coming along fine, and in the future he's going to put himself in a position to play.
Q. At this week last time, you said that the position was your freshman were not going to play last weekend, and that held to be true. Is the case today the same as it was seven days ago?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Not sure yet. So I would be ill-advised to say that.
Q. Talking to Brady (Quinn) a little bit, he said that one of the best things that he's come along with is an understanding the hot routes, he called them key routes in your vocabulary, how important is that for a tight end, and how do you coach those guys up, coach them into understanding where the holes are?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The first portion of that is probably the most difficult, is being experienced enough and comfortable enough and relaxed enough to see what's really taking place. And once you can see it and understand it, when the linebackers, Sam backer and the Mike backers both step on the safety and the back will step up and start to apply pressure; that they recognize it. Because so many receivers, you point to it, you talk about it, they say it, but never see it. So therefore they don't pick it up; they don't make the adjustment.
When you have guys that start to understand the scheme of the defense, then they can start to replace those with the spots we would like to have them fit into.
Q. Talking to (Mike) Goolsby, obviously the secondary has a lot of room to grow, but as a veteran who is in the front seven, asking him how he avoids putting more pressure on himself to make up for that, what do you tell the guys in the front seven to avoid them maybe trying to do too much, as kind of a cliche there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You can go back and say, very simple message: Two wrongs never make a right. When they are committing themselves to things they are not responsible for with the hope it's going to compensate for someone else usually winds up being a serious mistake in both areas. They have to be comfortable knowing that our guys with the exception of three plays had some pretty good coverage during the course (of the game), and they will get better and we will get stronger as a defense. And if everyone does their job, we will be successful.
Q. Confidence was a big theme in the preseason, to what extent do you feel like that's still lacking with the team, either going into Saturday's game or since having an unsuccessful start?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The problem that we have is that we have struggled on offense, and that's probably been the biggest area of concern for me, talking about confidence and getting our team going. So that is my major focus.
Defensively we have done some good things. But we as coaches have to provide kind of that boost for them that's more that you have to coach perfect, to start that boost, start getting everything to trigger so that we can have the kind of success that we expect and anticipate.
Q. A fresh start to a new season gives an opportunity to wipe all of that clean. When it goes in a similar fashion and then the next week a No. 5 or No. 7 team is coming in, how can you do that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: They do believe, first of all. I don't think our team is devoid of belief in themselves. If you talk to Rhema McKnight, he will tell you, "I can get it done."
As long as they don't try to do more than they are capable of doing and try to do too much or force the ball as I've heard someone ask about this morning, but just be confident and do the things and play within yourself will be my key and good things will start to happen.
Q. Ryan Grant is a guy that talks that way, he always seems to have a lot of confidence in himself and the team, how much difference do you have like he could have played Saturday night and did you give any thought to putting him in after the game was going on?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The latter part of that, no, I did not give any consideration to put him in. Physically -- it was not the right time for him, and it probably would have adversely affected the rest of the season, and we don't want to do that.
Do we miss or did we miss his experience and his ability? We do. But I still don't think that was the result of us losing a football game. It's still very much a team game. But Ryan will hopefully, when he returns, add something very positive to our group. He's an experienced runner, he's an experienced guy in the system in, understanding protection through the block, and he does have a physical presence.
Q. Going back to the idea of young players getting ready to play, for Michigan, Henne stepped in and was able to play well this weekend; what did you see from him that enabled the offense to play so well in the first game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Knowing him from high school, he is an incredibly poised and talented young man. He really benefited from having a really sound core around him. He's got great receivers. They went back and stepped up and looking forward to him being in their system and they played great defense. When you have all of that around you, it makes that start that initial game a lot easier but he still performed very well.
Q. What is (Ryan) Grant's status this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Right now he'll begin the week practicing as our No. one back, and we'll see where that goes. That may mean he may be in the lineup, or he may not be in the lineup. It just depends on how strong he is and how the injury responds to practice this week.
Q. You had mentioned earlier today that sometimes it's schemes, sometimes it's individual breakdowns that you see on film. Usually it's a combination of both that leads to the offense not being able to produce, and I do sense the frustration that you have with the offense not being able to move the ball and score as many points as you would like it to do. Why do you then remain confident that this offense can still work?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Because I can honestly say that I've seen it work. Our defense has shown itself to be a pretty good defense. And yet, I've seen us have success against our own defense. There are some things in there that will be successful.
I have great confidence in our young men. I have a fine quarterback in Brady Quinn. I have a good receiving corps in Rhema McKnight and (Carlyle) Holiday and (Chase) Anastasio and guys in that group. I like our tight ends. So I have a great deal of confidence in our group that we will be successful.
Q. Do you expect to make any changes in special teams this week, particularly in the punt return game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We will look at it. I am not sure right now.
Q. It seems like at times your offensive line, the same group has struggled against the blitz. Is there a point where you just say, you know what, we're going to have to stop everything and just work on this and see if we can figure out how to solve this one specific problem?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We tackled that every week in preparation for every team. We spend probably an over-adequate amount of time, looking at blitz, analyzing blitz, practice blitz, taking on blitz, putting them in almost every conceivable situation we can put them in.
Q. So is it frustrating to watch the film and see that the results?
COACH WILLINGHAM: When you don't have success, it is amazingly disappointing, to our players as well as to our coaches.
Q. Can you comment on the play of Kyle Budinscak, and more specifically, the job he's done recovering from the knee injury?
COACH WILLINGHAM: As you can imagine, recovering from a knee injury is a very difficult thing to do. We're blessed by the technology that we have today that's probably a little easier than it was 15 or 20 years ago. But Kyle has done a great job of getting himself rehabbed to be able to step on the field and play.
Also what I have been most impressed with is his leadership. Sometimes it's easy when you have an injury to only focus on self and not be as strong in terms of leadership for the other team members. He has done a great job of maintaining both. His play Saturday I thought was very good.
Q. You mentioned earlier, after the game that the three deep catches by BYU changed the game, changed the result of it. What do you specifically have to do this week to ensure that it doesn't happen again?
COACH WILLINGHAM: If you're going to be a coverage team in almost every coverage team I saw -- I saw Michigan give up a deep pass to Miami. And they think they have got one of the finest secondarys in the country with those two corners and the safety.
So if you're going to play aggressive and go against some of the receivers that we have, they are going to be (breakdowns) in some places. What you try to do is limit them. We would have been a far better team Saturday if it had been one or zero or it had been two. You give yourself a better chance of winning. You hope not to have to -- but some of those are going to happen. They happen in pro ball.
Q. Looking ahead at this week, and you look at what happened last week, how do you convince your team that better things are ahead for them when they lose to a BYU team that's not nearly as good as Michigan and you've got Michigan coming up this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I can understand your question, and I can see that from your perspective that would be almost an insurmountable task, but if I am correct, there are always constant reminders of an underdog overcoming what some may see as not being possible. I would probably say that as of recently, within the last month or so, there was a basketball team that we thought was fairly talented -- we'll say that.
Q. Some people recognize the flaws, too?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Now everything has some flaws, but they were not quite as successful as they were, and somebody defeated them. So I think there's still hope for us as the underdog.
Q. Can you comment on the return of Mike Goolsby from his injury, his leadership on and off the field as well as his play Saturday night?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would like to say -- I won't call him a new person, okay, but the experience that he's had in having to come back from the injuries, the multiple shoulder injuries that he's endured has allowed him to take a little different perspective and that perspective that's been very positive in terms of our football team and his demands on himself. He has pushed himself even further than he had pushed before, and he's also responded in pushing others on our football team to be a lot better and be more demanding.
Q. Can you comment on his play Saturday night, do you think he was over-hyped coming back, first game of the season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I don't think so. Well, there's some instances where you probably could get over-hyped but for the most part that's very good.
Q. If you could take a moment and talk about the difficulty that there has been in putting drives together for the offense. At times you can get a couple first downs and then it just seems as though there is a breakdown somewhere along the way, and obviously field position played such a huge factor in the game last Saturday night. Talk about how important it is for this offense to be able to generate some consistent drives to help in that field position.
COACH WILLINGHAM: When you can do that, you take away really a defensive advantage. Because if you look at the percentages, if the defense can get you in that negative field position where you're starting from your own goal line, the percentages say that somewhere along the line, you will do something to trigger your own demise, and you can't do that.
If you can break that pattern, then you really hurt the defense at a point where they don't think they can be hurt. So, we had a tendency I think to start some drives, a couple first downs, then we had, one came to mind a holding penalty down the field that really took us back and then you had an off-sides or something of that nature. Those are the mistakes that the defense counts on; and in tennis calls those are called unforced errors; and those are the kind of things you can't have because then you're defeating yourself.
Q. Does that put more of an onus on your defense and special teams to make turnovers, make plays in order to get the offense out of that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It puts more pressure everywhere. Because when you don't get those first downs and don't get positive field position, that now means that your defense is already in scoring position when they take the field and that's not a positive situation.
Q. It seems like especially in recent history, this game with Michigan kind of, it can either really lift a team to a good season or start a downward spiral. What is it about this game that can really hype a team up and get them ready to go for the rest of the season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would believe that because of the prominence of this game and the tradition that it's had and the success that the teams have had, that this game becomes extremely important, not just to the teams but to their fans. And therefore, there is a huge emotional level attached to this game, and any time when you have huge emotions, when it's raised, there's a tremendous difference; and when it's lowered, there's a tremendous difference.
Q. In 2002, did you feel that? You beat Michigan 3-0; did you see it in the team that, hey, this may be lifting them to a level they did not even see coming?
COACH WILLINGHAM: In that year it added a great deal of confidence so that they can accomplish even more. It did add something to our team.
Q. Just wondering about Carlyle Holiday, he wasn't on the field much and I don't think anything was thrown his way. For the offense to be successful, is he going to have to play a bigger role?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We would like to see Carlyle play a bigger role. For whatever reason, sometimes the rotation doesn't work out in one's favor, but that's something that we will be looking at to see if we can find ways to get Carlyle more involved in what takes place.
Q. Particularly when BYU was so aggressive coming after you, would it have been nice to have someone like him where you put the ball in his hands and he can make something happen?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Then I'd have to say yes to that.
Q. On that note, looking at the film, do you think from a play-calling standpoint you did all you could to maybe slow the BYU rush and get them maybe on their heels a little bit with a look or misdirection or something?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We had and did use several of our internal, what I call, run-with-misdirection plays, and we didn't have, I think, maybe twice we had some success with them. But for the most part, not much in our running game was very effective. So therefore, we didn't have the ability to kind of offset that pressure, but we attempted to, and not only that way was our misdirection, but in other ways trying to provide something to counter their pressure.
Q. The running game, looking at the film, was it more of a case of holes not being there or just not getting through the holes that were there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I will apologize because I will again say it's kind of all of the above. We didn't execute in any of the areas to the extent we needed to be successful.
Q. I talked to several of the players yesterday asking them about their first impressions of Brandon Hoyte, if they remembered the first time they met him and to a man, each and every one said he was unforgettable and no way could you miss him the first time you met him. Would you talk about the first time you met Brandon and your impressions of him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He comes at you with a lot of energy. It's kind of like a little package of dynamite that's kind of exploding on the scene in a very positive manner.
It would have been at our first team meeting when I had a chance to just visit with him for a brief second. He just gives you such a positive feeling about himself and what he wants to accomplish.
Q. I'm just wondering about the Michigan secondary, they are obviously very good. How much would you attribute to the fact that they go against these fantastic receivers against practice; they are trying to stop (Braylon) Edwards every day.
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is a real plus, because what it does is raise the level of competition. And for competitive guys, they thrive on that. They thrive on being challenged to be their best.
Q. And final question, (Braylon) Edwards was talking about, it's obviously no surprise but Notre Dame's players are looking forward to this game, especially after what happened last year, but he talks with just as much passion about what happened two years ago. He said after walking into that locker room after the loss and seeing grown men cry, he said the things about rivalry games is you'll win a couple, but you'll always remember the ones you lost. Having been a part of rivalries with Michigan as a player and a coach, is that a fair statement?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That is more than fair. That is extremely accurate.
Q. You talked last week about how important confidence was, what feel do you get for your team's confidence coming off this game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Our guys were disappointed; that we didn't perform in the manner that we thought we would. I say that more from an offensive standpoint.
The total team felt very much the same because the end result is trying to win, and we didn't feel like we accomplished that. But, again, there were some good things and we've got it take those and take the negative things and build on them and go get a win.
Q. You talked a couple of minutes ago about the win two years ago against Michigan. It seemed like a lot of people want wanted to take that win and say "Notre Dame is back." At the time did you think it was going to be harder than that or did you not foresee what was coming?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I'm one to just take one game at a time and I'm trying to remember that year, who did we play after that? Was it Michigan State?
Q. Not sure.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Okay. Then you just focus on that game. So, no, I try not to get ahead of myself or behind myself.
Q. Coach (Lloyd) Carr said yesterday he expects the Big Ten to go to 12 teams and he thinks Notre Dame should be that 12th team; what are your feelings?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I guess I'll say I'm surprised that Coach Carr has included us, but I thank him for doing so.
Q. Does that thank-you mean you'd like to be a member of the Big Ten?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It means I thank him for including us.