Barry, I think a week ago you mentioned being impressed with Minnesota’s center and that guard, the guys who have played three years. What do you like about them and also just that line in general, what they’ve been able to do to open room for those backs?
“The entire line is very solid, but I point those two guys out because they started as true freshmen, and really at that time probably weren’t as strong as you’d want to be in the Big Ten, yet they were effective because of how athletic they are. They’re going to be down around your feet and scrambling you and tying the linemen up. They pull so well. They get out on the edge and chop people out on the edges and create some seams, cut pursuit off and create seams for those backs who run downhill. I mean, they’re downhill runners and have tremendous speed.”
Can you just talk a little bit about the seniors’ last game at home and kind of what they had meant to the program. I know you’ve still got some more games after that, but the fans here will be seeing them for the last time.
“This group, we really challenged them when we came back after the first semester last year when we started our out of season. I called a meeting together with the seniors and really challenged them. And they’ve given us tremendous leadership and really have bought into everything that we’ve tried to sell. They’ve played a lot of football. These guys have played a lot of football here and I’m really pleased that they’re having the success that they’ve had thus far.
“But, a good group of guys and guys that, more than anything else they’ve learned to have fun practicing. It doesn’t seem like three games left, you don’t think that this is going to be the last one here, but I guess I wasn’t even thinking about it until you brought that up, that this is the last time they’ll play in Camp Randall.”
Barry, you mentioned those two running backs. Can you just kind of critique those guys, (Laurence) Maroney and (Marion) Barber (III), what makes them so difficult?
“In Maroney I really see a very strong runner. He’ll run through tackles, has excellent vision, and has tremendous speed. I think very mature when he came into the league as a true freshman, has taken another step. When I think about Barber, I always see him out on the edge or wherever, when he sees a seam, again, tremendous speed where he can accelerate but has the vision to get to those holes and get to the seams. They hit a lot of big plays. They get a lot of big plays.”
Barry, you know a lot has been made about your defensive line. How much have they helped you, your defense, as far as being able to put pressure on the quarterback without having to mix things up and do things, you know, blitz and stuff? How much have you really had to scheme and blitz at all this year?
“Well, we haven’t blitzed a lot. We blitz just to keep, to make sure people play us honest. We will blitz. And you see a lot of line twist and line movement. But that said, we’re still, we’ve been able to get pressure with four, and when you can do that, and sometimes with three, then you can, that allows you to do some different things in the back end where you can double cover or bracket people, you know, use your linebackers underneath. We played a lot of man free, and, you know, if you have a lot of time to throw when you’re playing man free or man coverage, you’re in trouble. But they’ve made the quarterback get rid of the ball and been able to disrupt his tempo a lot of the time.”
Have you seen anything defenses have been doing against Minnesota the last few games to try and stop their running game? Are they really trying to load up and put it on the quarterback’s shoulders to try and beat them?
“No, I don’t see that. I see the regular schemes that people have used. You know, some of them are trying to, it looked like to me that Indiana was trying to cut the edge. They were not going to be knocked. They were going after the puller and chopping that puller and trying to get somebody down on the edge to get the ball north and south so that, you know, the rest of the pursuit could get to him. But they played some press man and tried to, you know, tried to load the box up, which I think everybody does.”
Coach, after the bye, how much does that help guys like (Jonathan) Welsh, (Reggie) Cribbs, and Erasmus (James)? Do you expect those guys all to be back?
“I expect them. I just saw ‘Ras right now. He’s going to practice today. Jonathan and Cribbs practiced last week. So then having the last three days off, I would anticipate that they should be ready to go. And, you know, a number of the guys were banged up and weren’t quite 100 percent, and, you know, hopefully they were able to heal up with that week and how we went about the week. Now we’ll pick it up today now. I just, after giving them that time off and the way we’ve structured it, today’s going to be a very physical practice. We’ll scrimmage today. I just want to get back into the tempo of the season and we’ll go good-against-good today and get some scrimmage in there.”
Barry, how surprised are you by how the conference race has played out in the last three, four weeks, just specifically with Purdue and Minnesota kind of falling, or is that just the nature of this conference?
“Yeah, I just think in this league, you know, and I just, you think it’s coach speak, but I just feel like, top to bottom, we have a lot of very solid football teams in this league, and everyone is capable of beating the other teams. I don’t think there’s anyone who has really separated themselves, who is head and shoulders over the rest, where they don’t have to, if they don’t play well but they’re just going to go out there and get a solid win. I mean, you’re going to be fighting for your life if you’re not playing well in this league. And I think that’s kind of what’s showing up right now.”
Barry, when you look at trying to recruit defensive linemen, do you think, do you look at things differently, because, I mean, this group of linemen you have are, you know, some of them were small when they got here, and, you know, ‘Ras played mainly basketball? What kind of things do you try to look for when you’re putting it together and how did you come to do that?
“Well, first of all, defensive linemen are very hard to find. That’s a hard position to find. You know, they don’t come ready, most of them don’t come ready-made. You know, you don’t see somebody and say he’s a defensive lineman, he’s 250 pounds and he can play at this size, you know, but we’d like to get him up a little higher. You don’t find many like Anttaj (Hawthorne) who came in with the size and speed and strong enough to play right away. There has to be a lot of projection.
“You know, there are handful out there that you see and you say he can play, but there’s just not many of them. So you have to start projecting defensive linemen, or we do. But we’ll look for big linebackers, guys that can run. We’ll look for a tall, rangy guy that we feel can put some weight on, somebody who’s very athletic that we think can come off the edge. But you still need some defense size. You need bigger guys inside to get a push and hold up against the run game. So you just look and projecting is very hard and it’s dangerous. You know, you project too much and your percentages of success go down.
But we’ve been very fortunate with three of those four starters, those were projection guys, two of them that we had to put weight on but we thought were very athletic and guys that we thought could grow into it. And J.J. (Jason Jefferson) wasn’t highly recruited. I think one MAC school was interested in him. But Taj saw him playing basketball, you know, moving around very well for a 300-pounder, and we gave him a chance.”
Barry, along those lines, if memory serves, didn’t Henry (Mason) stumble onto Erasmus at an all-star game when he was looking at someone else again?
“I think J.P. (John Palermo) was down there with him, but they were at an all-star practice. If I’m not mistaken, it may have been after signing, and just saw him and saw his athletic ability and really liked what they saw, and felt like he would be someone that would develop or could develop.”
Barry, I imagine as much as the win the players want to get the axe back. How much have you guys talked about that this week?
“Well, that’s our emphasis. That’s the emphasis and that’s one way to, that you can really focus on this football game. It’s a tremendous rivalry, and we’ll show them all the clips of former years. And we’ve already given them their history lesson on the axe and the rivalry. You know, we’ll make it important because it is important. I think it’s, you know, just a part of college football history, the longest-going, ongoing rivalry, and, you know, I think it’s important for the guys to know that. We built a trophy case for that axe and it’s empty, and that’s not good.”
Obviously cut blocks have been in the news a lot the last few weeks and this is another team that employs that. What do you tell your players about that going into a game like this?
“ Well, they see the film. We practice against it. We allow our scouts to cut during the week. And there are a lot of different, you know, I know there’s a lot of discussion on the NFL and that one block, and I don’t even know the guys’ names, but that’s different than just going down and chopping somebody.
“If you’re out in front of them, you block them low. I mean, that’s just part of the game. Or you cut them off and you, you know, your head goes in front and you chop their legs. That’s part the game. We have to learn how to play that, and we’ll work on that all week. And that’s about bending your waist and being bent at the waist, keep your head up and using your hands and keeping people away from you. There’s a technique to protect yourself.”
Barry, what did you expect out of (John) Stocco at the beginning of the year and has he reached that in any, were there some instances maybe where he kind of, the light bulb came on a little bit?
“ Well, we didn’t want to give him so much or the whole game in his hands. We were fortunate enough, you know, we anticipated going in with a veteran line and Anthony (Davis) that we could establish a running game and throw when we wanted. But because of the way our defense played, you know, Anthony’s hurt, you know, we’re thinned out at running back, but because of the way the defense was playing we were able to stay with our plan and really not give him a whole lot, give him safe throws, not have him beat us, not let him get careless with the ball, and he was able to do that. And bringing him on alongslowly so that when we got into the Big Ten season and needed him that he could be able to step up and do the things we needed for him to do when people start loading up on you. And I think he’s progressed nicely.”
“I think he took a huge step at the Ohio State game, playing, managing that crowd, bringing the team from behind. I thought again at Purdue, in a very hostile environment, he made the throws and did the things that he had to do there to give us a chance to win. And, you know, last week we came out and wanted to, you know, throw the ball to start the game and we did what we wanted to do in the first half. He had a couple picks, but in both cases he was hit when he released the ball. But he’s progressed. He’s followed the plan and I think the coaches have done a nice job with him, having him progress as we had designed it early in the year.”
I know for the coaches and for the players, their schedules are obviously busy every day, but tomorrow being Election Day and so much attention focused on the election, are you giving the guys time to go out and vote? Have you mentioned anything to them about it, kind of help ease that process or get into doing it?
“Well, they’ll be, we have them from 2:30 to 6:30. What they do outside of that is their business. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about Election Day. I will tell you that. No, no I’m not.”
Barry, some fans have been arriving late for games. As an athletic director, is there anything you can do to try to spruce it up a bit so they’re there and ready to go when you’re ready to kick off, in particular the student section?
“Well, I don’t know what I could do. I think we’ve tried to encourage them to come in early. We’ve tried to get them there early on. Some of the things we’ve done with the replay board I think encourages that type of thing. Yet I think some of them have priorities outside of the game or prior to the game, and if they miss the opening kickoff that’s okay. But I’m not going to really lose a whole lot of sleep over that. I’ve seen some things written about it, some things said about it. But our fans have been good. Our fans have supported us. Our fans have, they’ve gotten behind the team and I appreciate that. They’re not going to do everything we expect them to do or what we would like them to do. I appreciate that they’re there.”
Along those same lines, Barry, nobody’s talking about your home record anymore. You’ve kind of answered that question. You’ve made it a tough place to play again. How important has that been? And now that you’ve been through a season with all the changes and everything, has it kind of transpired like you hoped?
“Well, we’re playing better. I think it comes down to that. I told the kids when the season started. We have a different atmosphere. I think we have one of the finest venues in college football to play a game. It was interesting, the coach that recruited me to go to Nebraska and coached me and coached my son-in-law came up for a game last week, five guys from Nebraska, for our last home game, just raved about the atmosphere of the stadium and how much fun it was, and how the students were into it and hadn’t seen anything like that before. And he even stayed, a grumpy old ball coach and he stuck around for the fifth quarter, thought that was awesome, you know. I thought that was pretty neat to get feedback from someone else. He probably played here back in ’74 when Wisconsin upset him, but hasn’t been here recently, was just impressed with our atmosphere.
“But the atmosphere doesn’t win games. It’s how you execute on the field and making plays, and our guys have been able to do that. And they’ve been able to do it, fortunately thus far at home and on the road, and that’s the difference. The guys have played well at home.”
You talked a little earlier about projecting on defensive linemen and that there’s a few that are really good. Is it hard for you guys to try to get those kids, or is it, you know, if there’s one that’s local you can get him but maybe the national kids it’s hard for you guys to get?
“Absolutely. That’s why we, you know, if a kid is a national recruit in our state then we should have a shot at it. And we’ve, our percentages have been very, very high in the 15 years that I’ve been here. We have not lost many national recruits or many players that we’ve offered. Some other kids, some kids have gone to Division I, some kids that they didn’t fit into our needs and our numbers. But the farther you go for the national recruits, you have to beat the home state.
“Let’s face it. If there’s a great player in Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, you’ve got to beat their home states. You know, they’ve got to travel. And that’s difficult. That’s why you get a guy like Anttaj, who was a national recruit, could have gone about anyplace, but came out to camp, and, you know, we knew his high school coach, John Palermo got a relationship with him, and we were able to recruit him. But the farther they are, the harder they are to get.”
Did you try after the ‘90s, after winning the Rose Bowls to try to get some of those national kids…
“We did. And especially running backs. And we brought them, we got them on campus. We had some of the top running backs in the country on campus, but coming in second doesn’t do you any good in recruiting. And so, you know, sometimes you have to realize who you are. You want to take a swing at the great players and, you know, it doesn’t take that many, but it’s very, very difficult. You think, and I hear everybody say, well, if they want to run the football, you’d think they’d want to come to Wisconsin, you’ve got the record-holder, you’re going to run the ball, this, that, and the other, yet there are other schools out there that run the ball and other schools that are a lot closer. I mean, there are different reasons, but you still have to take a swing.”
Barry, defensively you guys are ranked among the nation leaders in pass defense. We all talk about the defensive line, but obviously there’s a combination with what they can do with pressure, but the back end has been awfully good. Can you talk about that?
“I think that’s one of the things, one of the areas that has been overlooked. You know, our defensive line certainly has played well and has earned what’s been said about them thus far, but you still have to cover them. And as much man free as we’re playing, and we’ve seen some good quarterbacks, the last two offenses we’ve played are offenses that have put a lot of points up and have really put a lot of yardage up, you know, had good statistics, but our guys really have, they adjust well. Their coverage is good, and they keep getting better.
“And, boy, they’re just playing, they’ve been playing with a lot of confidence, you know, more confidence or as much confidence as the years when we had (Jamar) Fletcher and that group. And those guys, you know, they really liked the challenge of a good throwing team. But I think we maybe understand it now. We have a better combination of pass rush, linebackers that can run in the secondary that covers people up. You know, it’s not a bend but break. We can pressure people and hug up the receivers better than we’ve ever been able to.”
I think you may have alluded to this early this year, but how much along those lines does it help having a secondary coach back again, because there was a stretch for a few years where the kids had to learn different techniques and different faces?
“Well, Ronnie’s (Lee) done a good job, the fact that it’s consistent, the players have confidence in him, and he’s a good coach and a very good teacher. Ronnie’s been around a long time, been successful every place he’s been, and you can just see the players a year ago, how they got better as the season went along and how, you know, you could see Scott Starks buying into techniques and getting confidence in his play. You know, those guys, they followed his lead. But that’s important. It’s important with consistency, and particularly when the coach is good and the players believe in him.”