Monday press conference: Barry Alvarez

Wisconsin football coach discussed Penn State's defense, Lion quarterback Michael Robinson and more

Audio file 1 (5:04) -

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Barry, there seems to be this perception that Joe Paterno has changed in his 40th year, and that's why they're winning again all of a sudden, opened up the offense and stuff. Do you think that's the truth or not?

"I think that's a misconception, and I think Joe has said that. His players are more mature and playing better. He's got some freshmen skill players that I think helped open the field. (Michael) Robinson's playing much better, has a better grasp of the quarterback position, and is full time at quarterback. I think they're making more plays. And because of playing with confidence, and having the skilled players, it looks like it's wide open. I'd be willing to bet that they haven't changed much in their playbook and that type thing."

You mentioned Robinson a little bit, what are some of the keys to containing him, not so much through the air, but his ability to run? And what are the risks that you run if you try to blitz a guy like that?

"Well, the keys to containing him are, No. 1, keep your pass rush lanes. You don't void your pass rush lanes. You better have someone in a contain position. It's very difficult to play, you don't want to play much man coverage with him because if he breaks the line of scrimmage, like very similar to last week, and you have defensive backs that are with their backs to the quarterback, he has the potential to get a lot of yardage, so he puts a lot of stress on you that way. Blitzing is one of the reasons — the dangers of blitzing is you're playing man coverage, and your backs are to the quarterback."

When you look at their defensive line, what are some of the things that jump out at you, whether it's their athletic ability, you know, how they get after the quarterback, defend the run, or whatever?

"All of the above. What else is there, Jeff?"

Any of them stand out?

"They all stand out. I think their front seven is outstanding. They were outstanding a year ago. The one thing they can do, they can rush four and get pressure. When you can rush four and get pressure, it allows you to do a lot of things in the back end, and they've been able to do that. They're very physical. They come off the edge. The two guys inside are active. One of the better line-backing groups that I've seen, their front seven is particularly good."

Barry, you've always been really good about, throughout your time, you're complimenting your assistants and acknowledging what they've done through the time. Based on this season, the results, the uncertainty of it in this transition that's coming up, might this be their finest hour?

"I don't think there's any question. What my staff has accomplished to date is just by far the best job that we've done. With the inexperience coming in, you tack on the injuries that we've had, and key injuries, not just injuries, key injuries. And you mentioned the uncertainty, all of those things, they've been able to stay focused. They've been able to put a plan together to give the guys a chance to win. They've been able to motivate the players to play four quarters, make adjustments on the run, and so it's been really a special coaching job by the staff."

How difficult do you think it's been for them, for the assistants, not knowing what's going to come at the end of the season? I know that's always the case with some of them.

"Well, how difficult would it be for you, if you didn't know your future? It's not easy for anyone. Change is not easy for anyone, and particularly when you don't know exactly where you're going to be and that type thing. But to the man they've all been very professional. They have focused on this team. They have focused on doing a good job. And I couldn't be more pleased or more proud of the effort that they've given us. They've done just a tremendous, just an unbelievable job."

Audio file 2 (5:55) –

You've had success against Joe. I think your record is 5-3 against them as head coach, and if you can just reflect for a minute back on a couple of the games that stand out in your mind during this series since you've been here.

"I'm not even sure what year it was, '95 probably, when they had a winning streak coming off a national championship. You know what I remember about that trip, that's when you had to land in Harrisburg, bus two-and-a-half to three hours to State College. So we had a movie on the bus, that's after an hour and 45-minute flight, we watch "Shawshank Redemption." And after that long trip, we pulled into the parking lot, the movie still had 15 to 20 minutes to go, and the players stayed on the bus and watched the rest of the movie, so that's quite a credit to the movie.

"I remember that game. I remember every game that we won because all of them. I think any time you, particularly the ones up there, when you've won those games, that's a hard place to play. It's always a tough crowd, a loud crowd. And they're good players, and they're good teams. All of you know how much respect I've had for Joe over the years, so when you walk out of there with a win, it's always good."

Coach, considering at the beginning of the season, most people didn't probably pick your team to be in this position right now, do you feel at times that maybe there's too much negative attention — What's wrong with the defense, the running game — and not the positive that you are at this position?

"Did you say not too many would picked us to be in this position? Could you tell me one? No. I think that's a very valid point. I was just got to thinking about that today. That's football. People have a tendency to watch a football game, and they want to critique it. All of you have to do is turn on the radio after the game, and everybody finds something wrong with the game because there's so much in our sport. Unlike any other sport, you can question every play. If it doesn't work, and most of it, if they do, it's fine.

"If the ball is overthrown, it could be the perfect call, and the guy in front of it, you know, there's something wrong with the call or somebody didn't execute something. So you can question every play in football. You can't do it in basketball. You can't do it in hockey. You can't do it in any other sport. So we're very unique that way.

"So I think that gives everyone a tendency, when the game's over, you look at what went wrong. The offense didn't play well. We fumbled the, we had too many turnovers. I sit in here, that's all I answer after a game, what went wrong. No one talks about went right. Everybody wants to know what was the problem. I think that's just the way it is. Not just here, anyplace."

Barry, you talked last week about how you felt that Mike Newkirk was, a little bit rusty in his first start, a little in his first play. How would you rate him after his second week?

"I don't think I said he was rusty. I thought I said (Andy) Crooks was rusty. But Newkirk's played well in both games. I think he improved. He's active in there. He plays hard. And I think he'll continue to get better because he's so focused and wants to be good, is willing to put the time and effort in to improve."

…. I don't think people expected Penn State to be here. Do you think these teams have overachieved to get here or now that you look back on it, are they pretty worthy to be in a game like this?

"Well, the last time I talked about overachieving, I think I sensed that I was criticized. So I'll stay away from the overachieving, and let you guys decide whether it's overachieving. I just know this, I felt Penn State would be a very good team, much like I thought Purdue would be a very good team coming in because of who they had returning. Penn State's defense returned intact. It had to be in the top five in the country. The top one or two in our league.

"You knew that the offense, that they had a lot coming back offensively and had a lot of potential, and they signed a great class with some skilled players that everyone felt could contribute right away. But yet, there were still, I don't know what did we have, six teams ranked in the top 25 and five in the top 12, and they (Penn State) weren't mentioned, you know. That just tells you maybe how well they've done.

"And maybe people overlooked them because of their last few years, but they've performed. They all, they got better. And they're a good, I'm going to tell you now, they're a very good football team. They're about, they're the best football team we've played thus far on both sides of the ball."

Do you think Michael Robinson is the most athletic quarterback you've ever had to prepare against?

"Well, ever is a long time. I think he's very talented, and he can do it all. And he can hurt you a lot of different ways. We've seen a lot of good ones. That kid at Northwestern is pretty good too and can do the same type of things. But he's, Robinson's very talented."

Audio file 3 (4:50) -

Coach, I know the philosophy is to take it week by week, but have you noticed what is on the line with this game, have the players shown any more intensity or more energy just based on what you've observed with them?

"I haven't seen the players yet. We meet with them, the last two weeks, I gave them Sunday and Monday off. Today, we are going to meet today and get started on Penn State today. But they're smart enough. They know how far along we are in the season and what's riding on the game.

"You have two ranked teams, as I mentioned the other day, and I think this is the second biggest stadium in the country. They talk about this maybe being the largest crowd ever at the stadium, national TV again, playing for a lot. If that doesn't get your motor running, there's something wrong. And that's why I try to stay away from building the game up. You don't have to. The players understand it. It's just trying to relax them, enjoy the game, enjoy what it's all about, enjoy the experience, and just go play, see what happens."

Barry, after the Illinois game, Bret (Bielema) talked about that coming into the season, he knew it would be a different year defensively, and at times, it wouldn't be pretty. What's been the most trying aspect during the preparation each week, trying to establish some consistency or some continuity on that defensive unit?

"Well, it would be nice to practice with the same guys every week. That always helps continuity. And I think that's been the biggest challenge. I think if we could have started out — and I say this every year — if you go back and look at our outstanding seasons, you see the same guys. You go back and you see all the starters, and it's the same guys. You may have one blip here and another blip here, but most of those great years, you play with the same guys throughout the year.

"It hasn't been the case with this football team. And I think that's what's even made this season much more special, having the least number of starters return, and then having injuries to key people for a long period of time, and still being able to get things done, you know, thus far. I think that says a lot for our coaches and our players."

Barry, when you sat down and looked at what you had coming back this year and what this league, how it was all set up, did you realistically think you could contend for a Big Ten title?

"I don't know if, I didn't even look at a Big Ten title. I'll be honest with you. We set our goals. We talked about goals. We still have a few to achieve. We're right on track thus far. We did not underestimate what we could do. I thought offensively, we could be very good. I thought we had a ways to go defensively, but if we could stay healthy, I knew we have kids that (can) run, that we'd be okay. I thought our kickers would be good.

"So I thought we had a chance to be a nice football team, whether we, with the people we were going to play. Knowing what the majority of our league had returning, I didn't know whether we'd be good enough to contend for a championship, but I felt we could play in a bowl game, and hopefully a Jan. 1 bowl game. I felt we could be that good." You talked about that formidable front seven for Penn State, how tough and big a challenge will it be to run against them. If you looked at the Penn State-Minnesota tape, the job they did on Maroney, how impressive was that?

"Well, you could watch every game, but knowing how well Minnesota runs the football and watching them really shut them down, I think it was just a testament to how good they are, and how talented they are, and how physical they are. They're fun to watch. They really are for someone who really likes to watch good defensive football. They're impressive."

Knowing that Michael Robinson has been running all over defenses this year, what would your defense see as a successful week, you know, how many yards allowing him, knowing that he's going to get some?

"Well, you can ask Bret but we set different goals every week to accomplish. The bottom line, the goal that I look at every week is whether you win or lose. And it's not about just stopping him, they have other weapons. So it's just trying to find a way with the combination of the three aspects of the game, try to figure out some kind of way to walk out of there with a win, which will be very difficult."

Audio file 4 (5:57) -

Barry, when you played against talented athletic quarterbacks, whether it was Donovan McNabb or Antwaan Randle EL, are there keys whether it's the defensive end play or the linebacker play that has to be assignment-sound specifically to defend a quarterback like that?

"Not specific. We used to say with Randle EL, make him play in a handball court. In other words, keep your ends up the field, keep him between them, then keep your pass rush lane so you don't have any lanes to run on. The one year, we put too much of an emphasis on him and forgot about the tailback, but you still have to have your linebackers. Like last week, we had a linebacker responsible to spy the quarterback, and he couldn't run as fast as the quarterback. So it's a combination of being able to bracket a field staying in your lanes and in your responsibilities, keeping the proper pursuit angles, because it's not just one guy can't do it. And if one breaks down, then he's going to find that seam, so it's a combination of all of them."

Barry, you've been talking about finishing since the end of last year. Do you expect that emphasis to show up here in the next few weeks?

"Well, Tom, that's why you play. We'll find out. You always ask me questions about what I think in the future, and I don't like to like to look into that crystal ball. I just know what we try to do, and what we try to teach, and what we try to emphasize. Thus far, I think we have finished pretty well, but there's a reason why you emphasize it. Do I think it'll happen, I don't know, but that won't be because we haven't tried to emphasize it."

Barry, you've been around the Midwest for a long time, is Brian Calhoun the best running back to come out of this state?

"Well, I don't know. I can't remember all the ones that have come out of this state. That's just, that's a broad brush to ask that question. I just know I'm glad he's here, and he's done so many good things, and he is so talented, and I'm just pleased that he's having the type of year that he's had, and that people recognize it. But he's a tough guy, and he can beat you a lot of different ways, very humble. He's been a pleasure."

Barry, along the lines of finishing strong, obviously the last couple weeks, you've cut back on the workload because of the injuries and the lack of a bye, but even before the season, did you guys make any philosophical changes in workload, like lifting or anything during the year to kind of ease things on the guys or not?

"Not up until a few weeks ago, but we did research and study. Just talked to a lot of other people and see what they've done and how they've tapered it, and practices have changed. I went back and looked at some of my old notes and back at Notre Dame, we were 24 periods every day, full pads every day, 20 minutes good against good.

"You do that anymore, you don't have anybody left. So we've had to tailor them, and we've backed off, we've changed the weightlifting for probably three weeks now. Don't lift with the legs down the stretch. Have tapered our practices. We've really tried to, like any coach, any time that you have an issue or some problem that you try to solve, research it, make the adjustments, hope they work. But you know what, what normally happens, if you explain it to the kids, and they understand that you're making these changes for them, they normally respond."

Barry, Joe Paterno has got a lot of critics in recent years. People say he's lost it, over the hill, whatever. You know who they recruit. You see them on film all the time. What did you think of Joe Pa and Penn State in recent years?

"Well, I've always had, as I said, I've had great respect for him. I have to recruit against him. Very seldom do we even get someone on campus to visit it they're recruiting them. So I know the players there are guys that everyone else wanted to. There may not have been the speed, they have misjudged some of their recruits, some skilled players, and didn't have explosive players, but I tell you, it wasn't long ago I heard that criticism, he came here, and then four of those guys were taken in the first round… and people on the outside saying he couldn't recruit, and four of them get drafted in the first round.

"He was criticized because three of the last four years, they didn't have winning seasons, just like it would be here if you had a run like that. But I've always had respect for him. That staff, they do things the right way. They're a name that people normally when you play against them, everybody's going to be at their best. They're going to give you their best shot. I think all of that played into it. But we've never underestimated them. We always had respect for them and knew that we were going to have to play against good players. We've had a few breaks the last few years."

Do you still expect to get (Mark) Zalewski back for practice this week?

"I'm hoping to. Like I said, I haven't seen him yet. They say he's been improving, so I'll be anxious to see…. We'll have meetings and everything today. And I did see him yesterday, he said he felt better, but we'll see how he runs around."

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