Conversation with NIU Coach Joe Novak

Former Indiana defensive coordinator Joe Novak has been at Northern Illinois for seven years, and he's built the program into a well-respected Mid-American Conference contender. Novak talked about taking his team on the road to face the Badgers Saturday morning at Camp Randall Stadium.

What has the impact of the loss of Thomas Hammock been like on your team, psychologically if nothing else?

Novak: Well I think certainly a little bit that way. I think we have a capable replacement in Mike Turner. He's a kid that's played for us. He had almost 1,000 yards as a true freshman two years ago, so he's capable. But you don't lose a kid like Thomas Hammock and what he means to our team and not have an impact I think a little bit, emotionally, with your football team. But that's the nature of the game. You go on.

Was that a problem Saturday night against South Florida?

Novak: You know, I honestly don't think so. Certainly our kids at that time honestly didn't know the extent. All they knew was that he was not going to play that night. But you know, it was a 9-0 football game with three minutes to go in the third quarter and we had some big plays – a punt return, an interception return and a long pass for a score – so it kind of got blown out of proportion. But I thought our team hung in there against a football team I'm sure a lot of people don't know a lot about. But South Florida is pretty talented.

Before the season you felt pretty good about your defense. How do you feel about it now?

Novak: Well I didn't feel very good after Wake Forest. I was extremely disappointed with the way we played defensively. Honestly, I'll go back, Saturday we played much better defensively. Again, it was 9-0, and the whole first half we were not doing much offensively and we were battling field position the whole game. Our defense had its back to the wall the whole first half and really all they scored for the first three quarters was one touchdown. I thought we were much improved. We certainly still have to play better. I was very disappointed after Wake Forest but I thought we made some good strides here this last week.

What type of breakdowns did you have in that area that you were able to correct?

Novak: Well Wake Forest gave us some things…they ran a little bit more option play than we anticipated. They certainly, like Wisconsin, had some great skill. They had some real speed. They had three kids with great speed. It's like anything. It's hard to show that in practice. And I think the biggest thing as I look back…during two-a-days we never scrimmaged. We were set to scrimmage one time during two-a-days and at the time we had half a center healthy. That was it, so we did not do any scrimmaging. I think that certainly that takes its toll especially on your defensive football team, when they can't really tackle and go full goal until the first game, and I thought we were really sloppy with our tackling. But that really starts with me and our decision we made on that. And like I said, I thought we did make some improvement this last week.

What do you do to have your club hang onto the football? It looks like turnovers have been a problem for you?

Novak: You're exactly right. And we've been good on that. I think last year we only fumbled it three times all year and the year before, the same way. We have held onto the ball well. That's been a real bugaboo. You know our first game we had two center-quarterback exchanges we lost and we also fumbled it twice at the tailback position, and we did it again this week. So the only thing you can do is make emphasis of it. Those kids have got to concentrate. I think it's just a matter again of some discipline and technique. We just have to keep emphasizing it. We can't continue to do that, and we certainly can't do that Saturday.

How significant was that win over Wake Forest for your program?

Novak: I think quite significant. I've said all along, this is my seventh year. We've made strides here from where we were six years ago. We were awful, and we've gotten better. We've taken baby steps. The one thing we hadn't done is win a game against a BCS team. We did that with Wake Forest. But again, I honestly know we have a ways to go. I think there's great potential with this program. We still have a ways to go, but it certainly was another big step for us.

How is quarterback Josh Haldi handling the pressure, following somebody like Chris Finlen?

Novak: Well he's handling it well. We have to make some better decisions at times. But overall I've been pleased with Josh. In the opener he threw two balls up that got picked off that weren't good decisions on his part. We did have a couple of quarterback-center exchanges. But the thing I liked about him is how he's handled it. His demeanor, his leadership in the huddle. All those things that you don't coach, he's done very well with. We've got to get him better on his decision-making. He's got to throw some balls better, some of those things. But those things you can coach. But the intangible things I've been very pleased with Josh. He's an extremely intelligent kid. He's a 3.9 student in engineering. And he's just handled the composure part of it very, very well.

How do you think you match up with Wisconsin?

Novak: I'm not sure we do to be honest with you. I look at them, and I think Barry…and again I didn't follow that closely last year but from what I heard, they got into a little bit of that spread stuff like Northwestern and some of those folks have been doing. And he's gone back to his type of football this year, and that's line ‘em up, and be big, strong, physical and sound. And they are very impressive watching them on tape. That offensive line, and of course Davis is a great tailback. You know their quarterback scares you. I'm not saying he's the best thrower in the country, but boy, he's an athlete. He makes plays when things aren't there. Defensively, you watch them, I don't know if they have a lot of big names on that side of the ball, but they're physical, they're tough and they're well-coached. And that's the way his teams have always been. And I think he's really gone back to Wisconsin football. They are very impressive to watch on tape.

Have you been around a better field goal kicker during all your years of coaching than Steve Azar?

Novak: Boy I'll tell you, we've had one or two that are close, but the kid's kind of impressive and I wish I could take credit for recruiting him. He's a walk-on here. A kid out of Colorado that we didn't even know much about. He just asked for an opportunity and we let him come out, and he won the job as a true freshman, and I think he's hitting over 80 percent of his field goals for his career which is amazing. Pressure-situations, he's had four or five real pressure kicks and he's made them. And I haven't been around any better. Maybe one or two close, but none better.

If he's from Colorado, how did he end up in your neck of the woods?

Novak: I don't know. I guess he wrote a letter to about 15 schools. He did some research. He tried to see who he thought needed a kicker. Somehow he got our name. He wrote a letter and thank God, our recruiting coordinator wrote him back and told him we'd be glad to give him a chance. And he ended up coming in here, and like I said, he's been a real godsend for us.

Is it hard to evaluate kickers? It seems like sometimes the walk-ons outperform the recruited guys?

Novak: Well we had a kid we recruited the year before, from right here, a local kid, and he came in here and beat him out from day one, so they're hard to evaluate even when they're kicking for you sometimes. But yeah, they are hard. You have to see them live. And I think that goes for quarterbacks too. You watch quarterbacks on tape sometimes, and you see one thing, and then boy, when you see them in person they're different. I think that's why a lot of us nowadays, with quarterbacks, it's important to get them into camps and get a chance to watch them throw live. And again, I think the same thing goes with a kicker.

Can your Big Ten background help you in preparing your team for this weekend?

Novak: I don't know how much my background is going to make a difference. It's the kids going out and playing the game. I'll say this about our kids. We're certainly going to be a decided underdog, and we should be. There's no question about that. But our kids will come out and compete. We played Illinois last year. And this is good news, you tell Barry this. We played Northwestern two years ago and they beat us in a pretty good football game, and they won the Big Ten title. Last year we played down in Illinois, and they beat us 17-12. We were ahead 6-3 in the fourth quarter, and they won the Big Ten title. So playing Wisconsin this year, that means they are going to go on to win the Big Ten championship.

Can you talk about Turner, and what he brings to your offense in place of Hammock?

Novak: Yeah, Mike's a big, physical kid. He's about 227 pounds, he was in the 100-meter state finals in the track meet here, and ran a 10.6 as a senior. He's not quite as nifty as Hammock has gotten. He's a kid who doesn't have quite the endurance that Thomas had, but he's a big, strong physical kid. He's capable of breaking a big run for us if he can get himself in the open. I think we'll probably pop a couple of freshmen kids a little bit in there too and see what they can do, but the load is on Michael right now, and he's going to have to take that and go with it.

Are you concerned at all about how your kids will handle the atmosphere or do you think they will be fine?

Novak: Well I don't think they will be fine, but I think they will be okay. Like I said, we've played at Illinois. We've played in some big arenas before, and our kids look forward to it. It's an exciting situation for them. We played Saturday night in the Buccaneers stadium where the Super Bowl was held, and that's an exciting time for these kids. Like I said, I know we're going to be a big underdog, but I think our kids will look forward to playing in that atmosphere.

As close as you are to Wisconsin, do you think your kids are familiar with the program and is there any extra motivation there?

Novak: Certainly there is. A lot of them are from this area, being close, wanted to be recruited by Wisconsin. I think we have 13 or 14 Wisconsin kids on our roster. Mostly young kids, not a lot of upperclassmen. We have a few, Randee Drew at a corner and Todd Ghilani, our center, are Wisconsin kids and I'm sure those kids are going to be real excited about playing at Camp Randall.

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