HEAD COACH TOM HERMAN: Hats off to the university. Very classy organization in our dealings with them throughout the Bowl week. I couldn’t be more impressed and certainly you don’t win 11 games in the regular season without being an extremely well-coached team. I’ve got a ton of respect for Coach Whittingham, and the way that he does things, and just, you know, getting a chance to spend a couple different times with him at length, very impressive coach and I look forward to continuing a relationship with him because he’s one of the good ones out there.
Hats off to our fans. Wow. That certainly felt like a home game. I think I saw up on the scoreboard, 60,000-something in attendance. What an awesome job for them to come support us.
And then finally, our players. Wow, did they play hard and we knew that’s what it was going to take. We knew that this was probably going to be the most physical team that we played all year, and our guys rose to the occasion.
You know, we were about as healthy as we’ve been in quite some time. We were fresh. The guys enjoyed the Bowl experience, the entire month leading up to it. They had fun with each other. They bonded. And you know, they took care of their bodies, and when it was time to work, they worked their tails off. Had a great few weeks of preparation, and couldn’t be prouder of the way they played tonight, not just only in execution, but in effort and physicality. Just so impressed by them.
Q. Tommy, in your three seasons, you’ve always had your best success when you’re imposing your will on the opponent, metaphorically punching them in the mouth, and you did it again tonight. How do you get them to do it consistently, week-in, week-out, 13, 14 games?
HEAD COACH TOM HERMAN: Well, we’ve got to be healthy. We’re not to the point yet where our depth is where it needs to be. We’ve got to develop that depth to do that, and it’s got to be a mentality that permeates the entire organization. It can and it will, and that’s my job is to make sure — I don’t have all the answers right now on New Year’s Eve as to how to get that done. But I’m excited for the off-season to challenge these guys to understand what they are capable of when they do play that way.
This was an unbelievable learning experience for a lot of those pressure men and sophomores in that room. Those guys, you know, we had our ups and downs with that crew throughout the season, but I think throughout — not just tonight, the four hours tonight, but throughout the Bowl preparation, I think the label went on as to what it takes to win as a championship level, and I’m excited to carry over those lessons into the off-season.
Q. How many practices did you end up having for this Bowl game and how many are allowed? I think you said you weren’t going to hit the allowable or something. And for Joseph and Malcolm defensively, just talk about, you know, what was going on, you guys dominated the game, set the tone. Were they playing you any differently, Joseph, tonight?
HEAD COACH TOM HERMAN: We only practiced eight times. I think we went Friday and Saturday when our coaches got off the road and then we went Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, the guys home for Christmas, came back the day after Christmas, had basically what would be a Tuesday practice. We practiced twice here and had family Friday yesterday; that’s not really a practice. Yeah, it’s a misnomer. Everybody thinks that you get 15 just like spring ball. You get as many as you want, is my understanding.
So we’ve got to be smart, and certainly with the early signing period that has changed a lot of that dynamic with really only two weeks, and if you play in the Championship Game, one week to wrap up or mostly wrap up a signing class, so it leaves you much less time to practice. But it’s worked out well for us the last couple years because our guys are fresh.
But we’ve been doing that — we like to have fun during Bowl prep, we really do. These guys have learned when it’s time to relax and have fun, we’re going to do that and we’re going to do it full tilt. But when it’s time to lock in, these guys have really grown up and matured; that, okay, now it’s time to practice and meet and walk through and all that stuff and these guys have been dialed in to do that.
JOSEPH OSSAI: What was your question, how did we feel dominating?
Q. For Joseph and then for Malcolm, the dominating performance on defense and what was going on out there.
JOSEPH OSSAI: What was going on out there was just us having fun, and us having confidence in the defense, the defensive scheme. The coaches, I know they put a lot of time into preparing this game for us, and they wanted to put us in the best situation and the best situation possible.
So we just trusted them, we bought in 100 percent and went out there and executed. I think that was the key thing tonight was executing. We’ve done a poor job — I myself have done a poor job in the past of executing, and today I feel like we executed at a high level and the result was pleasing.
MALCOLM EPPS: I’m just so proud of us and proud of the defense. With eight practices, we put in almost a whole new defense that we never ran before, and you know, the way we brought it down and just got it down, reps after reps, knowing when it’s time to lock in and learn the defense, and me and Joe switching sides almost every play. The communication of the defense tonight was big, just being able to talk.
Those guys run a lot of 12, 13, 14 personnel. They try to play real, real physical with us and we started up front, made me and Joe’s job easy tonight. All we had to do was set edges and force the ball back to the linebackers and we did that all night. The way we got down this defense and the way we went out there and played with each other and for each other, it was something I’ll never forget. I’m just proud of all those guys in that locker room, that’s all I can say.
Q. You always talk about how you want your guys to be pros, and you know, they had a lot of things that could have been distractions with, you know, new coaches coming in, but they stayed focused and dialed in. Can you just talk about that aspect of them being professionals and avoiding the distractions that could have been there?
HEAD COACH TOM HERMAN: Well, you’ve got, you know, three captains up here and one future captain, and a lot of other leaders in that locker room that — distractions are only that, if you choose to let them be. These guys did a great job of tuning out the noise. I thought our staff did a heck of a job of not allowing all of that outside noise become a distraction, as well and two really good games. I mean, unbelievable games.
Craig Naivar and that defensive staff did an unbelievable job getting these guys ready for what they were about to face, and you know, the entire offensive staff with some wrinkles and adjustments in order to attack some things that we saw on film.
You know, this is — it would have been very easy; it would have been human nature for coaches to scatter, for players to scatter, for everybody to kind of splinter, especially knowing that the regular season was not what we had hoped going in.
But I think everybody knew that, you know, we had three or four weeks to rectify some of the wrongs that happened throughout the regular season, and these guys are, again, they are competitors. They want to win and they want to be put in the best position to win, and be taught how to execute it, and then go out and do it with their hair on fire, so to speak.
I can’t say enough about the leadership in the locker room, but also the staff and how professional they were in preparing these guys for this type of Bowl game.
Q. First for Sam and then Devin. Sam, from your vantage point what were you seeing from the line of scrimmage that allowed your offensive schemes to be so effective against a pretty stout defense? And Devin, take us through the three amazing catches, the separation — there wasn’t much, but take us through those three pretty amazing catches.
SAM EHLINGER: We knew coming into it that they were an incredible front seven, and the offensive lineman knew they had to be physical and win their matchups and they did exactly that. That allowed us to open up the run game and they had to load guys up in the box and they tried to take that away and you had guys like Devin and Collin and Brand the whole wide receiver room, it’s really hard for them to stop us.
All credit goes up front. Those are some really talented, All-American defensive players, and our guys did a great job of winning their matchups.
DEVIN DUVERNAY: Yeah, I knew 28 could run and he was a good player. I knew I was just going it have to out-technique him and out-physical him.
Sam did a great job putting the ball where I could get a chance in all three of those plays, and just made a play, come down with the ball.
Q. Sam, a couple days ago, you mentioned that it would have been easy for guys to have one foot out the door and Coach Herman touched on this before, but what did you see in these weeks of practice? What did you sense that made you feel that these guys were capable of this, because y’all were very confident heading into this game.
SAM EHLINGER: I think it’s a credit to our coaching. There was never any sense of unfocusness — I guess that’s really not a word.
But it was very professional. We understood what was on the table and we understand that’s the competition, and we knew the opportunity we had to play such an incredible team. Obviously they were fighting for a playoff spot a few weeks ago and we got the chance to play them.
We knew the opportunity and we wanted to finish the season off right for these seniors because of the things they have gone through this program. You think about the difference between their freshman year and now, I would say they have built a foundation of getting everything back to where we’re playing better football, and they have been through a lot, and it’s a testament to their character and who they are as people.
A lot of guys in their class have left, and these are the guys that stayed, and they are captains, some of our best players. Everybody wanted to play for them because of the love that we have for all those guys.
Q. Over these eight practices, what did you and your defensive staff see from Cort to have confidence in giving him a start today, and with you being down a few linebackers, how big was his play?
HEAD COACH TOM HERMAN: Oh, yeah, Cort’s a great story. You know, if there was a Scout Team Player of the Year award, he would have won it probably back-to-back years. He’s really tough, really physical and just understands football.
He sees the game really, really well, and we knew that — you know, we were going to be short in that area, especially with Joe and Jeff playing close to the line of scrimmage needing those guys to play close to the line of scrimmage. We were going to need him to be in that rotation and he came through in a big way.
Q. Malcolm, you’ve been the emotional leader of this team. You guys came out with a lot of juice early on defense. What message did that send to Utah, and also, how do you think your class has left this place going out, and what message did that send to your younger teammates coming back?
MALCOLM EPPS: You know, game day consists of a lot of walk-throughs and meeting together, being around each other a lot on game day. You know, we had two walk throughs today and Coach just had great juice. Just keeping everybody amped up.
We’re in the walk-through, basically doing a run-through because we’re so hyped up, ready to play. He’s giving great speeches and things like that and once the juices are flowing and you’re out there playing loose and you know the game plan and you’re able to go out there and play fast and play with a lot of confidence, and on defense we did that.
Just being able to fly around and make plays and have that swagger, and — what do I want to say — have that swagger and just have fun doing it. The way ball is supposed to be played; you shouldn’t be uptight playing ball. We out there having fun, celebrate with your teammates and things like that. That was great and that confidence rolled into the game from the first half to the second half.
My class and our legacy, you know, the ultimate goal is to win a National Championship, and win the conference championship. We didn’t do that, but we won three Bowl games in a row. That hasn’t been done here in ten years I think. It just show what you can do when you stay together. My class came in, we had a humongous class. We found a lot of people, and I think there’s only eight of us left — I can’t remember. It’s not a lot of us left.
It just shows you what you could do when you stay together with your brothers. We’ve been through so much together and the way we led this year, it wasn’t always on the same page, but it always was the same message that wanted to get through to the whole team. I couldn’t be more proud of everybody in my class.
Man, you know, the bond we formed together is unbreakable is. This dude sitting to my right is like one of my best friends. He barely talking, and I talk a lot and how we become best friends, I don’t know (Laughter). But without us being here that, would have never happened.
You know, I’m proud I got to meet these guys and proud that I got to spend some of the best years of my life with these guys, and pour out blood, sweat and tears every day with them. Our legacy is we stay solid with each other. We stay solid from the first day. We could have broke, but the core of our class stayed solid and I’m so proud.
Q. How much was this about simplifying and letting athletes do their thing? What is it about you and Bowl games?
HEAD COACH TOM HERMAN: Yeah, I think there’s an element of simplification. You want to be simple but not predictable. I think that’s the best way to describe winning defense and you know, when they know what to do and they can fly around, but you don’t want to play 100 percent of the same thing or else you’re going to get schemed up, so there is a bit of a cat-and-mouse in terms of adjustment.
I thought our third-and-long package was at its best tonight that I’ve seen in a long time. You know, I thought Coach Naivar called a great game and had a great game plan. These guys they bought into it and they flew around and they played really physical.
As for me and Bowl games, I don’t know. I have really good players. We, again, have always had kind of a philosophy of having fun during that time and working when it’s time to work and having fun when it’s time to have fun. Because again, you’re talking about a month in between ball games.
These guys, the first couple weeks, week and a half after the Texas Tech game, they are worried about passing their finals. Some of them graduating, all of that. Jamari needed to pass British Lit to graduate and he did it. We were so excited for him. I don’t know that I could pass British Lit.
So that first week and a half or so is about, you know, going down the wire academically, and then when school is out, there’s a lot of bonding that goes on and a lot of fun to be had.
You know, I think we’ve got really good coaches that when given extra time to prepare can find weaknesses, can find chinks in armors, and our kids buy in that — I mean, when you look at the four Bowl games that I’ve won as a head coach, it’s always been about physicality. Even going back to, you know, the University of Houston and Florida State, we held them to I think 30-something yards rushing, and we ran the ball really well.
And then, you know, the Texas Bowl, we’re playing the No. 1 offense in the SEC and we hold them to 13 points.
And then last year, we run the ball, which was not our strong suit certainly last year. But we found ways to be physical against a physical Georgia team, the best rush defense in the country and found a way to rush for 231 yards. All of that credit and hold them to 128 yards rushing — so all that credit goes up front.
But I do think the coaching staff deserves a small amount of that credit for finding ways to put our guys in position to be physical and fast.
Q. Sam and Joseph, a performance like this breeds a lot of optimism. What do you think will be the key, and how optimistic are you that this program can take that step again and get back to that 10-win kind of level?
SAM EHLINGER: Yeah, I think when we are healthy and having fun and playing for each other, and playing mistake-free, we’re really, really hard to beat. I’m very optimistic about the guys coming back. There’s a lot of young guys that have a lot of experience and are really, really good football players, so I’m very optimistic.
JOSEPH OSSAI: The one good thing, it’s never good to be injured, but the one good thing that came out of all the injuries was the young guys that got to play and the experience you gained, and that’s something you can only get during playing time. I’m optimistic about them coming back and the guys coming in with this new signing class and getting to get molded by Yancy McKnight. Excited about next season and to see what we do.
HEAD COACH TOM HERMAN: Just a side-bar to that, we were walking through special teams today, and I was looking at the starting 11 guys on the coverage team, and ten of the 11 were either freshmen or sophomores. Then I looked at the punt return team and I think it was 9 of the 11 were freshmen or sophomores.
You know, was a little bit nervous, but it’s also very exciting to see these young guys go out and make plays, and I think you saw that, certainly, with the punt returns that D’Shawn had tonight, too.
Q. Obviously last year’s win in the Bowl game, it was seen as a program-shifting win. How do you view this from a prism of moving forward as this being a big one that you guys can build off of?
SAM EHLINGER: I think it taught a lot of the young guys that when you play together, you play mistake-free, you have fun, and then you lock in and play mistake-free; that our talent can take us pretty far, and then once you add in mistake-free football, watch out.
And so I think that it’s a great — I don’t know how to word this — but I’m not going to do this again (Laughter). I’ll leave it at that.
HEAD COACH TOM HERMAN: Smart move.
JOSEPH OSSAI: Yeah, this was a great game. Gave the guys a lot of confidence in what we can do and what we stand for and what we can be on defense and how dangerous we can be on defense and equally on offense.
It was definitely an energy-booster and I’m glad we did what we did because now we have that confidence. It can take us and it can boost us into the off-season. We can have that on our shoulders and going through the off-season, because there’s no ballgame, so if you need to be reminded of something, it’s definitely great to go into the off-season with a win like this.
So we are going to take this win into spring ball and we are going to keep working on our craft and we are going to try to come back next season even better.