WILLIE TAGGART: Looking forward to playing back in Doak Campbell this weekend, homecoming against Syracuse. I know we’ve won three straight games at home, and this will be big for us, having our fans here to help us find a way to get a win at home against Syracuse.
Q. I probably should have asked this on Saturday. Were you involved with the play calling on offense, and if so, is that different than what the role has been previously?
WILLIE TAGGART: No, it hasn’t been different than any other thing I’ve done all year long. I’m always involved on both sides of the ball. I thought Kendal [Briles] called a good game.
Q. It’s obviously been kind of a roller coaster season. You started a little rough, then you guys had a good run. The last time you played at home, NC State was a big win, you had won a couple and then kind of a little downturn again. How have the players handled it emotionally?
WILLIE TAGGART: I thought our guys have handled it well. I thought they came back yesterday with a good attitude in practice and the weight room and the meeting rooms. I thought our guys handled it well. We’ve got some good young men on this football team and we’ve got some leaders that’s holding guys together, and more importantly, I think our football team, they see where we’re at and why we’re at where we’re at, and they know that we’ve got to make the winning plays to get out of the bad situations that we’re in. We’ve won three ballgames, lost four, and three of them we were a play away from winning them. We’ve got to make the winning plays when they’re there to be made.
Q. Do you have any updates on Baveon [Johnson], Brady [Scott] and Ontaria [Wilson]?
WILLIE TAGGART: Like I said after the game, Ontaria is going to be out for a while. There’s no timetable when he’ll be back, unfortunately. And Baveon and Brady is more day-to-day.
Q. And speaking of injuries, I know Cyrus Fagan didn’t play last game but Akeem [Dent] stepped up and started his first game. What did you think of his performance?
WILLIE TAGGART: I thought Akeem did a good job. For it to be his first game and be on the road playing, I thought he did a great job. I thought one of the key plays in the game he made, when the receiver caught the pass on the sideline and could have run in the end zone and Akeem ran him down and stopped the touchdown, and our defense held them to three points. We could have gave up three points, and he saved the touchdown for us. I thought that was big being a freshman and going and making the stop on their best receiver. I thought Akeem did some good things in the game, and I think he’s only going to get better the more he plays.
Q. After review, how do you feel like Darius Washington did, and what has he done to put himself in that position to contribute for you?
WILLIE TAGGART: I thought Darius, again, it would have been his first game on the road, I thought he did some good things. I also thought he made some mistakes, which we thought he would make, being a freshman, his first game. We felt he would make some freshman mistakes, but we thought he would make a lot more plays for us than he did mistakes, and that’s what we felt he did in that game, and he’s only going to continue to get better.
Q. The question on Darius, that left side of the offensive line and [Andrew] Boselli, seemed like you guys had some momentum going with that group. Did you like what you saw from those guys and is it possible we’ll see more of them this season?
WILLIE TAGGART: I liked what I saw. I liked what I saw out of our offense other than the turnovers. You take away the turnovers, I thought what we did offensively was big. Look at the way we ran the football; I thought that was good. The way we distributed the ball to multiple receivers was good. I thought we were a lot better on third down where we had been struggling, which was really good for our football team. Time of possession, we controlled the clock, which was good for our football team. I thought we did some good things. You take away the turnovers, and I think it’s a different ballgame. You know, we turned the ball over twice in the red zone, and that was critical. That was our opportunity to get the win and we didn’t. All those guys played a factor in making those things happen.
Q. The winning plays that aren’t being made, what can you and the coaching staff do to help those become executed better?
WILLIE TAGGART: Keeping the players in position to make those plays and believing in our players that they’re going to make them. There’s going to come a time where they’re just going to find a way to make those plays. They’re there, we’ve just got to make them. You talk about winning plays; yeah, we’ve got to make a field goal. That’s a winning play. You go back to some of those games, last play of the Virginia game, we’ve got to make that play. That’s a winning play. Or you go back to Boise State, and when your ball is on the ground, we try to scoop and score rather than landing on it. That’s a winning play, and we’ve just got to make those plays. And again, our guys are in position, and we’ve just got to do it. We’ve got to step up and do it when it’s there, and it’s just a matter of time because it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for us all because it’s right there, and if we take care of business things will be better. We’ve just got to keep plowing away and keep putting our guys in those positions and knowing our guys are going to come through for us.
Q. After looking at the tape, just your assessment of James [Blackman’s] performance in that game, and do you anticipate him to be starting again this weekend?
WILLIE TAGGART: I thought James did well in the game. You know, I thought he did a good job of distributing the ball to his teammates. I think James completed 71 percent of his passes, which was big time for us. He had an interception where he got hit and maybe if he wouldn’t have got hit, he would have completed a ball over the linebacker there. I thought James played well enough for us to win. You know, just again, we didn’t execute in other areas that kind of cost us. But I thought — there were some plays he could have made to help us, yeah, I think that’s each and every week.
I don’t think anybody is perfect. But there was also some plays that some teammates could have helped, too, that could have been big plays. So it goes both hand in hand. But I thought overall James did well enough for us to win the ballgame.
Q. Do you think he’ll start this weekend?
WILLIE TAGGART: We’ll see Saturday.
Q. Coach, your defenses the past two games hasn’t really gotten to the quarterback very well. Just what’s — after doing it pretty well through the first few games, what’s been the difference, and how do you get it corrected?
WILLIE TAGGART: Well, how do you get it corrected? You get after the quarterback. You get to him. That’s how you get it corrected. I think last week there was so much of getting pressure to the quarterback, it was trying to stop their offense. They were the leading scoring offense in the conference in a lot of categories, and it was trying to defend their offense, and the strategy we went with was not necessarily blitzing every play but trying to find ways to stop their receivers, what they were good at. Again, I know their best receiver had a really good first half against us, but I thought we made some adjustments to help us.
But like I said, I thought our guys did a good job of bending but not breaking, getting down there to hold that team to 22 points and only one touchdown. I thought our defense from that standpoint did a good job. It’s either one thing or another, you blitz and take risks or throw the ball down the field on you, or you get back and try to hope they make mistakes and try to keep them out of the end zone. I was excited with the way our guys kept them out of the end zone and held them to three points.
Q. Coach, I know people focus on third down, whether it’s offense or defense, the conversion rates, but it seems like numbers-wise you’ve really struggled in first down defense. Is that something the coaching staff is discussing, and is it something you guys, you think you can make some adjustments to improve the first down defense?
WILLIE TAGGART: I think so. You go back to the first game and we did a good job on first down. It’s kind of three-and-out. So it’s important to win the first down. It’s always been important. It’s always been a part of our game plan to win on first down. Unfortunately you don’t do it all the time. That’s key to any defense is to win a first down. You win the first down, it’s a great chance you’re going to get off the field. We’ve got to keep trying to find ways to win first down and keep our guys in a position where they’re in third and long. If we can do that, then things are a lot better.
Q. On the 4th and short play where Keith [Gavin] wasn’t covered, is that a situation where James [Blackman] should even be looking around, or is he just trying to get up the snap the ball?
WILLIE TAGGART: It was a play we were going fast. It was 4th and 1 and we wanted to go fast and we had a run play in place, and it’s not often where James is running up and he’s looking around observing the field on that. Again, I wish the football God had whispered to him, hey, Keith is open way out there and he would have threw it out there, but he didn’t, and I wish Keith would have been a little more dramatic about him being open. I think that would have helped, as well, because we were going fast and we wanted to hand the ball off to get them thinking we can get the one yard. Again, I wish he would have looked up and saw him over there and threw the ball at him. It would have been great for all of us, but he didn’t do it.
Q. You spoke a little bit about the rotation of the offensive line, some of the guys playing. Does Cole Minshew being back out there, does he bring anything other than his size? Does his experience help?
WILLIE TAGGART: Absolutely. He’s played in a lot of ballgames, and to have him in there along with his spread and size and experience is always helpful. Cole is continuing to get into football shape. He hadn’t played in a long time, so he’s not able to play the whole entire game, but it does help having him in there with his experience and helping guys beside him. It’s big for us.
Q. You mentioned we’ll find out Saturday who the starting quarterback is going to be. When have you known the last few weeks who it’s going to be, and what’s the operation like in making that decision with you and Kendal [Briles]?
WILLIE TAGGART: Well, kind of like everything else, we go through the week of practice and our guys are preparing and then we decide as a staff what we think is best for our football team, who’s going to give us a chance to win. We’ll do the same thing. That’s kind of how we do it every week. We evaluate and then we decide.
Q. Penalties have been an issue once again this year, particularly some of the procedural penalties and false starts and maybe the unnecessary roughness penalties is a lack of discipline. Obviously you guys are emphasizing that as a coaching staff, but I guess it’s the players not following through on the field. What do you think the disconnect is?
WILLIE TAGGART: Well, I think you’ve got to look at each one of those penalties and how you — how those guys are going about some of those penalties, it’s just effort penalties, going hard, and some of them you can’t — it’s tough, it’s a bang-bang call, and a lot of it’s judgment call. A lot of it’s tough. We practice those things every day. I mean, we’ve got reps in practice every day. Our guys aren’t going out trying to do these things. A lot of them are judgmental calls. The one with Levonta [Taylor], the defensive player, that was a bang-bang-bang. That’s tough, and that’s unfortunate. You look at the once with Hamsah [Nasirildeen], he’s not trying to — I don’t think he’s trying to do it, he’s trying to make a tackle, but it’s unfortunate. We’ve got to keep teaching and keep correcting. To have a guy just belligerent and just doing — then you don’t play him. You take him out of it. I think that’s kind of it. That’s how it is right now.
Q. Do you like what you’re getting from D.J. [Matthews] in punt returning? Most specifically coming up and catching punts? Is he doing a good job for you? Is he still the punt returner?
WILLIE TAGGART: Yeah, he’s still the punt returner. I’d like for him to run it back. I’d like to get a touchdown is what I’d like to get. Could he have caught a couple of those punts? Yeah, he wanted to catch everything. Everything he can catch we want him to catch it and save us field position. I think any punt returner that’s the number one goal is to catch the ball and save us field position when you can. Did he catch all of them? No. Would we like for him to catch it? Yes. But yes, DJ is still our punt returner, and yes, we believe in DJ and DJ is going to get him a punt returned and hopefully he’ll get one and take it back to the house and catch all of them this week.
Q. It looked like Dontae [Lucas] had a freshman moment pregame where it looked like you had to pull him aside. What happened there and what was that conversation like?
WILLIE TAGGART: He was being a jughead, and I went and let him know that that was unacceptable, and that’s not what we do. Being a freshman — and I called it being a jughead, and those things you can’t do and he won’t do again.
Q. I wanted to follow up on the question about when you and [Kendal] Briles analyze the quarterback play during the week, there’s a lot of factors. You know more about that than any of us do, certainly. What is it specifically that you’re looking at? Is it a guy who doesn’t take sacks, maybe a guy who gives you a better chance in your running game? Is it chemistry of the team? Can you be a little more specific? I think a lot of us kind of wonder that question, without giving away —
WILLIE TAGGART: Well, you just pick the guy you think gives you the best chance to win. You go and you evaluate who’s efficient, evaluate your offense throughout the week, and then you get together a staff and come up with who you think is going to be the best guy to give you an opportunity to win that week. It’s pretty simple. You evaluate practice and who’s running the offense and who’s executing it at a high level, and then what you think is best for your team, and then you go with it, and you don’t think — second-guess it, you go, and hopefully you prepare those guys to go out and perform to their best to help us win a ballgame. That’s what we’re trying to do is win a ballgame.
Q. What things would you like to see James [Blackman] improve on, or what would you like to see [Alex] Hornibrook improve on?
WILLIE TAGGART: I want to see those guys keep preparing the way they’ve been preparing and just make more plays. When there’s plays out there to be made, we’ve got to make them. I know James had some where he could have made, and we want to make those plays. But I think both guys have done some good things for us throughout the year. Again, it’s not all on them. I know the quarterback gets all the blame, but that’s part of it. Again, at the end of the day, I want whoever the quarterback is to lead us to a victory. That’s what we want. So whoever the quarterback is, we want to win. So what we want to improve on is winning. I think we all want that. We want to win. It’s whatever it takes to win.
Q. How much do you have to adjust to losing Keyshawn [Helton] last week and Ontaria [Wilson] this week? Do you have to lean on guys to play more snaps and stay out there longer than they would because of bodies?
WILLIE TAGGART: We’ve just got to move on. It’s just like any other injury. You’ve got to move on. You have guys as backups, and they’ve got to be ready to play. We’ve got some guys that we believe in that can get the job done, that can have a great week of practice and then go out and execute on Saturdays for us.
Q. You guys had some dropped passes the other night. Do you think guys are pressing at all or any theories on why that happens?
WILLIE TAGGART: No, I just thought we dropped the ball. I don’t think they were pressing anything. We just didn’t make those plays. We didn’t make the plays. It was unfortunate. They were there to be made and we didn’t make them. I go back to we weren’t at our best when our best was needed, and our best was needed when those plays were there and we didn’t execute.
Q. It seems like you had a plan to play both quarterbacks in weeks previously and then you probably thought that was what gave you the best chance to win football games. Why was it maybe the best opportunity to win a football game to stay with one quarterback the whole time?
WILLIE TAGGART: Because that’s what I thought was best.
Q. Specifically, is there a rhythm that he’s able to work into —
WILLIE TAGGART: Well, I didn’t think James [Blackman] did anything — I thought he was doing a good job for us. Again, he moved us down the field, and we didn’t get in the end zone. It’s not rocket science or anything. He didn’t do anything to kill us. I mean, he had the interception where he got hit, but we missed the block. Other than that I thought he did a good job running the offense. We just can’t turn the ball over in the red zone. We score those points, I don’t think we’re talking about those things. We win the ballgame, we’re not talking about those things. At the end of the day we’ve got to win. No matter who the quarterback is we’ve got to win ballgames. But I didn’t think James played that badly to do anything different.
Q. You mentioned earlier with Ontaria [Wilson] being out and obviously you also lost Keyshawn [Helton], what have you seen from the young receivers, and have you seen them get to the point where you can trust them more?
WILLIE TAGGART: You do. They all want to play. They want to get out and help this football team, and I’m excited about it. We talk all year about those guys being patient but being ready. You just never know. It’s a long season, and sure enough, unfortunately we had some injuries that’s going to cause a lot of guys to play more, and they’ve got to be ready for it. But they’re very talented. They’re going to have a great week of practice and preparation, and then we as coaches got to believe in them and put them out there and let them go do what they came here to do. But we believe in those guys, and I think they can get it done for us, and I think they will.
Q. Akeem Dent, you talked about him earlier, is he the kind who after a play, good, bad, wants to learn? What’s his attitude like?
WILLIE TAGGART: Yeah, he’s always willing to learn, and the thing I like about him, he usually learns from his mistakes, but he’s always asking questions how can he be better, what could he have done on certain plays. I think with him it’s just the more he plays the better he’s going to be. He’s a phenomenal football player and has really good — just a good sense of the game of playing, I think, just with more experience for him, he’s going to only get better being out there in those situations, especially on the road in those type of ballgames.
Again, Akeem and I talked earlier in the year, and we felt by the end of the season, I think we’ll all see the type of player we know and think he should be.
Q. Do you stick with Ricky Aguayo moving forward or do you base it on practice or do you have to move on because of the in-game results that he’s produced recently?
WILLIE TAGGART: Well, we’ll see this week. We’re going to see how practice goes this week, and we’ll make a decision on Saturday.
Q. Obviously every game is important, but big picture the next three-, four-game stretch when it comes to becoming bowl eligible and making the season a success, how important is this next stretch?
WILLIE TAGGART: We’re not even thinking about next stretch, we’re thinking about Syracuse. We can’t think about all those things. We’ve got to win a ballgame, and Syracuse is right in front of us, and it would be disrespectful to look ahead of those guys, and we’ve got to find a way to win now or those things that we’re talking about won’t happen. We’ve got to stay right now and find a way to be 1-0 after this season, and then we’ll move on from there. But we’ve got to find a way to win, find a way to finish these ballgames, and it’s my job as the head coach to get our team to find a way to finish these ballgames, and that’s what we’re going to work tirelessly to do is find a way to win, period. Got to finish.
Q. Before you had Ricky [Aguayo] go kick the field goal, you had the third down and you only got a yard on it, I think. Do you try to give Kendal [Briles] the option that we’ll go for it on fourth down? Do you like to give him the option of having two plays ready, or for you wanting to go for it on fourth down, is that a last-second feel kind of decision?
WILLIE TAGGART: He’ll usually know way ahead of time whether we’re in two-down territory. At that point, I didn’t think that was two-down territory at that point. I thought we had a phenomenal play called the play before to either get the first down or be in a better position to kick the field goal, a short field goal. But we missed the block, and if we’d have made that block, again, I don’t think that’s a big issue. Again, that goes back to making those winning plays in tough situations, and we didn’t. Like I said, I thought we had a good play called in that third down to get us in a better position, and it didn’t work for us. Tried the field goal, and we missed it. Had enough leg, it just didn’t go through the upright.
Q. You mentioned that you really are legitimately three, four plays from being 6-1 and being top 15 in the country. But the record is the record. How do you convince players, recruits, fans that things are on the upswing?
WILLIE TAGGART: Well, you just be realistic. Like you said, we’re that close. I mean, it’s on the uptick. This time last year none of those games were this close. We were’t in any of these ballgames. Three of these ballgames we were up in the fourth quarter. We’ve got to finish these ballgames. We’re one play in the fourth quarter from finishing these ballgames. So like I said a minute ago, that’s my job as the head coach to get our team to find a way to finish these ballgames. But things are better from that standpoint. Record-wise it’s not, but we’re really close, and I’ve got to find a way to get our team to get over this hump and finish these ballgames because we are close, and that’s what’s frustrating about it all. We’re all frustrated, every player, every coach, our fan base because we know what we can be and we know what we should be and we’re not doing that right now, and we’ve got to find a way to do it and I’ve got to find a way to get our guys to do it, and I will.