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Northwestern's Smallest Back Has Come Up Big for the Wildcats

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Venric Mark is listed at 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, and that’s probably being a little generous. But it doesn’t matter to Mark, who came into Saturday’s game as the Big Ten’s fourth-leading rusher, right ahead of 5-foot-11, 215-pound Montee Ball of Wisconsin.

In a conference filled with big, bruising backs, Mark is an exception in his size, but not his running style, or his production.  A lot of critics don’t think he can compete in the Big Ten, a conference whose official colors — black and blue — reflect its teams’ styles on the field. But Mark will doesn’t seem to notice.

“At the end of the day, I like that,” he said. “They think I’m a little back. They’re like, ‘Hey, we can knock them around.’ Okay, well then, you do some and I’m just going to play my game.”

Mark did just that as he continued his surprise run on Saturday, with 182 yards on 20 carries — a staggering 9.1 yards per carry — and two touchdowns in Northwestern’s 21-13 win over Minnesota.

Last week, Mark felt he was underutilized, saying in the postgame press conference that he thinks NU should have run the ball up the middle more. Today, the Wildcats made sure to get the most out of their speedy and deceptively tough offensive weapon.

“The gameplan was run the ball down their throat,” Mark said. “I believe seven out of the first 10 plays were all run plays, so our goal was to come in here and mulch them up.”

Mulch them up? That’s an interesting way of putting it, but fitting nonetheless. In fact, it might be an even better way to describe the play of the NU offensive line, which responded from a letdown against Penn State to put together arguably its best performance of 2012, which has actually been a solid year given the inexperience on the right side.

Mark had runs of 26, 47 and 48 yards, and he chalked them all up to the offensive line. Well, “great blocking, or bad defensive scheme, whatever you choose,” he said. The first run — the 26-yard touchdown — came on NU’s first play from scrimmage.

“The hole was huge,” he said. “It was a lot bigger than I expected it to be, but basically when I just got the ball I saw Brian Mulroe in front of me; he did a great job doing his job of surging, going to the linebacker and giving me a two-way go — I could have cut to the left or right. The way the linebacker was flowing, it was best that I cut left, so I did and once I was in the open I was like, yeah, this could be great.”

It was great, as were the hole for the 48-yard touchdown run, which Mark described in less detail, but with a similar sentiment.

“It was huge, too,” he said.

It certainly was a memorable performance for Mark and for his offensive line, but this memory isn’t the one that he hopes stays with him; not with bigger goals still on the table. And bowl eligibility? Not cause for a celebration, he says.

“Well, what we accomplished is that we’re 6-1,” he said. “And you know, bowl eligible, that doesn’t matter. We’re going to take it a game at a time. Our goal is not just to be bowl eligible.

“Our goal is to come every week, respect our opponent, but again, play our game to the best of our abilities — the Wildcat way — and win out.”

Win out? That’s a lofty goal, sure, but that’s similar to the attitude Mark takes to every game, and it’s one that attitude is reflected in the entire team, which sits at a confident 6-1.

“I feel we have a little swag to us now, and that’s good,” he said.

Swag is good, but Mark isn’t satisfied; he still wants more. That’s even better for NU.