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Three Things We Learned From Northwestern's 21-13 Win Over Minnesota

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

The defensive line has regressed 

The initial signs were revealed last week. Against Minnesota, it was impossible to ignore: the defensive line has taken a major step back since the beginning of the season. After the debacle at the Carrier Dome, in which Northwestern's defense was sliced and diced for 42 points and 596 yards of total offense, the line showed massive improvements against Vanderbilt, Boston College and South Dakota. Penn State won the battle in the trenches last week, and the Wildcats were unable to generate pressure on quarterback McGloin, nor could they stop the Lions’ running game. A respectable but hardly formidable Minnesota team offered the ideal platform for a redemptive performance. Instead, the line continued its sorry ways.

With Marqueis Gray handling the lions’ share of quarterbacking duties (before he went down with an injury in the second half), NU looked lost against the Gophers’ well-orchestrated running game. Gray and bruising tailback Donnell Kirkwood Jr. gashed the Wildcats for a combined 159 yards on the ground. Much less a problem of poor gap discipline, the line was simply beaten at the point of attack. In a primal test of physicality, the Gophers’ big boys up dominated NU’s defensive trench warriors. It wasn’t just the run game, either. The Gophers had a field day in their pass-blocking exploits, forming a solid wall of protection around Gray and backup Max Shortell and parrying NU’s pass-rushing efforts. Penetration was rare, quarterback pressure almost nonexistent. Had Gray been under center in the second half, who knows how he might have exploited the Wildcats feeble line play.

Next week, when NU takes on Nebraska – by all accounts a better offensive team, with a bigger, stronger offensive line and more-organized blocking schemes – producing a consistent pass-rush and plugging holes in the run game are essential components of any winning game plan. The D-line needs to review this performance, assess what went wrong and make the necessary improvements. If it can’t learn from this week’s breakdowns, the Huskers will dominate. Plain and simple.

Venric Mark continues to shine 

I’m not sure there is a more surprising storyline for NU’s season to date than Mark, who continues to show why he’s one of the best backs in the Big Ten, if not the country. That Mark is now, with little doubt, NU’s best offensive player after spending two years relegated to special teams duties is astounding. In his latest expose of playmaking brilliance, Mark rushed for two touchdowns while contributing a new career high in rushing yards (182 yards) at a 9.2 yards-per-carry clip. Though he slowed down in the second half, Mark’s performance, considered in its totality, was nothing short of elite.

From NU’s first play from scrimmage, Mark made it clear he would feature prominently in the offensive plan of attack. The Gophers had no answer for the Mark-Colter option in the first half, and Mark took advantage. The junior’s unlikely star-turn is the narrative that keeps on giving. Just when you think the diminutive scatback has exhausted his bag of tricks, he unleashes a performance like this, an infusion of offensive energy so influential that NU almost certainly would have left TCF bank stadium with a loss were it not for his efforts. Mark’s star campaign is even more astonishing when you consider that NU’s recent track record and personnel complexion – a deep receiving corps, two capable quarterbacks – are geared toward a pass-oriented offense. Mark has eliminated that possibility, almost singlehandedly shifting NU’s offensive philosophy. NU is simply more dangerous, more unpredictable, when Mark touches the ball. For all the hype surrounding the receiving corps heading into this season, they are a small footnote compared to Mark’s sustained excellence. It’s unlikely he can repeat Saturday’s efforts on the regular – if he could, Heisman Trophy contention would feel like a reasonable goal – but if Mark can continue to provide steady production in the run game while sprinkling in a few big plays, NU’s offense will be awfully tough to shut down. Just imagine the possibilities if the passing game actually lives up to its potential.

Could we have seen the end of the two-quarterback system?

Saturday was not a good day for Trevor Siemian. The counting statistics (Siemian completed 1 of 7 passes for four yards) don’t do it justice. Almost immediately upon entry, Siemian would stall any momentum the offense had built up prior to his insertion. It was a lamentable effort, though I’m not sure the entire burden falls on Siemian. For much of the season, NU’s quarterback management worked to Siemian’s benefit. He offered a change of pace to Colter’s option-heavy ways. It made NU something of an enigma. Was this a passing team? A running team? The Wildcats’ offensive identity was that it had no identity, and the fickle quarterback rotation (more than anything else) embodied that oscillation. The random rotation and undefined roles left both Siemian and Colter at a loss for where or how they could best advance NU's offensive goals. Last week, the two-quarterback system began to unravel at the worst possible time. In the fourth quarter, as Penn State staged a comeback effort, Siemian remained in the game. He was clearly struggling. It seemed a perfect time for Colter’s dynamism and running ability, but the dual-threat quarterback remained on the bench as Siemian failed to ignite a scoring drive. NU needed a quarterback switch more than ever before this season, and the coaching staff balked. It was a costly error.

There was les equivocating, less mishandling, less dropping the ball with the quarterback shuffling this week. That's a backhanded compliment to a coaching effort that, while still fraught with inefficiency and misjudgment, marked an obvious improvement over last week. After denying Colter throwing privileges a week ago, Pat Fitzgerald and staff gave him the green light on 10 passes, all of which were completed. Contrast that to Siemian’s 1-for-7 nightmare, and it’s clear that in the one aspect where Siemian is at a perceived advantage (passing), Colter was unquestionably superior. Many were quick to push Colter into a wide receiver/ running qb-only role after the Indiana game, where he accumulated 300 total yards as both a receiver and a runner against a subpar Hoosiers defense. I feared NU coaches would use that performance as a springboard to phase Colter out of the quarterback position, or at least to limit his throwing attempts. Siemian thrived as a thrower, while Colter and his diverse skill set made plays all over the field. It felt perfect. The Penn State loss exposed the flaws in that thinking.

Adjustments were made against Minnesota. NU coaches relaxed their Siemian impulse and allowed Colter to prove why he’s the overall better fit at the position. Colter proved he is a quarterback, not some athletic novelty to be used at different positions. He flaunted his throwing accuracy, his ability to read defenses and hit receivers with crisp timing and execution. He proved that Siemian’s throwing talents are not, as many came to believe, decidely better than Colter’s throwing ability. Siemian’s hold on the quarterback position derived from his passing exploits. Now that his edge in the passing game has been thrown into question, is there any reason not to limit Siemian’s snaps even further, to consummate the transition to a Colter-led offense? Siemian will continue to see playing time; that’s almost a foregone conclusion. But if his action under center isn’t curtailed after a dreadful performance like this, if Colter doesn’t command at least 80 percent of reps going forward, NU will limit its offensive potential and, in turn, jeopardize its win total.