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Northwestern Under Increasing Pressure to Air it Out

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

Pat Fitzgerald knew that Northwestern needed to air the ball out more. That was the lesson he took away from Minneapolis.

"Schematically, you knew that they were really going to load the box," the Northwestern coach said Saturday. "We were going to have to take some shots downfield and we did and we basically went one-for. If we had went two-for, everyone would be smiling in this room instead of frowning like you guys all are now."

Minneapolis was the place where the Wildcats' secret formula was unraveled. In the first half, Northwestern took a big lead based on several explosive runs by Venric Mark. In the second half, Northwestern nearly gave it away, when Minnesota sent eight men into the box and dared the Wildcats to throw the ball.

So, it should have come as no surprise when Nebraska aggressively cut off the run on Saturday. It should have come as no surprise when the Cornhuskers cut off junior quarterback Kain Colter when he ran outside. It should have come as no surprise when they clogged up the middle so Venric Mark no longer had any gaping holes to run through.

For the most part, Nebraska succeeded in its run-stopping endeavors. Aside from one explosion play by Mark, an 80-yard sprint through the Cornhuskers' defense, the Wildcats tallied just 100 rushing yards on 37 attempts. That's an average of 2.7 yards per carry. That's not going to win football games.

"Our rushing attack is probably the biggest weapon that we have," Colter said. "When that's going, I feel like we're going, and they did a good job with the rush today."

It's certainly not going to beat hard-nosed defenses, the types of hard-nosed defenses that Northwestern will see in coming weeks, when it takes on Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan. That's the issue that the Wildcats find themselves with. They've taken on the 6th-, 8th-, 10th- and 12th-best rushing defenses in the Big Ten. Now, they'll take on the 1st-, 4th-, 7th- and 9th-best rushing defenses in the league. Michigan State is surrendering just 91.3 rushing yards per game. Iowa is surrendering 117.3 rushing yards per game. Those gaping holes will no longer be there for Northwestern. If a lowly Nebraska rush defense can shut down Venric Mark with eight guys in the box, just imagine what Michigan State can do. Northwestern is increasingly at an onus to pass the ball and pass the ball effectively.

"For a while there, they were putting nine or eight guys depending on what our set was in the box," Fitzgerald said. "That's why we took some shots one-on-one and we make one of those catches and throws and it's a different game. We ended up making one for the touchdown pass, but there were about four or five other ones that if they're going to go out there and play one-on-one, we've got to take advantage of it."

Give Northwestern credit. The Wildcats adapted; they just didn't adapt very well. Trevor Siemian aired it out down the right sideline again and again, looking for Tony Jones nearly every time. They succeeded on one occasion, with a 26-yard pass into the end zone that gave Northwestern a 14-10 lead heading into halftime. They failed far more often. Siemian frequently came up a little short, forcing Jones to turn back on the ball and giving Nebraska's defense time to catch up. Siemian then overcompensated on the left side, overshooting Rashad Lawrence by a good four yards.

"They played a lot of man," Colter said. "When they're loading up the box like that, we got to make some plays on the outside. We did a couple of times, with (Tony Jones) on that touchdown. We had some other shots that we just got to convert. Guys got to make plays."