by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
We’re halfway through the 2012 football season and Northwestern sits at 5-1 (1-1 Big Ten). While many people have tagged the Wildcats as the surprise team in the Big Ten so far this season, the record isn’t a huge surprise given the early schedule. In fact, I picked NU to start 5-1, but finish 7-5 — I incorrectly picked the loss to be Vanderbilt rather than Penn State — while Chris Johnson picked NU to start 4-2, but finish 7-5. While I won’t make a new season record prediction, NU could easily surpass seven wins given the state of the Big Ten. Check out our review of the first half of the season, as well as a quick look at the second half.
Breakout player: RB Venric Mark
Mark broke out in training camp after transitioning from wide receiver to running back and has thrived in his new position, complementing the running threat of Kain Colter at quarterback. He is fifth in the Big Ten, averaging 101.67 yards per game, and is a major part of the gameplan, averaging the third most attempts per game of any running back in the conference. Mark is a speedy back and excels at getting outside, but he has also fared well running between the tackles. In addition to his rushing duties, he became the first NU player to return two punts for touchdowns since 1949. If he keeps it up, he could be in line to receive the Hornung Award, given to the nation’s most versatile player.
Offensive MVP: QB Kain Colter
You can’t say enough about the performance of Kain Colter, except for the fact that he’s probably been under-used. He has been the ultimate dual-threat quarterback and has teamed up with Mark to make the zone read a deadly play for the Wildcats. Colter has also thrived at wide receiver when Trevor Siemian is in at quarterback. Colter doesn’t throw the ball nearly as much as Siemian, but he’s just as capable of a thrower and has the ability to make things happen out of broken plays. He’s been on the field for nearly every play this year, regardless of position, and has been NU’s biggest playmaker so far.
Defensive MVP: S Ibraheim Campbell
Stats-wise, Chi Chi Ariguzo has had the most impressive season on the defense, but linebackers inherently put up the best numbers on the team. Ariguzo has made some big plays, but he’s had some slip-ups in coverage and bit too easily on the quarterback. Campbell has been the team’s most consistent performer and helped bring stability to a young, changing defensive backfield. He went out during the Indiana game and the Hoosiers went on a tear in the passing game, proving just how important he is to a unit without much experienced depth. The secondary has held its own for the most part so far this year, and Campbell must stay consistent for that success to continue in the second half of the season.
Most impressive unit: Linebackers
The linebackers were expected to be one of the top units on the team heading into the season, and they’ve certainly delivered. Damien Proby leads the team with 53 tackles, while Ariguzo follows with 51. Ariguzo has been a playmaker, as well, totaling 6.5 tackles-for-loss, a sack, an interception and two recovered fumbles. Senior David Nwabuisi is also doing well, with 46 tackles, 5.5 TFL, a sack and two recovered fumbles. Add in the depth of experienced outside linebacker Collin Ellis and impressive redshirt freshman Drew Smith and this unit has been the most complete one on the team. There have been some issues in coverage of check-down options and biting too quickly on the quarterback, but those problems have generally improved over the course of the season and the linebackers look like one of the better units in the Big Ten.
Most disappointing unit: Wide Receivers
This unit hasn’t been as bad as you think. The receiving stats are ridiculously low — especially for a unit many picked as the Big Ten’s best in the preseason — and while some of that has to do with drops, a lot of it has to do with the offense. However, the blocking by the receivers has been very impressive, especially on the perimeter, after being a weak point early in the season. Still, the dropped passes and low receiving statistics are troubling — NU receivers have only four touchdown catches in six games and leading receiver Demetrius Fields has just 199 yards. This unit won’t put up video game numbers because NU doesn’t throw the ball very much. However, the receivers must execute when they’re called upon and help the passing game get rolling.
Biggest game remaining: Nebraska (home, Oct. 20)
Northwestern’s goal is to make the Rose Bowl, and as Pat Fitzgerald pointed out, the Wildcats still control their own destiny. So in that regard, every Legends Division game is important, starting this Saturday against Minnesota. However, the biggest litmus test of whether this team can be a true contender will be two Saturdays from now when Nebraska visits Evanston. The Cornhuskers have been wildly inconsistent on defense — that’s putting it nicely — but the offense has been impressive. That game could set a tone for the rest of the season, and if NU gets the win, games in Ann Arbor and East Lansing become much more interesting in the league title race.
Key for the rest of the season: Figure out the QB situation
Typically, when teams are switching quarterbacks, it’s a bad situation. As the saying goes, “When you have two quarterbacks, you really have no quarterbacks.” But that doesn’t apply to NU. The Wildcats have two very capable quarterbacks, but they have to do a better job managing when they play each one. Sometimes, after Colter has led a touchdown drive, NU will switch to Siemian, which can potentially kill a good rhythm. NU has given mixed answers about when those decisions are made — sometimes they say they’re pre-planned and sometimes they say it’s a rhythm thing. Regardless, they must do a better job maximizing both quarterbacks’ strengths. Personally, I think Colter should be the featured quarterback — they have to let him pass — because he is more of a proven playmaker and much better at throwing than people give him credit for. With passing and running abilities, he can keep the defense on its heels. However, Colter is also a threat in the receiving game, so it makes sense to put Siemian in at times when Colter is a receiver. It’s tough to tell the best way to use both quarterbacks, but NU must figure it out — or at least improve in that area — in order to compete for the Big Ten title.