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Playmakers Come Up Big For Northwestern Offense

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

This Northwestern team has more playmakers than an NU team has had in a long time — maybe ever — and perhaps the most explosive playmaker on the team came up big today in the Wildcats’ 42-41 win over Syracuse.

That playmaker, Venric Mark, — the returner/running back/receiver/do-everything guy — showed off his big-play ability early with an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown to put NU on the board for the first time late in the first quarter. Coach Pat Fitzgerald called him the best returner in the country in a press conference last week, and now, that proclamation doesn’t seem so crazy.

“I stand by my statement, I think he’s the best in the country,” Fitzgerald said. “You get him in space, he’s got a chance.”

That got the offense rolling and started a barrage of 35 points that NU used to go up 35-13.

“He’s a special guy,” backup quarterback Trevor Siemian said of Mark. “It was a definite spark for us when he had that big punt return. He definitely played really well for us today.”

Perhaps quarterback Kain Colter put it best: “He went out there and balled out and that’s what we expect from him.”

Talk about lack of playmakers; you have to go all the way back to 2005 for the last time NU returned a punt for a touchdown. Back then, Fitzgerald was still an assistant at NU, since then, it’s been tough to pinpoint players who have, as Colter so eloquently put it, “balled out” on the field.

But now NU has playmakers aplenty, not just mark. Colter was fantastic late in the second half and during the third quarter, passing for 135 yards and rushing for 40 more, accounting for three touchdowns overall. And although he went out with a shoulder injury when NU needed a touchdown late in the game, the Cats found another playmaker in Trevor Siemian to back him up.

“Trevor got the nod and did a great job in a big time moment,” Colter said. “I’m so proud of him. We came in the same year and it’s great to seem him do big things and that’s what we expect out of our quarterback.”

Inserting a backup for a do-or-die drive? Fitzgerald has always touted Siemian as “1.B,” not second-string, and he showed that confidence on Saturday.

“When you look at where we were at, at that situation, we just felt like Trevor gave us a good opportunity to go out there and find a way to win,” he said.

Find a way to win — that’s what Siemian did. After taking a sack on second down and benefiting a controversial late hit penalty called on the Syracuse defense on third down, Siemian connected on a 9-yard pass to Demetrius Fields to put NU ahead for good with 44 seconds left in the game. It was reminiscent of NU’s last game-winner late in the game — a similar pass from Dan Persa to Fields to beat Iowa in 2010.

But Fields wasn’t thinking about that play when the ball was in the air; he was thinking about one earlier in the game.

“The only thing I was thinking was ‘catch the ball,’” he said, “because I dropped one earlier. If I hadn’t gotten the chance, I probably would have been crushed.”

But Fields made the play. And many failed big plays in crucial situations last year, it was a relief for Fitzgerald and his team to “find a way to win.” The playmakers are in place for that to be commonplace, rather than an anomaly, this season.