Two weeks, two wins for the Wildcats, the latest coming over an emerging Vanderbilt squad. Several story lines emerged, progressed and otherwise took on new forms over the weekend, and we encourage you to check out our full gameday coverage. What follows is our weekly weekend review, with an NU-centric focus and an eye on all things Big Ten.
Final Thoughts on NU's win over Vanderbilt
A Two-quarterback System that Just Might Work
by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
In the wake of Trevor Siemian’s game-winning drive at Syracuse, the immediate reaction was to label Northwestern’s quarterback situation a “controversy”. That seems to be the only way to address two-quarterback systems in today’s football lexicon, whereby quarterback – the game’s most important position – is assigned some vague, unwritten notion of uniquely-derived supremacy. Competition or shared playing time is, unlike any other position in the game, deemed an impediment to offensive productivity. Whereas position battles in other areas help foster a more competitive and altogether more favorable practice environment, quarterbacks stand alone in their presumed entitlement. They need security, assurance, confidence to perform without the fear of being pulled at the first interception or ill-fated decision. Like it or not, that’s the quarterbacking world we live in today.
Just two games into the season, it seems the Wildcats are veering from that mold. When Siemian was plugged in to save NU from an 0-1 start at the Carrier Dome, Pat Fitzgerald attributed his and his staff’s decision to Colter’s injury, and the belief Siemian gave the team the “better chance to win.” Against Vanderbilt Saturday, Siemian entered the game in the fourth quarter, engineered two scoring drives to give NU a 16-13 lead, then exited the game on the Wildcats final drive, at which point Kain Colter returned to put the finishing touches on his team’s victory with a 29-yd touchdown run. Asked to reveal the rationale behind his quarterback management, Fitzgerald was clear: this is a two-quarterback system. “I think we have two very good quarterbacks. Both guys want to win, they want to help us in any way, shape or form. I think we have a really good situation.” Two games into the 2012 season, the Siemian-Colter platoon has flourished, with Siemian providing a change-of-pace dynamic to the offense in the fourth quarter in consecutive weeks. Whether the system continues to work and how Fitzgerald plans to distribute playing time if Siemian continues his clutch fourth-quarter play remains to be seen.
Where did that defense come from?
by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
After Vanderbilt's first drive, I was worried the 31 points I had predicted for the Commodores was far too low. The Vanderbilt offense drove down the field with ease thanks to a solid passing offense and a secondary that seemed like it would leave holes open all night. But that was the last time the Commodores sniffed the endzone. How did that happen? Well, it was a combination of a lot of things —he secondary was adequate, even in the absence of injured Nick VanHoose, and Vanderbilt inexplicably abandoned the deep pass — but the biggest x-factor was the Northwestern defensive front, which had its best game since last year's win at Nebraska and gave no room for Zac Stacy to run or Jordan Rodgers to throw.
The NU defense has taken a lot of flak over the past year, and the problems for 2011 seemed to be resurfacing again last week when Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib tore apart the Wildcats' secondary. The secondary will never be great, but Saturday night's win showed that the flaws can be hidden if the defensive front plays well. NU defensive end Tyler Scott had one of the best games of his career, while fellow veterans Quentin Williams and Brian Arnfelt also stepped up. Young guys like Chi Chi Ariguzo and Dean Lowry made big plays, as well. It was a total team effort that allowed NU to bring pressure on seemingly every play, ending the game with eight tackles-for-loss, three sacks and two quarterback hurries. With that kind of pass rush, even NU's third-string secondary would have had a chance. Add in the three forced fumbles (two recovered) and you get a complete defensive performance from the defensive front that could keep NU in any game this year. The Cats still need to prove they can do it consistently, but Saturday night was a huge step toward improving the defense and it showed NU has the talent to do it.
Around the Big Ten
One BCS Bowl for Big Ten Seems Likely
by Chris Johnson
It’s never wise to draw postseason conclusions just two weeks into the season. But after watching the Big Ten’s putative heavyweights look downright unimpressive in this early segment of nonconference play, it appears unlikely the league will produce an at large BCS team this season. Michigan, a Legends division contender heading into 2012 after an 11-win season and a victory over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, was dismantled in the sport’s marquee opening weekend event. Granted, Alabama could very well be on their way to another BCS National Championship game, but the Wolverines’ performance was discouraging for any Big Ten fan hoping their conference rep. would at least hang around with the defending champs. Then there’s Nebraska, another Legends Division foe who disappointed against power-conference competition, a 36-30 loss against UCLA that erased the goodwill of Taylor Martinez’s encouraging opening week performance against Southern Mississippi. The Leaders division saw its prohibitive favorite, Wisconsin, fall to Oregon State, perhaps an even more startling result than Nebraska’s Pac-12 slip-up.
And so after just two weeks of competition, Michigan State remains the only Big Ten team riding an unblemished path to a BCS bowl birth. The league will send one team to the Rose Bowl, per the usual. But unlike last year, when Michigan was invited to the Sugar Bowl, there’s a strong chance zero Big Ten teams will receive an invitation to a second BCS game. Things will change between now and December, but unless Michigan State reaches the Big Ten championship game with an undefeated record and loses (or wins and reaches the national championship game) – thereby opening up the Rose Bowl slot for the conference champion, and pushing the Spartans into the selection pool for another BCS bowl (the championship game) – the Big Ten could find itself relegated to its decades-old partner bowl in Pasadena. The Big Ten may yet garner multiple BCS bids, but from here on out, there’s little margin error for the upper ranks of league competition, especially given Ohio State – one of the conference’s most impressive teams to date – cannot participate in postseason play.
by Kevin Trahan
Oregon State shocked most of the college football world on Saturday with its upset win over Wisconsin, but it didn't shock me. Of course, I didn't think the Beavers would beat the Badgers because I don't think OSU is that good, but the fact that Wisconsin struggled so much in Corvallis after barely escaping Northern Iowa at home is no surprise. Why? Because this Badgers team is not one of the top 25 teams in the country, and certainly isn't close to the caliber of last year's team. I was shocked to see how high Wisconsin was ranked in the preseason this year, as voters overlooked the Badgers' flaws and over-ranked them based on last year's results, not this year's personnel. They overlooked the fact that new quarterback Danny O'Brien is not nearly the quarterback Russell Wilson was, they overlooked the fact that one of the best offensive lines of the Bret Bielema era had to be rebuilt, they overlooked the fact that Montee Ball would struggle to replicate last year's production without Wilson and that offensive line and they overlooked the massive coaching turnover. They voted on what the Badgers were, not what they are — a team with an average defense, an average quarterback, a rebuilding offensive line and a good running back.
Against Oregon State, Wisconsin's flaws started to show through. While Ball should have been better even with the new offensive line, Saturday's game proved that a lot of his success came thanks to Wilson and the offensive line. Even if Ball had had a bad game last year, Wilson could have bailed him out, but Danny O'Brien is no Russell Wilson. O'Brien is much less mobile and threw seven touchdowns to 10 interceptions for Maryland last year; seeing those numbers, what the heck were the people high on the Badgers thinking? After Saturday's loss, things seem to be unraveling in Madison. Offensive line coach Mike Markuson is out, according to multiple reports, which is a mind-boggling move this early in the season. Here's a hint to Bret Bielema: it's not your offensive line coach's fault. It's called a rebuilding year, something Wisconsin is not immune to.
Considering how terrible the rest of the Leaders Division looks (besides Ohio State, which is ineligible), the Badgers could certainly find itself in Indianapolis for the second straight year. However, Saturday's game made something clear, if it wasn't already: this is not the same Wisconsin team as the last two seasons. Not even close.
Around the Big Ten: Recapping Three Key games
by Kevin Trahan
Oregon State 10, Wisconsin 7 — Wisconsin may have gotten hosed on an onside kick call at the end of the game, but regardless, it was a bad loss for a Wisconsin team that is far below the level of the 2010 and 2011 teams. The defense held fairly well after some question marks against Northern Iowa, but the offense couldn't get into a rhythm, as Montee Ball rushed 15 times for 61 yards and Danny O'Brien put up pedestrian passing numbers, at 20-for-38 for 172 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Wisconsin dropped out of the AP Poll and panic seems to have ensued, as the Badgers fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after just two weeks.
UCLA 36, Nebraska 30 — Nebraska looked like one of the conference's best teams in week one, but in week two, the Cornhuskers showed the flaws that we thought they had coming into the season. After a stellar game against Southern Miss, quarterback Taylor Martinez was just 17-for-31 for 179 yards passing and an interception. Nebraska was without star running back Rex Burkhead, but that wasn't the issue, as backup Amir Abdullah had a nice game, with 119 yards and two touchdowns. The defense was the real story, as UCLA exposed holes in the secondary and the defensive front. Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley had 305 passing yards and four touchdowns, while Johnathan Franklin rushed for 217 yards.
Iowa State 9, Iowa 6 — Heading into the season, Iowa was supposed to have one of the best passing games in the Big Ten, but be hampered by the running game and the young defense. However, the passing game has been non-existent in the first few games, while the defense has stepped up. Quarterback James Vandenberg and the Hawkeyes' receivers struggled in the opener against Northern Illinois and against against Iowa State, and while the running game was solid against the Huskies, it was miserable against the Cyclones. After giving up a touchdown on Iowa State's first drive of the game, the Iowa defense held the Cyclones out of the endzone after that. However, the Hawkeyes couldn't find the endzone, even from a first down inside the five, and an interception on the potential game-winning or game-tying drive sealed the win for the Cyclones, their second straight in the Cy-Hawk Series and first in Kinnick Stadium since 2002.
Three Games to Watch Next Week
by Chris Johnson
(20) Notre Dame at (10) Michigan State – When the Spartans knocked off Boise State on college football’s opening weekend, the Broncos were ranked No. 24 in the AP Poll. Taking down No. 20 Notre Dame would mark Michigan State’s second victory over a ranked opponent in just three weeks. The Irish are 2-0 for the first time since 2008, and while they haven’t beaten anyone above their talent level, Brian Kelly’s squad has handled their business, and that’s more than anyone could have said two weeks into the season dating back four years ago. With Everett Golston and Tommy Rees engaged in a semi-quarterback controversy after Rees was called upon to finish ND’s final drive against Purdue, the Irish present Michigan State’s stout defense with its toughest matchup yet. This should be a low-scoring, grind-it-out type of game.
Utah State at Wisconsin – Skating by Northern Iowa and losing at Oregon State was not the way Bret Bielema envisioned his two-time defending Big Ten championship squad starting their 2012 campaign, one perfectly designed for another trip to the Big Ten championship game given the ineligibility of division competitors Penn State and Ohio State. With word leaking last weak that Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are in fact eligible to win the Leaders division championship – even if they can’t play in the Big Ten Championship game – the Badgers need to get their act together before league play in order to prevent the embarrassingly akward scenario of having the Ohio State/Penn State win the division title, yet unable to attend Indianapolis because of NCAA sanctions. Returning Heisman finalist Montee Ball managed just 61 yards on 15 carries in against Oregon State last week, while Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien has failed to live up to the admittedly high standard set by predecessor and now NFL starter Russell Wilson. Don’t sleep on the Aggies, who toppled in-state rival and Pac-12 sleeper Utah at home last week.
Boston College at Northwestern – Given the Big Ten’s struggles against inferior competition these first two weeks, the Wildcats – despite knocking off two power-conference opponents in as many weeks – need another strong performance to preserve their undefeated record against Boston College and red-hot quarterback Chase Rettig. In two games the junior has thrown for 660 yards and five touchdowns with just one interception. The Wildcats were able to hold Vanderbilt’s Jordan Rodgers in check, but the Eagles have already racked up 75 points in two games. If NU reverts to its week 1 defensive doldrums, this one could turn into a shootout. A third straight win over a big six conference opponent would make NU one of the league’s most impressive non-league performers in 2012, if it hasn’t already earned that title.