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Northwestern 23, Vanderbilt 13: Grading the Wildcats' Win

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

Check out how Northwestern grades out in its 23-13 win over Vanderbilt.

Overall (A-) More than anything, a coach looks for his team to make the necessary adjustments. A tormented backfield, tortured both by penalties and getting left in the dust against Syracuse, took the next step. Trevor Siemian revived a stagnant aerial attack. The Wildcats' special teams play was far crisper. Overall, Northwestern's play, while perhaps less dramatic and spectacular than a week ago, was far more crisp, as the Wildcats buried the Commodores, 23-13.

Quarterbacks (B-) Kain Colter was rather pedestrian, aside from a few special runs, but Trevor Siemian continued to demonstrate Northwestern’s considerable depth behind center. After Colter completed just one of his first seven, and Northwestern managed just 10 passing yards approaching the half, Siemian came off the bench to complete 10-of-16 passes for 91 yards, including an outstanding strike down the left sideline to Rashad Lawrence. Colter will need to figure out how to run something other than the option, however, as the 2012 season progresses.

Running Backs (A) Venric Mark was superlative as Northwestern’s lead running back, notching 129 rushing yards on 24 carries. He was able to burst through whatever holes his linemen provided him with on simple runs up the gut, but he was at his best on the option play, as Colter and Mark proved a hard duo to stop on the outside. The only possible complaint one could lodge against Mark is that he has yet to break off a big run yet, although he came close to turning a simple pass to the sideline into a touchdown.

Wide Receivers (C+) This unit still has some work to do. Kyle Prater finished with three receptions for 24 yards, but he has yet to be fully unleashed. Tony Jones was unable to reel in a couple of difficult 50-50 balls. Rashad Lawrence, for his part, was lucky that he was given a completion on Siemian's deep ball down the left sideline. No matter how well-placed the hit was, and the defender's helmet did drive squarely into the pigskin, Lawrence has got to hold onto that ball, and he was lucky that the referees didn't overturn his reception upon further review. Finally, the Wildcats are still looking for somebody to fill the void that graduated superback Drake Dunsmore left behind. While Prater might be that big guy they’ve been looking for over the middle, he has yet to replicate Dunsmore’s successes in the purple and white.

Offensive Line (B+) We’re two games in and this offensive line already seems to have made vast improvements. Vanderbilt notched just one sack the entire game, and Northwestern’s offensive line was able to hold long enough for Trevor Siemian to hit a real groove in the pocket. Of course, the burden on the Wildcats’ offensive line was lightened by the number of short passes that Colter and Siemian attempted. They didn’t put pressure on the offensive line with too many three-step drops. Most important, however, the offensive line carved out hole after hole for Mark, allowing Wildcats’ rushers as a whole to average 4.2 yards per carry.

Defensive Line (B) The line allowed Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers to get into far too much of a groove. It allowed Commodores running back Zac Stacy to slip through on several occasions. But it generally held up against the rush, surrendering just 101 net yards on 34 carries, and more important, it made bounteous big plays. Quentin Williams was a beast at defensive end, forcing one fumble and levying a huge hit on Vanderbilt rusher Brian Kimbrow. And the Wildcats managed three sacks, including a huge blow from Tyler Scott, which not only resulted in a loss of eight yards but also a loss of possession for Vanderbilt, as Rodgers fumbled the ball away.

Linebackers (C) After struggling to contain the short pass early, Northwestern’s linebackers clamped down late. The Wildcats’ linebacker corps epitomized the team’s “bend, don’t break” philosophy. They often were slow to wrap up the Commodores’ running backs and wide receivers, and often struggled to bring them down, but they were successful in keeping Stacy and his comrades from getting into open space. Sophomore Chi Chi Ariguzo impressed with a sack and eight tackles, those eight tackles alone representing one-quarter of his total from 2011.

Secondary (B) Northwestern’s corners and safeties definitely narrowed the gap between the opposition’s wide receivers and themselves. There were few deep plays on Saturday night, and far more batted balls and pass breakups. All are good signs. That being said, the Wildcats’ defense remained a step behind on several plays, including Jordan Matthews’ slant over the middle of the red zone for a 22-yard touchdown reception. Matthews also put down his defender a little too easily on a sideline run, sending his defender flying with a slight shove. While Matthews should have been whistled for pass interference, Northwestern’s backfield will have to toughen up before facing a gritty Big Ten. Still, Saturday’s performance, in which they held an impressive prospect in Jordan Rodgers to a 17-of-33 clip and held Vanderbilt to 13 points, was remarkable, in how much the defense improved from one week to the next.

Special Teams (B+) Venric Mark might not have taken any to the house on Saturday, but as a whole, Northwestern’s special teams were far more solid than they were last week against Syracuse. Kicker Jeff Budzien not only nailed all three of his attempts, but he did it with ease, driving each ball straight through the uprights. Brandon Williams, who notched far too many 25-yard punts last week, was far less passive this time around, forcing Vanderbilt into the shadow of its own end zone on several occasions. And there were few scares for either the kickoff coverage or punt coverage units.

Coaching (A) The Big Ten Network guys said it best. Coach Pat Fitzgerald did a really fine job of mixing in Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian in the fourth quarter. Siemian’s precision passing gave the Wildcats their first lead, and Colter’s dynamic rushing put the game out of reach. Fitzgerald’s understanding of his quarterbacks’ strengths and limitations was key to Northwestern defeating Vanderbilt on Saturday.