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Three Things We Learned: Week 3, Boston College

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

Reading box scores and Twitter feeds and standard news stories gives you a decent platform from which to base your post-game coverage. To supplement that baseline analysis, we’re wrapping up each Northwestern game with three key takeaways from each game; what we call “Three Things We Learned”. It’s three ideas that truly stood out from our analytical vantage point, only in long form and with some added opinionated commentary. This is our way of summing up the weekend and sending you into the coming week with three valuable concepts to consider as the Wildcats begin preparation for next week’s game.

The defense has made in-season adjustments. Big ones.

In the wake of Northwestern’s 42-41 win at Syracuse, a game that – for the purposes of wins and losses – went down as a positive, but many saw as a foreboding sign of defensive ineptitude, it was easy to assume the Wildcats’ defense was on track for another disappointing year. The Orange gashed NU for 596 yards of total offense, including 482 passing yards from quarterback Ryan Nassib. NU escaped the Carrier Dome with a 1-0 record, thanks in large part to Trevor Siemian’s game-winning touchdown drive, but the way Syracuse moved the ball with little to no resistance against NU’s defense invited comparisons to the Wildcats’ porous 2011 unit, which ranked 10th among Big Ten teams in scoring defense and 11th in total defense.

Two games later, the defense has morphed itself into a rigid and disciplined group. The Wildcats have allowed just 26 points in two games, both BCS conference teams with talented quarterbacks. It’s far too early to assess the sustainability of these strong defensive efforts, but it’s nonetheless encouraging to observe pronounced evidence of in-season defensive adjustments. The secondary – which looked completely lost against the Orange – has tightened up on one-on-one coverages and focused on playing the ball, rather than notching bit hits on receivers. The linebackers entered this season with reasonable expectations, yet have managed to exceed those with collective intensity and aplomb, not to mention a torrid three-game stretch from sophomore Chi Chi Ariguzo. And the line, while it could only muster scattered bouts of pressure against Boston College, has rallied behind the dynamic edge-rushing fury of Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams.

It’s difficult to know where this defense will stand when NU comes up against tougher competition. But through three games, it’s certainly in better shape than its week one outing would have led you to believe.

This two-quarterback system is working….for now.

Quarterback is arguably the single most fragile position in sports, the one requiring constant ego-massaging and confidence building and definitive depth chart pecking ordering. Pat Fitzgerald does not abide by that logic. Not this year, not with two quarterbacks – Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter – who provide more value as a rotating tandem than a conventional starter-backup set-up. Siemian and Colter have different skill sets, playing styles, strengths and weaknesses. Neither is designed for any one specific situation. It’s much less a matter of schematic analysis than it is riding the hot quarterback. If the offense is flowing under Siemian, leave him in there. Same goes for Colter.

In games one and two, Siemian entered late in the second half to replace Colter (in game one, he entered in the fourth quarter. In game two, late in the third quarter), almost as if he was a closer spelling a tired starting pitcher. Siemian led game-winning drives in both instances. With NU leading 15-13 in the fourth quarter Saturday, a perfect test-case presented itself. Would Fitzgerald stick with Colter, or opt for Siemian, who had come through in the clutch two weeks in a row? Colter, who entered the season with the starter tag and – despite playing time distribution suggesting a two-quarterback system ill-equipped for any such designation – has maintained that distinction according to Fitzgerald, finished this one off himself, with a little help from Mike Trumpy, whose 27-yd touchdown run sealed the deal for the Wildcats. This time there was no need for Siemian. Colter had things under control. Besides, NU never lost its lead after halftime. Both of Siemian’s fourth-quarter drives in weeks one and two came with NU facing a late deficit.

Which isn’t to suggest Siemian is only used in dire fourth quarter scenarios. There’s no hard-fast way to predict when Fitzgerald and his staff will opt for either quarterback. That’s what makes this system so unique, yet so effective. Rotations come naturally with the ebbs and flows of play. There are no limitations or playing time distribution requirements. This kind of unpredictability would mess with the egos of most signal callers. It’s a complete rebuttal of quarterback management 101. And it’s working.

We don’t know this team’s offensive identity yet.

The prevailing consensus about NU’ offense heading into this season was that it would throw the ball more than run it. After all, NU led the Big Ten in passing offense last season. So with an even stronger core of receivers – one with upwards of eight dynamic pass-catchers, including the somewhat unexpected addition of USC transfer and former five-star recruit Kyle Prater – and two reliable quarterbacks returning, there was no reason to expect NU wouldn’t sling it around with frequent regularity.

Oddly enough, the Wildcats have scored more touchdowns via the run (4) than the pass (3) through three games and have gained just five more yards through the air (613) than on the ground (608). Few expected NU’s running game to form a significant component of its offensive game plan this season. The more likely scenario involved a pass-oriented attack with a few runs scattered in to keep the defense on its toes. The Wildcats would move the ball through the air, with the run serving a complementary role – at least that’s what NU’s personnel strengths and recent history suggested. Then Venric Mark happened, an electrifying tailback borne of special teams stardom, his role now buttressed by a resurgent Trumpy. Mark, who was removed from Saturday’s game with a lower leg injury, has flourished in his enlarged offensive role. He is the heart of the Wildcats’ rushing attack, but Trumpy and Colter have contributed in different ways to supplement the speedy and elusive Mark.

I suppose Colter taking over at quarterback is a valid reason for why NU has trended away from its pass-happy ways. But that doesn’t explain why the Big Ten’s best batch of receivers has only caught 69 passes in three games. Maybe the passing game simply isn’t as dangerous as the preseason hype made it out to be. Or maybe Colter and Siemian are yet to develop an effective rapport with the receivers. Whatever the specifics, the passing offense has not reached its tantalizing potential. The Mark-led ground game has eased those struggles. Still, it’s no small worry that the aerial bombardment has not proceeded as predicted. The Wildcats will need to win games by throwing the ball this season. As a complementary force, the run game is an effective tool, particularly in short-yardage situations and when holding leads. But if the unexpected ground surge is a byproduct of poor execution on passing plays, if the aerial attack simply isn’t what we all expected, there is reason for concern. The running game has worked, no doubt, but this team (particularly the offensive line) is not built to sustain a ground-and-pound offense. It’s built for a pass-heavy spread system. NU must work out the kinks in the passing game before conference play. For NU, a strong ground game should function in a subsidiary role, an added bonus to the baseline expectation of a strong passing game.