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Grading the Cats: Week One vs. Syracuse

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Every week we'll be handing out grades to each Northwestern unit, plus the coaches. Here's the week one installment of "Grading the Cats."

Quarterbacks: A-

As Pat Fitzgerald pointed out, there were a few times that his quarterbacks didn’t make the best decisions, but for the most part they made plays when it counted the most. Colter was outstanding through the air and on the ground before going out with a shoulder injury — he’s “confident” he’ll play against Vanderbilt. He threw for 135 yards and two touchdowns and added 40 rushing yards and another touchdown.

Siemian came in on NU’s last drive of the game with the Wildcats needing a touchdown. He took a bad sack — to be fair, it would have been tough for anyone to avoid — but ultimately made a play at the end to win with a nice touchdown pass to Demetrius Fields. It wasn’t a perfect performance, particularly early in the fourth quarter, but the NU quarterbacks made the big plays when it counted, and that’s really all that matters.

Running Backs: B-

What ever happened to Mike Trumpy? Trumpy was the featured back in 2010 and again in 2011 until an ACL injury against Illinois caused him to miss the remainder of that season. He figured to be the starter this year, but was passed over by Venric Mark and listed as second string on the depth chart. In Saturday’s game, he had just four carries for minus-four yards.

Mark was the featured back against Syracuse, and despite a slow start, he managed to rush for 82 yards on 14 carries. In fall camp, Mark said his favorite play was running between the tackles, and that didn’t work early on. It worked a little better toward the end of the game, but he was stood up a few times and won’t be able to push piles. NU is best off getting him outside so he can make defenders miss in space. However, the Cats also need to find someone who can power run, but neither Trumpy nor Treyvon Green stepped up in that regard on Saturday.

Wide Receivers: B+

As was expected, NU spread the ball around to a number of different receivers, due to how deep that unit is. The leader was senior Demetrius Fields, who had 8 receptions fro 83 yards and a touchdown. He was followed by Christian Jones, who had 3 catches for 34 yards and a touchdown, and Tony Jones, who had 3 catches for 30 yards. Kyle Prater had a quiet NU debut, with 2 catches for 11 yards.

For the most part, the receivers did a good job of getting open, and there were few drops. Fields, Christian Jones and Tony Jones figured to be NU’s top receivers entering the game and they solidified that role on Saturday. Given how many options NU has at receiver, none of them will put up great numbers. But if the collective numbers are good and there aren’t many mistakes, that’s really all that matters.

Offensive Line: C-

Going into the game, Pat Fitzgerald said he was confident that the inexperienced right side of the offensive line had gotten enough experience in practice that it would be fine on gameday. That wasn’t the case. The inexperience showed early, as Syracuse got players deep in the backfield on nearly every play. Luckily for NU, Colter is very good at avoiding pressure, but he had to run around a lot more than the coaches would have liked.

With a small guy like Mark at running back and two players still trying to return to form in Tumpy and Green, the line needed to do all it could to help the power running game, but the run blocking was even worse than the pass blocking in the early going. The line settled in a little bit, but still struggled throughout the game and was very inconsistent in pass protection against a mediocre defense. NU has to be more consistent during Big Ten play against much better competition.

Defensive Line: C+

NU’s best defensive linemen may have been a redshirt freshman and a true freshman, and while that bodes well for the future, it wasn’t a promising performance overall from a line that seemed to have improved a lot during camp. Deonte Gibson was impressive at defensive end before leaving the game with an unspecified elbow injury and Dean Lowry played well despite just stepping on campus a few months ago.

However, the veterans — Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams — needed to step up more. The pass rush was improved, but not enough to help the secondary. The interior of the defensive line was okay, but it didn’t dominate the way it did during fall camp, even though Syracuse was without top offensive lineman Justin Pugh. This unit certainly has talent, especially with its young guys, but it may not have things figured out as well as it had appeared during camp.

Linebackers: B-

It was a mixed bag for the linebackers, who struggled early, but started to figure things out as the game progressed. Sophomore Chi Chi Ariguzo — making his first start — returned a backward pass for a touchdown and also had an interception on a bobbled pass by a Syracuse receiver, and Damien Proby was second on the team with 10 tackles.

The linebackers struggled in coverage, particularly at the beginning of the game, leaving assignments in the short passing game in order to chase the quarterback. That led to some dump-off passes going for big yardage. However, that was corrected later in the game and the unit looked like the best on the defense, as expected. Proby is underrated at middle linebacker and redshirt freshman Drew Smith could get more looks later this year after a debut that included two quarterback hurries.

Secondary: D

The secondary probably deserves an F, but given that safety Ibraheim Campbell and cornerback Nick VanHoose played well, I’ll give them a D. Let’s start with the good: Campbell led the team in tackles and played well in his new role as a leader, while VanHoose lived up to the preseason hype after earning a starting spot in the spring.

Now the bad: NU was absolutely terrible at the other corner and safety spots. For some inexplicable reason, Syracuse didn’t test the secondary deep early, and when the unit was tested on occasion, it played well. However, after a couple pass interference calls, things fell apart.

Fitzgerald wasn’t a fan of the calls, and while most of them weren’t extremely obvious penalties, the defenders — particularly safety Davion Fleming and corner Demetrius Dugar — didn’t even turn around to look at the ball, which will get pass interference called every time. At corner, Dugar struggled badly in coverage and was beat on several plays.

With the Dugar-Fleming combination not working, NU searched for other options. The Cats appeared to have found one in fifth-year transfer Quinn Evans, who played well early — he batted Ariguzo’s interception away from the receiver — but he was beat on a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. NU even experimented with playing Jared Carpenter at safety, which failed miserably.

If NU’s secondary plays like it did on Saturday, it is going to be lit up all year, so the Cats have to find answers at those corner and safety spots. It’s surprising Jimmy Hall didn’t get more looks after battling Fleming for the starting safety job, and he could be back in the mix. Or it could be Hunter Bates at safety, or maybe even a true freshman. Is Evans the answer at corner? Is there anyone there? These are questions NU must address if it wants to improve from last year’s abysmal pass defense.

Special Teams: B

When the game started I was about to give this unit an F. The Wildcats botched a snap on an early punt to give Syracuse great field position and then couldn’t handle a kickoff, pinning themselves deep. However, Venric Mark turned things around and sparked his team with an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown. Mark had another long return that nearly went for a touchdown and the punt protection on both plays was fantastic.

NU didn’t get a chance to try out kicker Jeff Budzien, as the Cats never found themselves in an obvious field goal situation. Kickoff-wise, NU did very well, containing dangerous return man Jeremiah Kobena. Brandon Williams also had a good day punting for NU after an inconsistent year in 2011, pinning the Orange inside the 20 three times. Though the kicking game is still questionable, Mark proved himself to be a premier returner and this unit could be one of Fitzgerald’s best special teams units during this tenure.

Coaching: C-

There is no doubt Pat Fitzgerald is a great recruiter, but he has been a below-average play-caller and in-game decision-maker over the last few years and that showed up again on Saturday. NU was playing well early in 5-wide receiver sets, giving Colter multiple options to throw and allowing him to run if he couldn’t find anyone open, while the power running game wasn’t working at all. However, Fitzgerald wanted to establish the run, so instead of going with what was working, he ran the ball up the middle to no avail and got his team into third-and-long situations. There was also the inexplicable call to run it up the middle on fourth-and-short.

As a coach, you have to know your team, and Fitzgerald has to know that, while he would like to establish the run, he just doesn’t have the personnel to do that. NU has one of the most versatile quarterbacks in the Big Ten, a lot of options at receiver and a capable outside runner. However, he didn’t play to those strengths early in the game, and while he eventually spread things out more, he has to be quicker to go away from a gameplan if it’s not working.