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By the Numbers: Analyzing Northwestern's Win Over Syracuse

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Each Sunday, we'll analyze Northwestern's game "by the numbers," picking out the five most important statistics from the game. Here's the week one installment.

4: Combined rushing yards for Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy

This spring, Northwestern figured it had finally found a solid running game outside of its quarterback, thanks to Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy. Trumpy was returning from an ACL tear the following season and Green looked much improved after an up-and-down freshman year. However, it was Venric Mark who took over starting duties in fall camp, and Mark had 82 yards in his debut.

Mark is a versatile player who gives NU excellent speed on the edge, but he can’t move the pile and will struggle to run up the middle with this year’s offensive line. Fitzgerald clearly wants to find a power running game, but that can’t happen unless Green or Trumpy steps up. Green had 8 yards, while Trumpy had minus-four. That’s amazing considering their potential, and until they find a way to reach that potential, NU will struggle to run between the tackles.

134: Punt return yards for Venric Mark

Venric Mark’s 82-yard punt return for a touchdown was the first time an NU player had returned a punt for a touchdown since 2005. Even taking into consideration the Wildcats’ lack of playmakers on special teams since then, that’s a ridiculously long time. Mark also had a 53-yard return that he nearly took all the way back, bringing his total punt return yardage to 134 and setting the NU single-game record… on just two punts.

Fitzgerald called Mark the best returner in the country last Monday and on Saturday he said he “stands by that statement.” While “best in the country” might be a bit of an exaggeration, Mark is certainly an elite return man and one of the best in the nation. He’s a game-changer in the field position game and can provide a spark for his team, like he did on Saturday. This is the first time NU has had this good of a special teams playmaker, and if he continues to play like he did on Saturday, the Cats will get an extra scoring boost from their special teams this year.

19-149: Number of penalties and penalty yards for both teams combined

Saturday’s game was an exciting one, but it was exciting because both teams were sloppy and made it close. Both teams shot each other in the foot with penalties — the Orange in particular— the biggest of which came on a controversial late hit that gave NU a fresh set of downs and first-and-goal late in the game.

NU also struggled with dumb penalties, especially pass interference. A lot of the calls were touchy, but the defensive backs didn’t even look back at the ball, which will get interference called every time. The Cats have to play smarter — and play the ball, no the receiver — in order to win later in the year. Playing sloppy make barely work against a mediocre, just-as-sloppy Syracuse team, but it won’t work when it comes to Big Ten play.

8: Number of receivers to catch a pass 

A lot has been made of this receiving corps being the best in the Big Ten, and that’s because of depth, not star power. That showed on Saturday, as eight receivers caught passes, from veteran Demetrius Fields to little-used Mike Jensen. Fields, NU’s most experienced receiver, led the team with eight receptions for 83 yards and a touchdown. The Cats’ other featured receivers were solid, too, as Christian Jones had 3 receptions for 34 yards and a touchdown and Tony Jones had 3 receptions for 30 yards.

Those aren’t spectacular numbers, but given how many options NU has at receiver, no player is likely to put up big individual statistics. Rather, expect the Cats to benefit from their depth and spread the ball around. Individual statistics won’t tell the whole story as to how good NU’s receivers are; the number of players to get catches will be the most important stat when it comes to pass production.

5: Number of sacks given up by Northwestern 

Going into Saturday’s game, NU had 65 starts returning among its let tackle, left guard and center, but none from either its right guard or right tackle. Fitzgerald said he wasn’t worried  about that inexperience, and that they had gained the experience in practice, but the right side of the line really struggled. The whole line didn’t open up holes big enough for Mark to run through, but the right side was particularly bad in pass protection.

Right guard Chuck Porcelli made his first start despite being a fifth-year senior and he didn’t do much to inspire confidence that he was the right choice — he won the job from redshirt freshman Matt Frazier. Sophomore Jack Konopka is a talented player, but had a tough time in his first start at right tackle.

It will be a learning process for Konopka, but NU must do something to find answers in pass protection and keep Colter from being hit so much. Whether that’s a rotation or keeping an extra running back in the backfield as a blocker to deal with blitzes — NU struggled mightily against the blitz — remains to be seen. However, something needs to change, because if Syracuse’s defense could come up with five sacks, imagine what teams with much better defenses (Michigan State, Nebraska, etc.) can do.