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Three Things We Learned: Week 1

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.

Defending the pass is a major concern

Debating otherwise seems foolish after watching Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib throw for 470 yards and four touchdowns to just one interception. The Orange receivers ran unchecked into free space, consistently unchecked and unmarked as they found holes in the secondary and capitalized on the freedom afforded to them. Aside from Jeremiah Kobena’s 50-yd touchdown catch at the end of the third quarter – a blown coverage on Northwestern cornerback Quinn Evans – a large-sized majority of the Orange’s big gains came on short passes and screen plays. Receivers and running backs would get the ball in space, pick up one or two key blocks around the line of scrimmage and scamper forward for 10-15-yd gains. NU couldn’t adjust to this dink-and-dunk style, and Nassib was able to string together long drives without looking downfield all that much. When he did, the outcome was predictable: pass interference. The Wildcats were flagged four times for this offense, three of them courtesy senior cornerback Demetrius Dugar.

There was a hint of skepticism in coach Pat Fitzgerald’s voice when he addressed the reoccurring interference calls after yesterday’s game: “I thought we had some pretty good coverage there,” he said. “It’s the naked eye on the field, I’ll take a look at the tape. Those are bang-bang plays. If they’re called penalties, then you have to live with them. We did not respond well enough, and that’s the bottom line. We have to respond better to it, and I think it took our aggressiveness away and we can’t let that happen again. It has to be a lesson learned. I thought the guys were playing well up until that point, I think that was the shift in our attitude. We have to fix that as coaches.”

It’s tough to tell whether those calls were legitimate. In the official college football rule book, I didn’t find any specific legislation prohibiting “faceguarding” or mandating that players turn and face the ball when defending receivers. We defensive backs penalized for this all the time, and that seems to be what prompted officials to finger Dugar yesterday. Rule specifics aside, the cornerbacks so often appeared lost in coverage, with receivers streaking across the field and finding open lanes with minimal resistance. But it wasn’t just a secondary problem. The linebackers were susceptible to the short passing game, too. They couldn’t close down receivers in space with the sense of urgency required to disrupt the Orange’s flow on offense. And the defensive line, despite applying rare-occasioned burst of pressure, frequently overpursued Nassib’s quick passes, the result being wide open receivers with room to run into the second level. The lion’s share of criticism will fall on the secondary, an easy target after breaking in three new starters yesterday. But pass defense is a three-tiered effort, and each defensive position group failed in their respective line of service. There are credible concerns about the sustainability of coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s approach defending the pass – not just in the secondary, but throughout the defense.

Venric Mark could be NU’s most dangerous offensive player

There is no understating how instrumental Mark’s efforts were in NU’s eventual victory. It began with an 82-yd punt return in the first quarter, coming on the heels of two consecutive Syracuse scoring drives and temporarily wresting momentum from the Orange. He added another 52-yd runback in the second quarter that led to a 14-yd touchdown catch by Christian Jones, this some three minutes after Mark waltzed into the endzone on a 21-yd reception of his own. Another 82 yards on the ground rounded out an altogether stellar performance for Mark, one that may go down as the single most influential factor in the Wildcats’ victory. His running, receiving and returning exploits were impressive feats in and of themselves, but the ancillary effects of his game-turning plays may have affected the game in a broader way. Long gains – whether on special teams or receptions or runs – demoralize opponents. Not only do they provide new sets of downs. They inspire fear in the opposition by inviting the possibility of reoccurrence and imposing a measure of tentativeness into their collective defensive psyche. From the moment Mark torched the Orange’s coverage unit in the first quarter, his presence was to be respected, feared and treated with disproportionate trepidation. Coaches were sure to keep an extra man (or three) in containment, in case Mark broke another big play.

Rest assured, Vanderbilt and every other team on NU’s 2012 docket took notice of what Mark exhibited Saturday at the Carrier Dome. The reactive effects are fairly simple to forecast. For one, teams will at least think twice about punting in Mark’s direction. They may just aim toward the sidelines every time they get the chance. More realistically, Mark will get fewer and fewer chances to return punts, particularly if he’s able to sustain even the slightest bit of what he unleashed yesterday with some degree of consistency. On kickoffs, teams may opt for squib kicks or low line drives, a tact Syracuse employed on a majority of its attempts. Anything teams can do to minimize Mark’s impact in this area of the game. The variety with which Mark can be deployed on offense presents a different sets of challenges. He can line up as a slot receiver and take short passes, screens and crossing routes for big plays. As a running back, Mark proved Saturday his ability to run through arm tackles and evade defenders. If there were any questions about his toughness or grit at the point of attack, those were thrown out the window against the Orange. For an added twist, try defending Mark under center, or in an option set. The offense worked on inventful schemes like this in preseason camp, and it’s only a matter of time before coordinator Mick McCall reveals some of his ingenuity in game action. Mark may be his most versatile weapon. Let it be known, defensive coordinators of the Big Ten – and Vanderbilt, Boston College and South Dakota – Venric Mark is dangerous. You might contain him in one area, but shutting him down completely will require something special.

NU has no shortage of receiving options

Nine different players caught passes yesterday, and several prominent receivers didn’t see any balls thrown their way. That Colter and Siemian spread the wealth in this manner speaks to the litany of options NU’s QBs have on most every passing play. The receiving corps doesn’t have a clear-cut No. 1. It has a wealth of dangerous playmakers, each capable of impacting the game in a different way. Tony Jones brings excellent speed and quickness, crisp off his breaks and forceful in ripping down catches in traffic. Kyle Prater is an enormous target at 6-5, 215 pounds, who is recovering from nagging injury problems but still an effective pass-catcher. And Demetrius Fields is Mr. Reliable, a sure-handed veteran who has clearly established a nice rapport with the quarterbacks (Fields on Saturday recorded eight receptions for 83 yards, including the nine-yard game-winner). It doesn’t stop there: Christian Jones, Dan Vitale, Mike Jensen, Mark – they all played a part in Saturday’s passing game. Next week, we’re likely to see a batch of new faces make their mark as well. This wide array of targets will challenge defenses to extend coverage to four (or even five) different pass-catching options depending on formation. Single coverage is likely, if not necessary, to stop this sort of multi-faceted threat. Make no mistake: these receivers will take advantage.

As Colter continues to mature as a passer, he can increase his distributive proficiency and diversify the distance and timing of his throws. This will lead to more receivers getting involved and more headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Gameplanning against so many different options and sets is, to be short, a nightmare, and McCall would do well to deploy four and five-receiver sets with greater frequency so as to force defenses into unfavorable coverages. For a first-year starting quarterback, comfort is paramount. In this regard, the Wildcats are well-prepared. Colter can drop back, survey the field and take solace in having multiple receiving options he can trust. Rolling out one Calvin Johnson-like alpha dog is as effective and uniquely specific – there’s only one, you know, Calvin Johnson – as any offensive strategy. The Wildcats by definition don’t have that luxury. But with upwards of eight viable receiving options, the potential for schematic diversity and innovativeness is tantalizing.