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Halftime Thoughts: Northwestern Leads South Dakota 28-0

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

1. After leaving last Saturday’s victory over Boston College with an injury, there was no doubt that Venric Mark was 100 percent against South Dakota, as he received the ball on Northwestern’s first three snaps of the game. One of those snaps turned into a blistering 47-yard rush downfield, as Mark easily outsprinted all but one of the Coyotes’ defenders. Overall, Mark got the ball on five of Northwestern’s nine plays on its opening drive, compiling 61 rushing yards.

2. I don’t know whether it was the Wildcats’ newly boisterous student section that got into the Coyotes’ heads or not, but South Dakota’s offense couldn’t have gotten off to a worst start. On the Coyotes’ first drive, they commenced with a false start and then tried to rush it to the left side, only to get pummeled by linebacker David Nwabuisi for a four-yard loss. Things didn’t get any better for South Dakota, as it drew another false start penalty, then suffered two drops to round out its first drive. The first drop was on the receiver, as Tyler Wilhelm dropped an easy ball in the middle of the field. The second was on the quarterback, as Josh Vander Maten zipped his screen pass over to Marcus Sims far harder than necessary. When the dust settled, the Coyotes had lost 14 yards on their first drive.

3. The Northwestern fanbase is in trouble. During the weekly Happy Birthday messages that light up the Ryan Field scoreboard, Ryan Fitzgerald’s name came up. Despite his prominent status as coach Pat Fitzgerald’s son, there was nary a cheer from the stands.

4. Josh Vander Maten apparently saw tape of Northwestern’s Week One struggles against Syracuse, as he uncorked a deep throw down the right sideline to Will Powell early in the first quarter. His only problem was his throw was five yards too long, well out of Howell’s reach.

5. Vander Maten looked fairly comfortable scrambling out of the pocket, most evident in his long completion downfield to Terrance Terry. On that play, Vander Maten rolled all the way out to the left sideline, nearing the line of scrimmage, before finally flinging it downfield to a wide open Terry. One of the most effective plays in football, since the defense cannot predict whether the quarterback will run with it or pass, Vander Maten pulled it off to perfection.

6. The Wildcats were back to their old tricks in shutting down the rush. After holding Boston College to 25 rushing yards on 21 carries last weekend, Northwestern once again penetrated South Dakota’s backfield on numerous occasions, including an impressive solo takedown four yards behind the line of scrimmage by linebacker Damien Proby. The Coyotes had just six rushing yards on five carries after 15 minutes of play. That improved to 35 rushing yards on 14 carries by halftime.

7. Senior defensive end Quentin Williams decided to put his hands in the air a little early on Saturday, batting down two passes in the first quarter. All of this despite quarterback Vander Maten’s 6-foot-2 stature, a healthy three inches taller than Northwestern’s former quarterback, Dan Persa, who was the school’s all-time leader in passes batted down. That’s an informal count, of course.Williams also managed a rather weak sack of Vander Maten, who escaped Williams’ hit only to stumble to the ground a couple of yards later.

8. South Dakota managed to put some thunderous hits on the quarterback. First, there was the Coyotes’ devastating hit on Kain Colter as he scrambled out of the pocket, presumably causing his wrist injury. Then, there were two crushing hits on Trevor Siemian, the latter of which nearly forced an interception and sidelined Northwestern’s sophomore quarterback. After all of the talk about Tyler Starr, South Dakota’s star linebacker, and the questions of whether a guy who registered double-digit sack totals in the FCS could compete against a Big Ten team, Starr showed his game on the big stage, with an early sack.

9. Northwestern’s season-long streak of avoiding interceptions seemed doomed on Saturday. First, there was Siemian’s near-pick, as he absorbed a crushing hit, and the ball fluttered out of his hands, and was nearly picked by a diving South Dakota defender. Kain Colter was equally guilty as a deep throw to Dan Vitale went right through the Coyotes’ defender’s hands. Still, after all is said and done, the Wildcats’ pick-less streak is now up to 150 minutes.

10. Venric Mark’s slippery status has long been praised by Northwestern beat writers, and even Mark himself, but he reached a new level on Saturday, with his second touchdown run of the game. The play seemed over at the Coyotes’ two-yard line, where five players were down in a dogpile. The only problem was that Mark had the ball and Mark was standing untouched in the end zone. It took a while for everyone to realize what was going on. Still by play’s end, Mark had 93 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns on just 11 carries. And this was all after a quarter and a half. By halftime, Mark had 97 rushing yards and three scores.

11. South Dakota had a chance to make it a game with minutes remaining in the first half. Trailing 21-0, the Coyotes were driving decently up the field, and had they been able to score to end the half, they also would have had the ball to start the second half, and could have conceivably cut the Wildcats’ lead to 21-14 toward the beginning of the second half. Instead, another sloppy, botched snap cost South Dakota its shot at victory. It turned into a 14-point swing as Mark gave the Wildcats a 28-0 lead seconds later with his third touchdown of the game.