by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
Venric Mark wasn't even supposed to play on Saturday. With the Northwestern running back still recovering from a lower body injury, and listed as probable for Saturday's game, many figured that Mark would be limited at best, given the risks of playing Mark right before the start of Big Ten play.
Mark played, however, and Mark succeeded. He finished with 117 rushing yards and three touchdowns in Northwestern's 38-7 victory over South Dakota. The junior running back was active early, carrying the ball on Northwestern's first three snaps of the game, which included a blistering 47-yard run downfield.
"We just came in with a lot of energy," Mark said. "Coach (Matt) MacPherson is a great coach. He got us ready for the game and I was just really pumped up. The O-line did a heck of a job blocking and they just sprung me."
His fifth carry of the game put the Wildcats (4-0) on the scoreboard, as he entered the end zone from three yards out.
"We wanted to make a statement this game with our running game," junior quarterback Kain Colter said. "(Venric's) a strong guy. He might be little, but in the off-season, he works his butt off. He's fast. He's elusive. All of those things help. It's funny because I hand the ball off and I don't even see him. All of those big guys are around him, and all of the sudden, he squirts through."
Mark continued to get carries into the second half, as did many of Northwestern's starters, including Colter. Mark scored his second touchdown of the day midway through the second quarter to give the Wildcats a 21-0 lead. His third touchdown might have been the dagger to South Dakota's dreams, however, as another four-yard run gave Northwestern a four-touchdown lead.
South Dakota had a chance to narrow Northwestern's lead approaching halftime, as Josh Vander Maten's seven-yard pass to Will Powell gave the Coyotes a first down on their own 31-yard line. It seemed like South Dakota might be able to crack the scoreboard before the end of the half, and since they were getting the ball to begin the second half, it appeared they might still have life left. Instead, Vander Maten fumbled the snap with a minute and a half remaining, and the Wildcats drove 28 yards down the field to cap off the first half.
"You can't play like that. I understand getting beat by Northwestern, but I don't understand beating ourselves," South Dakota coach Joe Glenn said. "We made way too many mistakes that just had nothing to do with Northwestern. They could have beaten us on their own. We had penalties. We hiked the ball wrong. We had guys that jumped offside. We dropped three balls in the first half. We just didn't play a clean first half and allowed them to get out 28-0 and we were dead in the water."
With South Dakota never mounting much of a threat to Northwestern's early lead, attention quickly shifted to the health of the Wildcats' starters. With their Big Ten schedule set to start next week, and three very winnable games coming up, including a road trip through University Park and Minneapolis, Northwestern would hate to lose any vital skill players heading into such a critical stretch in its schedule. In that regard, there were plenty of scares on Saturday. Colter sustained a wrist injury while rushing down the right side of the field in the first half, while Trevor Siemian had a few scares of his own. The sophomore was pummeled on multiple occasions, but both quarterbacks re-entered the game and were active in the second half.
"Still haven't learned since Syracuse, so maybe they'll figure it out." coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Maybe we've been setting the tone by saying it's caliente and maybe we should understand it's hot. If they bring the free safety, it's on the quarterback to get rid of the ball. We have got a lot of work to do there."
Both quarterbacks played solidly as well, as Colter completed 7-of-9 and Siemian completed 4-of-5 for the Wildcats. That being said, Saturday belonged to the rushing game. While Northwestern attempted just 15 passes, it rushed the ball a whopping 52 times, out-rushing South Dakota 269-51.
"We've been running the ball really well," Colter said. "Our offensive line has been doing a great job of opening up some holes. The running backs have been running hard. If it's not broke, don't fix it, so we're going to keep coming back to that. Football, if you can dominate the run game, you have a great chance of winning. Would I like to throw a bunch of touchdown passes? Would the receivers like to catch a whole bunch of touchdown passes? Yeah, but right now, the running game is working for us so we're going to stick with that."
Joining Mark and Mike Trumpy in Northwestern's rushing attack was Treyvon Green, who had a strong freshman campaign for the WIldcats last season. Green saw his position on the depth chart fall a few places during the summer, perhaps in part due to a scary hit he sustained, so when Green busted out a 33-yard score early in the third quarter, there was no one happier than his coach.
"That's something that I said to him when I grabbed him when he was coming off the boundary is just how proud of him I was," Fitzgerald said. "As hard as it was to start the season, to be able to get out there and have some success and get some things back going. And we talked about his toughness, his perseverance and his ability to fight through what he went through."
With the score so lopsided in the second half, Northwestern was able to empty its bench toward the end of the game. Zach Oliver got to complete a pass in his first collegiate game. Tim Hanrahan and Tyris Jones also got a few chances with the ball.
"I'm happy for a lot of our young men that got the opportunity to go and play today," Fitzgerald said. "They sacrifice greatly whether they're on the scout teams or pushed down a little bit in the depths for this reason or that reason. To have them get an opportunity to get out there and play in front of their family and friends is great."
Unhappy with his linebacker corps on Monday, Fitzgerald said that more needs to be done as the Wildcats move into their Big Ten schedule next weekend.
"A little bit of a different passing attack that we saw today," Fitzgerald said. "The slide screen. They probably got 50 to 70 yards on that slide screen play that we need to execute better and tackle better. They ran a curl and wheel route that they ran earlier and we fully expected them to come back and we lost our focus and gave up the explosion pass play, so I'm not as critical as much on the linebackers this week as I am totally of our back seven's, on a couple of routes, their focus."
The front four was once again fairly active, however, holding South Dakota to just 51 yards rushing, Northwestern's second-lowest total surrendered of the season. Quentin Williams was a big part of Northwestern's success on the defensive line, batting down two passes in the first half and managing a sack of Vander Maten.
"Those batted-down balls, I was just lucky enough to be in the throwing lane," Williams said. "We knew that they wanted to get rid of the ball early or throw the screen or do a quarterback draw or something like that so it was really just luck of the draw for me. Our defensive line played awesome. For me to be able to read that is just another thing that we do every day. I should've caught one of them. I really wish I would have. It wasn't my first instinct. It's nice to have two batted balls, obviously."
With Northwestern's win over South Dakota, the Wildcats may have earned a spot in the Top 25 entering the Big Ten segment of their schedule. Fitzgerald applauded his team's focus against South Dakota. With three gritty wins over FBS teams behind them, and eight Big Ten tests looming, Saturday could have been a trap game for the Wildcats, but Northwestern put away any thoughts of a letdown on its first drive, which ended in a touchdown.
Northwestern last won its first four in 2010, when it also edged Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium to move to 5-0. The Wildcats failed to protect their 5-0 record at Ryan Field the next week, however, losing consecutive games to Purdue and Michigan State. Williams acknowledged the difficulty of handling success, and credited a talk the team had with Navy SEALs Chief Stella before the season as being influential in that regard.
"One of the questions we had for him when he first spoke with us was how do we handle success. Everybody knows that you just have to go out there and do your best every play, but sometimes that can change. Sometimes, your attitude can change whenever things are going really well as well as very badly," Williams said. "One thing he really said to us was just take it play-by-play. You have to make the big things small and I think we've done a pretty good job of that so far and it's going to be very important for us to keep that foot on the pedal and take it game-by-game and make the long Big Ten season short."
In addition to Chief Stella's words of advice, Colter added that the Navy SEALs' mindset in general was helpful.
"A lot of it just has to go with your expectations," Colter said. "We expected to be 4-0, and every operation the Navy SEALs go into, they expect to be victorious, so you can't get too high, you can't get too low, you got to stay even keel and just keep going and keep doing what you were doing.
"That was the biggest lesson that they taught us. Those guys are the best at what they do and if they complete a mission successfully, they're not going to be jumping for joy or giving high-fives. That's what they expect out of themselves. These first four games that we've had, we expected to win those games and show the entire nation what Northwestern football is going to bring to the table this season."
Saturday's game closes out the non-conference segment of the Wildcats' schedule. Northwestern's Big Ten schedule kicks off with a home match against Indiana on Saturday.
"Our team has the attitude of this is a clean slate we have now," Williams said. "While we did go 4-0 in non-conference, that doesn't mean much if you don't do well in conference so this is going to be a big week. We're going to take it one step at a time. It's obviously gratifying to be 4-0. We're in a great place right now, but we have a long way to go and we're going to work toward that."
Fitzgerald added that Northwestern's players didn't come to Evanston to finish 4-0 in non-conference play. They came to Evanston to compete in the Big Ten – and win in the Big Ten.
"As we move forward now, this is part of why everyone is a part of our program," Fitzgerald said. "At some point in all of our young men's lives, they dreamed of playing Big Ten football, and at some point, they realized they were good enough to have that opportunity and that's kind of the reason why we're all here. Everyone goes back to 0-0 when we start conference play."