by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
From the moment Northwestern’s offense took the field, the offensive gameplan was brought into clear focus. Pat Fitzgerald and coordinator Mick McCall committed to the run early on, and they stayed with the run unless unfavorable down-and-distance situations dictated otherwise. With that caveat aside, the quarterbacks – including redshirt freshman Zack Oliver, who made his NU debut in the fourth quarter – submitted an efficient performance, combining for 131 yards on 12-of-15 passing. Most importantly, after leaving the game in the first half with separate injuries, both Colter and Siemian returned and looked completely healthy. While Siemian was more adventurous with his throws, an advantage of having a stronger, more accurate arm, Colter was efficient with his short passes. One development worth your attention: Colter, it seems, has the tendency to needlessly throw himself in harm’s way. He took a crunching hit in the first half from USD cornerback Chris Frierson. Colter needs to learn to (Cliché alert!) live to fight another down, to dive or run out of bounds rather than lowering his shoulder on a defensive back. If he continues to launch himself at opposing defenders when scrambling out of the pocket, Colter won’t last the rest of the season.
Running backs: A
The stage was set for a ground-heavy game plan against the smallish defensive line of the Coyotes, and the Wildcats exploited that weakness. For those worrying about Venric Mark’s health after leaving last week’s game with a lower-leg injury, put those concerns to rest. Mark was excellent, and the numbers say as much: In the first half alone, the 5-8, 175-pound sparkplug went off for 97 yards and three touchdowns. Mark’s damage was versatile, just as quick to outrun defenders as he was to plow them. On his six-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter, Mark established leverage, ran behind his pads and pushed the pile into the end zone. It was heady stuff from a guy who (I don’t think I’m alone in saying this) is giving a few inches and pounds to most players. Another positive note was Treyvon Green’s performance. Before today, Green had managed just 15 net rushing yards in three weeks. He picked up 45 yards on the ground against USD, including a 33-yard third-quarter touchdown run. All told, the Wildcats, in a peerless execution of their ground-oriented game plan, accumulated 277 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. The one downside, to refresh, is Colter’s hectic running style. If he continues his reckless scampering, the guy’s going to hurt himself, and, in turn, his team.
Wide Receivers: B
The production at the receiver position (12 catches, 131 yards, zero touchdowns) is less than flattering. There’s good reason for this. The game plan hinged upon the historically Anti-Northwestern-ian tactic of establishing and sustaining the run as the primary means of offensive advancement. Lo and behold, the ground-oriented attack, as planned, flourished. The receivers’ workload was limited from the outset, and that was expected. When called upon, though, the pass-catchers executed. Tony Jones was the star of the bunch, his four receptions for 63 yards, highlighted by a dazzling 42-yard pitch-and-catch in the first quarter, leading the way. The receivers had no trouble getting open down field, but they were rarely delivered the ball. More than anything else, this was a chance to work on blocking mechanics and route-running. It was essentially a day off for the passing game, which makes grading the receivers awfully difficult. In marginal opportunity, they performed. Without poor performance to suggest otherwise, it was an all around positive outing for the deep unit.
Offensive Line: B
Any successful run game needs large holes to burst through, and the big guys up front provided exactly that. They created truck-sized lanes by manhandling the Coyotes undersized defensive line. This came as no surprise. The other equally-important half of offensive line play, pass protection, was less than stellar. USD finished with six tackles for loss and two sacks. But the numbers don’t tell the whole picture. The line was frequently confused on passing plays, and on two occasions it allowed USD pass rushers to meet NU’s quarterbacks at full speed, unhindered, for big losses. Against more athletic defenses, these types of mix-ups can lead to momentum-turning sacks and fumbles. These breakdowns were much less physical than mental. The Wildcats need to avoid such mental slip-ups in conference play, when NU will no doubt employ pass-heavy game plans. Because, rest assured, Big Ten pass-rushers will capitalize on these sorts of critical blunders.
Defensive Line: B
It was not at all surprising to see NU practically shut down the run, particularly against an offensive line as thin and inexperienced as USD’s. But the line was largely at fault for the Coyotes’ primary source of offense: screen plays. Time and again, quarterback Josh Vander Maten absorbed the pressure, found receivers on short passes and watched them pick up huge chunks of yardage after the catch. The line’s only defense against this tactic was swatting passes at the line of scrimmage, because it continually overpursued USD’s screen-target receivers. Vander Maten was able to combat NU’s physical advantage in the trenches by breaking contain and making throws on the run. NU couldn’t keep him inside the pocket, even with speedy edge rushers like Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry. The Big Ten offers a host of quarterbacks in the Vander Maten mold – dual-threat talents with great athleticism and playmaking ability outside of the pocket, only with better throwing talent. The line was able to dominate up front, but it failed to adjust to USD’s play-action screens.
Since most of USD’s offense came by way of short passes and screens, the linebackers were able to make plays in front of them, rather than chasing players down field. The Coyotes caught screen passes and scampered forward, only to be met by NU’s rangy linebackers. The three starters (Chi Chi Ariguzo, Damien Proby and David Nwabuisi) fared reasonably well against USD’s dink-and-dunk offense, but from my vantage point Proby was particularly impressive. He commanded the middle of the field, ranging from sideline to sideline, laying big hits on ballcarriers and raising his fellow linebackers’ level of performance. He finished with six tackles and one tackle for loss, but Proby was constantly in motion, constantly posing a threat at the heart of NU’s defensive efforts. There was talk before the season that this linebacker corps could be the best of Fitzgerald’s tenure. Today’s showing validated that praise, and Proby is the biggest reason why.
Nearly all of USD’s big passing plays came off short passes and long runs after the catch. There were few successful deep pass plays, situations where NU’s defensive backs were beaten down field by a Coyotes receiver. That’s a testament to the secondary’s coverage, and the improvement it’s undergone over the offseason. One interesting takeaway from Fitzgerald’s personnel management was the decision to start Quinn Evans over Demetrius Dugar. Dugar had steadily improved since his week one debacle at Syracuse, but Evans, a fifth-year senior transfer from Stanford, was given the starting spot. Though he led NU in tackles (7) on the day, Evans struggled to stay with USD’s receivers on short pass routes. He managed to keep everything in front of him, but his ball pursuit was average, at best. It’s hard to tell whether he earned himself the start next week. It was an encouraging, but merely average, day from Evans. On the other side, Nick VanHoose continues to prove why he’s NU’s No. 1 cornerback. Another strong performance from the redshirt freshman; any questions about inexperience limiting his development have all but disappeared. Ibraheim Campbell submitted another strong, if underrated, showing. The secondary, for all the criticism its taken throughout the past calendar year, has made major strides. Even a weak FCS opponent, where performance can be skewed by inferior competition, this unit proved it’s better than last year’s feeble group.
Special Teams: A
Another much-maligned aspect of the Wildcats 2011 campaign, the kicking game, continued its impressive run this season thanks in large part to Brandon Williams, who averaged 56.7 yards on his three punts and landed two of those inside USD’s 20-yd line. On one first-quarter attempt, Williams unleashed a 61-yard booming strike that rolled to the Coyotes’ one-yard line. After the break, Williams salvaged decent field position with a 54-yarder (which went unreturned by USD) after a series of penalties and ineffective run plays left the Wildcats at their own two yard line. Perhaps more impressive, Steve Flaherty, typically limited to kickoff duties, connected on his first field goal attempt of the season, a 39-yarder in the fourth quarter. A biting Evanston wind repeling his effort made his success even more impressive. NU’s limited the Coyotes to just eight yards on two punt returns and 68 yards on four kick returns, both impressive marks. The return game was mostly dormant, with just two punt runbacks totaling 10 yards. Still, another encouraging outing from the kicking game, who last season were lamented for their inconsistency
When the run game works, don’t go away from it. That’s the train of thought NU’s coaching staff followed, and it’s hard to blame them. USD is weak on both lines, which made running the ball the best and most effective game plan. Mark, Green, Colter and Mike Trumpy – thanks in larger part to the physically-dominating efforts from the offensive line – found huge holes and punished the Coyotes defense with big gains. Running the ball effectively not only burns clock and helps win the possession battle. It breaks the defense’s will – an effective run game is, more than anything else, a byproduct of physical dominance. The Wildcats knew they held that physical advantage over this FCS foe, and the coaching staff gameplanned accordingly. Defensively, coordinator Mike Hankwitz deserves some measure of blame for his inability to adjust to USD’s screen game, but there’s no reason to think NU can’t fix that in time for next week’s game. The coaching staff has made several key in-game adjustments throughout the season. Few were needed against the Coyotes, but NU rolled out a disciplined and well-guided squad nonetheless; that’s a reflection of thorough preparation, mental and physical.