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Three Things We Learned from Northwestern in Week 4 Against South Dakota

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.

This is not last year’s defense

Over its last three games, Northwestern has yielded 33 total points. On the surface, that’s nothing groundbreaking. But when you consider it gave up a combined 52 points last seaon in consecutive games against Boston College, Eastern Illinois and Army – three opponents that, from a competitive standpoint, pale in comparison to the recent three-week slate of Vanderbilt, an offensively-improved BC and South Dakota – it’s clear this defense is far better than last year’s unit. This claim, at such an early stage of the season, reflects a limited body of work, a constrained scope with minimal long-term foresight. The Wildcats have yet to enter conference play, where – despite the Big Ten’s ongoing embarrassment in nonconference action – better-coached offenses with more talented skill players will test the depths of the defense’s apparent improvements. That said, there’s little doubt the defense has raised plenty of eyebrows. And judging by its four-week progression, Mike Hankwitz’s group should continue to get better as the season wears on.

The linebackers have been NU’s most consistent position group, led by veterans Damien Proby and David Nwabuisi and the unlikely star turn of Chi Chi Ariguzo, who continues to show why he’s matured into one of the Big Ten’s best. The defensive line, bolstered by Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry, two wily edge rushers, is generating better pressure at a more frequent rate. The trenches, once an area of punishment and defeat for NU’s defensive line, belong – in the constant territorial struggle at the line of scrimmage – to the Wildcats, at least in the first month of the season. But the most impressive upgrade has come within the defensive backfield, where Nick VanHoose, Demetrius Dugar, Quinn Evans, Ibraheim Campbell and others in a deep rotation endured a constant flow of criticism heading into this season (somewhat unfairly, considering the massive lineup turnover), with questions arising over a general lack of starters experience. We tend to equate returning starters with success, as if continuity guarantees improvement. It doesn’t. Just because a bunch of juniors/seniors return for another season doesn’t mean they will magically get better. It’s a misguided belief, particularly when the three graduated starters loomed large in NU’s putrid secondary last season. This year’s group, while young, is more athletic, stronger, faster. It’s better.

No, this defense is not the laughing stock of 2011. We didn’t need a lockdown effort against South Dakota to prove as much.

There’s More Depth at Running Back Than Once Believed

It’s hard not to be impressed with Venric Mark’s emergence at running back this season. Once relegated to special teams, used sparingly as a utility slot receiver and specialty rusher, Mark has imbued NU’s running game with an element of explosiveness unseen in the Fitgerald era. Mark is slippery quick, a blur in the open field adept at making defenders miss. But as we saw last week against Boston College, a player that runs with as much speed and quickness as Mark, one who stands at just 5-8, 175 pounds, is prone to injury. He’s proven a versatile runner, but the Wildcats need contributions from other backs in order to keep Mark off the trainer’s table. Same goes for quarterback Kain Colter, who all too often runs recklessly at linebackers and defensive backs.

Supporting players have proven themselves over the last two weeks. Against BC, it was Trumpy, who filled in admirably for an injured Mark with 16 carries and 107 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Treyvon Green, who had compiled just 15 total rushing yards heading into Saturday’s game against South Dakota, broke off a 33 yard run and flashed the speed and explosiveness we saw throughout last season. It’s unlikely Mark can keep up this torrid pace – given his size, workload and the physical nature of Big Ten play, he’s likely to slow down. As such, depth will be key in maintaining NU’s overall success in the run game. Mark, despite four weeks’ worth of evidence to the contrary, is probably not built for the long haul. He simply doesn’t have the physical build of a bellcow back, much less the experience. Mark’s performance has been admirable, but you’d be foolish to assume he can keep this up for the next eight weeks. The good news is NU is proving it has the depth to support him down the stretch.

Offensive Balance, Believe It or Not, Exists

The way the running game has steadied NU’s offensive attack, it’s beginning to look like the offense will not be the pass-happy spread attack most envisioned heading into this season. With the Big Ten’s deepest receiving corps and two capable quarterbacks, it would seem tempting for McCall to spread it out, take aim and fire away at opposing secondaries. After all, that’s what NU has billed itself on – beating opponents through the air. Last season, it ranked first in the Big Ten in passing offense; in 2010, it ranked fourth. This year’s roster composition almost begs for pass-oriented gameplans. But as we’ve witnessed over the first month of this season, NU remains committed to the ground game. It’s tough to glean any lasting insight from games against thoroughly inferior competition, so their ground-heavy attack against USD could be viewed as a product of circumstance (namely, the Coyotes brutally awful defensive line, plus the lack of urgency to pass the ball when the outcome was practically decided in the first quarter) But the Wildcats have been pounding the rock all season, and they look primed to carry that tactic into conference play.

It’s not just Venric Mark. NU goes four deep at running back, with Mark, Trumpy, Green and senior Tyris Jones all capable of pitching in. With a reliable ground game, NU is a more dangerous offensive team, more unpredictable, threatening. The unpredictability will force opposing defenses to stack the box, which opens up space for receivers to make plays down field. Even if NU slowly gravitates toward the pass later in the season, the threat Mark and the rest of the backfield poses can’t be ignored. Defenses long accustomed to rolling out five and six-DB alignments against NU must now direct more attention to the line of scrimmage. If the Wildcats can maintain a sizeable dose of run plays in their offensive diet, the passing game (and the offense more broadly) will reach unprecedented heights. NU may not lead the Big Ten in passing, but a greater emphasis on the run will improve its point-scoring potential in the long run.  A balanced offense is a better offense. It really is that simple.