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Three Things We Learned from Northwestern in Week 5 Against Indiana

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.

Expect the unexpected from Northwestern’s quarterback situation

Analyzing this quarterback system has officially transcended my (and any other outsider who claims to know better) realm of football knowledge. At this point, your guess is as good as mine. In the latest chapter of NU’s ongoing quarterback conundrum, Kain Colter, who before the season spoke of embracing the starting job and focusing more on his duties as a quarterback, attempted just three passes. But as was the case so often last season, coordinator Mick McCall revealed innovative ways to deploy Colter’s diverse skill set. After a week of practice spent lining up at other positions, and a week of keeping quiet by the NU media, Colter exploded for 292 all purpose yards. He led the Wildcats in both receiving yards (131) and rushing yards (161). It was Colter’s best game of the season, all things considered.

Meanwhile, with Colter splitting out wide, perplexing the Hoosiers’ defense with his versatility, Trevor Siemian handled the passing game. Quarterback 1B, as Fitz likes to call him, completed 22 of 32 passes for 308 yards and one interception. McCall rotated Siemian and Colter on a per-possession basis, treating the quarterback position like any other, disregarding any notions of continuity at the game’s most important position. The strategy worked in large part because of the schematic contrast it introduced: With Colter running the offense, the option attack flourished; Siemian led a pass-heavy play set. IU didn’t stand a chance. The result: 704 yards of total offense, a school record.

You can’t argue the quarterback shuffling didn’t work, not after the firework display NU’s offense produced. Whether the rotation will function in this manner going forward, and whether a true two-quarterback system can operate effectively are open questions.

There’s still work to be done on defense

Just when it looked like NU had finally turned the corner on defense, an supposition borne of three straight weeks worth of disciplined and inspired effort on that side of the ball, IU came out in the second half and showed why the Wildcats have a long way to go before they can call themselves a top-tier defensive squad. In a complete reversal of their woeful first half showing, the Hoosiers quickly put up 21 third-quarter points to narrow NU’s 27-point lead down to eight. Using an up-tempo attack featuring a flurry of quick passes, IU ran through the Wildcats defense and pulled within striking distance long after the game should have been decided.

Thanks to NU’s banner day on offense, the defensive mishaps didn’t cost the Wildcats a victory. The defense had a huge margin of error after halftime, so their second-half slide only had the effect of making this an interesting game, not deciding its outcome. But against better teams, those kinds of mistakes are intolerable. Pat Fitzgerald insisted after the game the mistakes were individual blunders, the sorts of errors that even the best schemes can’t mask. Unlike the Syracuse game, where NU was lost schematically as the Orange found enormous holes and gaps in NU’s sets, the defense was in position, prepared for Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson’s diverse playbook. They simply lost individual physical battles, particularly in the secondary. Missed tackles, blown assignments and failed pass defenses add up. It was the biggest reason IU was able to produce 29 second-half points and, for a moment, a fear that NU would see its undefeated record go up in flames. Those mistakes need to be corrected going forward.

Venric Mark can’t keep this pace up

From kick/punt-return specialist to all-purpose weapon, Venric Mark has evolved into one of NU’s most integral offensive players. Through five games, Mark has amassed 562 yards on the ground at an impressive 5.3-yards per carry and contributed 263 total return yards. For an offense that was supposed to rely so heavily on the pass, Mark has provided balance and versatility by emerging into a well-rounded rushing force. What he’s doing is truly remarkable. At this juncture, after an unsuspecting five-game master class, it’s hard to imagine NU’s offense functioning without Mark in any extended context. But unless NU learns how to manage his touches and preserve his diminutive frame, Mark won’t last through the Big Ten season.

One year after registering just 15 carries for 104 yards, Mark has broken the century mark (101) in only five games. If he keeps up this pace – extrapolating his carry-rate to a 13-game sample, riding on the assumption NU will secure its sixth win and thus gain bowl eligibility – the junior will have logged 262 carries by season’s end. That’s an astounding total for any back, let alone a 5-8, 175-pound jitterbug like Mark. And unlike bigger backs that bang shoulder-to-shoulder with defenders and mitigate wear-and-tear by shielding against jarring hits, Mark almost always finds himself on the end of violent tackles. Whenever he picks up speed and breaks up field, I normally cover my eyes and fear the worst. He runs without fear, and in no way braces himself for contact. Mark’s toughness, the way he springs back up from every violent hit, is astonishing. But at some point this season, he won’t get back up. Some ill-willed Big Ten defender is bound to lay the crippling blow that will end Mark’s season. Given his size and inexperience at the position, Mark won’t make it much longer with this enormous workload. McCall needs to either limit his touches or find ways to limit the number of hits he endures, because Mark, for all his toughness and grit and slippery elusiveness, is bound to get blown up (as the kids like to say) sooner rather than later.