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Touching Down with Jonah Rosenblum: Examining Northwestern's 23-13 Victory over Vanderbilt

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

Jonah Rosenblum will be writing a weekly "touching down" column with seven observations from that week's game. This week, he examines Northwestern's victory over Vanderbilt.

1. Through two games, the Venric Mark experiment has clearly been a complete success for Northwestern. He has been wildly effective running the ball, slipping his way between the tackles beautifully and bouncing to the outside with frequent success. He has been tough enough to shoulder the load as the Wildcats' leading running back. He also had one of the highlights of the night on a short pass from Trevor Siemian. While the final 74 yards of his outstanding catch-and-run were wiped out as a result of his left foot brushing the sideline, the play still showed off all that Mark has to offer. He had the creativity to look backwards after catching Siemian’s short pass, the dexterity to take two steps in and then turn back to the middle before taking off down the field and the speed to outpace the entire Vanderbilt defense down the sideline. It was a spectacular play, regardless of whether or not the points counted. And later on, Mark took his lunch pail back to work, plunging up the middle for a big gain on a third-and-one. Whether or not he’ll be able to repeat that success against the stouter defenses of the Big Ten remains to be seen. But at least on Saturday night, he might have had to wait an extra minute or two, but Mark finally hit pay dirt, with a seven-yard rush up the middle to give the Wildcats their first lead of the ballgame. Then, with the game tied at 13 again, Mark pulled off a remarkable run, in which he was pushed back by a defensive lineman, but he skirted to the outside, eluded multiple would-be tacklers to hit the sideline for a sizable gain. On a play that was headed nowhere, Mark made it go somewhere with his persistence to the outside and his remarkable speed. Mark easily hit the 100-yard mark on Saturday night, which was once a big milestone for a Northwestern program that couldn’t seem to find an effective running back no matter how hard it tried. Now, they have one, and indeed, no one was surprised when Mark hit the century mark on Saturday.

2. Northwestern’s defense adhered well to the “bend, don't break” philosophy. The Wildcats didn’t generate all that much pressure on the pass rush, nor did they look particularly proficient against either the run or the pass, but they kept the Commodores’ big plays to a minimum. They weren’t fooled by Vanderbilt’s attempt at a double reverse or a Statue of Liberty play. On Vanderbilt’s few attempts down the field, Northwestern didn’t commit penalties or allow deep receptions. Again, the Wildcats could stand to improve. They struggled to tackle in the open field all night long, generally taking a very passive approach with the oncoming quarterback, running backs and wide receivers. Rather than push the ball carrier down, the defenders tended to box in the runner, and frequently, it took multiple Wildcats to bring the runner down. Vanderbilt’s final drive of the third quarter was a particularly good instance, as the Commodores drove to midfield, but the Wildcats were finally able to pressure Jordan Rodgers into an incompletion along the sideline, and a fine read on a leftward run by Zac Stacy allowed the Wildcats to swarm Stacy behind the line of scrimmage. Good when it had to be, Northwestern’s defense had enough to get the job done. Even after one of its darker moments, following Stacy's long run upfield, the Wildcats' defense stepped up with a huge goal-line stand, pushing the Commodores back on several outside runs, before keeping Vanderbilt out of the end zone on third down with fine coverage of an outside pass by Quinn Evans. And then on that final drive, Northwestern made sure that Jordan Rodgers didn't have the chance to pick apart the Wildcats' susceptible secondary. Tyler Scott got right into Rodgers' face, and knocked the ball loose, thus securing their victory over Vanderbilt. Much maligned after Northwestern's 42-41 win over Syracuse, the Wildcats' defense looked far better against the Commodores.

3. In a glum first half for Northwestern, in which Kain Colter could barely throw the ball and the Wildcats’ defense could barely contain the Commodores’ short passing game, Quentin Williams made two huge plays to help keep Northwestern in the game. The senior defensive end made a huge statement with his big hit on Vanderbilt running back Brian Kimbrow. On a night when most of his teammates were rather passive in their approach to tackling, Williams went right at Kimbrow, laying him out at the line of scrimmage. Williams’ biggest play came toward the end of the first half though, with the Commodores set to build on their 10-3 lead right before halftime. As Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers plunged up the middle, three Northwestern defenders descended on him, and realizing that he had help, Williams was able to opt against the safe play and slide his arm under Rodgers’ torso to knock the ball out. Williams’ savvy play was the difference between a one-possession game and a two-possession game entering the second half, a huge deal given the Wildcats’ anemic first-half offense.

4. For all of the fuss surrounding Kyle Prater in the offseason, Tony Jones was the star of the Northwestern wide receiving corps. Well, it took a while for the sophomore to actually catch any, but Northwestern targeted him on numerous occasions. Knowing Jones’ speed, the Wildcats tried to find him in mid-sprint along the left sideline, but he was well covered on nearly every occasion. On one attempt, Colter tried to fit a high pass over the backfield, but Jones was unable to make the difficult catch over his defender. On another, Jones went into a full-fledged dive only to see the ball glance off his fingertips. Still wanting to utilize Jones’ speed in the second half, and perhaps seeking an easier way to do so, Colter tossed to Jones twice on the Wildcats’ first drive of the second half, both short, crisp passes of approximately five yards’ length. Colter went back to the deep ball toward the end of the third quarter, with Jones getting a few steps on his defenders 40 yards down the middle of the field, but unfortunately for Northwestern, while Jones was too fast for his defenders, he wasn’t fast enough for Colter’s deep ball. The pass landed a yard or two in front of Jones. Prater’s integration into the Wildcats’ offense continues to be gradual, as his first catch came over the middle early in the third quarter.

5. Trevor Siemian once again put forth an inspiring performance on Saturday, coming in off the bench to complete several short passes to kick the Wildcats' offense back into gear. His pass down the left sideline to Rashad Lawrence was a thing of beauty. Whether or not Lawrence's reception should have been overturned on review, he barely had the ball before a hard hit knocked it out of his hands, the throw was perfect, landing right in Lawrence's gloves. It was that throw that propelled Northwestern's game-winning score. And then Colter made sure his name would still be in the mix, with an incredible jaunt to the end zone to secure the Wildcats' final 23-13 margin. Much like Mark, Colter showed the ability to completely scrap one plan in favor of another. After finding little open ground to his left, Colter slashed toward the middle of his line, and found a huge seam. With the Commodores' defense stunned by Colter's decisive switch, the Northwestern quarterback was able to find the end zone virtually untouched.

6. Also, for all of the controversy surrounding Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews’ near reception along the left sideline, he got what he deserved. Whether or not Matthews held onto the ball long enough before it popped out as he hit the dirt, he was certainly guilty of offensive pass interference, as he shoved his defender to the ground en route. So, when the referee ruled that he never had possession of the ball, even after he held it securely for a full second before falling, it seemed only fair, given the sizable shove he laid on his erstwhile defender.

EXTRA POINT

The Wildcats’ new home uniforms were snazzy to say the least. The deep purple hue and slick white lettering represents a vast improvement from previous uniforms. While the stripe on their white home uniforms is a little too much at times, their home uniforms manage to be bold and subtle at the same time. I'm not sure how effective the black stripe is on the Wildcats' home uniforms, but the font is distinctive as can be, perhaps leading to the creation of a true Northwestern font for the first time.