EVANSTON, Ill -- The speculation is over.
After playing sparingly in week one at Cal, then sitting out the next three weeks, Northwestern running back Venric Mark will return Saturday night to help the Wildcats try and upend AP No. 4 Ohio State at Ryan Field. Though stopping short of calling himself “100 percent,” Mark spoke optimistically Tuesday about his condition.
“I feel really good right now, and I’m just ready to help the team,” he said. “I got my mojo back.”
Statistical evidence belies the significance of Mark within the context of Northwestern’s spread offense. Through four games, Northwestern ranks fourth in the Big Ten at 5.31 yards per rush, thanks in no small part to the emergence of junior running back Treyvon Green, who leads the Wildcats in yards (404) and carries (58). When Mark was limited to just 11 touches in the Cal game, it was Green who propelled the Wildcats to a tough season-opening road win with 129 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries.
His consistent production, combined with contributions from quarterback Kain Colter, senior Mike Trumpy and redshirt freshman Stephen Buckley, has kept Northwestern’s rushing game afloat. Rolling, even. It was almost easy to forget just how crucial Mark was to Northwestern’s offense last season – and how influential his return could be this season.
We are about to find out.
“I’ve just been itching to get back on the field,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”
The most obvious benefit of having Mark back is the read-option capability he introduces (or re-introduces) to an offense that will need every bit of versatility and dynamism and explosiveness it can get to navigate the rigorous two-week gauntlet on tap (Ohio State, then at Wisconsin). Last season, Mark and Colter worked the zone-read crisply and effectively; by the time Northwestern played its bowl game, the two seniors were so in-sync, and so harmonious in their execution, that Colter almost never made the wrong read.
Any time he flew around the edge, Mark flanking him, Colter knew what to do, and when to do it. Defenders were playing a guessing game. Needless to say, you can expect Northwestern to bust out the Colter-Mark option this weekend.
“Whenever you have 5 back there, it makes my job easier as a quarterback,” Colter said Monday. “When I can pitch the ball to Venric or get it out to him in the flat, he’s going to make a guy miss and get some yards.”
Coach Pat Fitzgerald tried to size up what Mark’s return means for the Wildcats’ offense.
“It’s a heck of a free-agent pick up,” he said. “You get an All-American back that hasn’t played yet – it makes a big difference.”
Senior wideout Tony Jones, who leads Northwestern with 362 receiving yards and 24 receptions, was just as excited. “We just got another weapon on our offense now,” he said Monday. “Whenever you have Venric, who at any given moment in the game, can make a big play, so that’s definitely going to be helpful on Saturday.”
Activating Mark after sitting him most of the season could be something of a challenge for the Buckeyes’ second-ranked (2.84) rushing defense to prepare for. Nobody not named Pat Fitzgerald, Mick McCall (and maybe not even Venric Mark) knows how many times he will touch the ball – or whether he’ll be the one running back kicks and punts. The Wildcats are a versatile offensive team: a deep receiving corps, a versatile running attack, two capable quarterbacks, an innovative mind (McCall) running the show.
Add Mark’s wiry explosiveness to the mix, and what you have is an offense capable, if not expected, to push the Buckeyes’ talent-laden defense to the limit.
“They got athletes all over the board,” Colter said of Ohio State’s defense. “But looking at our offense, I feel like we’ve got athletes that can match up.”
Trying to equate Northwestern's athletes with Ohio State's might be a stretch. The notion that bringing Mark back to face the Buckeyes will give the Wildcats a dynamic backfield edge they've lacked all season is not.