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Weekend rewind, week 7: Northwestern vs. Wisconsin

Every week, InsideNU writers Chris Johnson and Kevin Trahan will wrap up Northwestern game coverage with some final thoughts (we’ll try and stay away from topics addressed in game columns), along with one big takeaway from the Big Ten. Following Northwestern’s 35-6 loss to Wisconsin, here’s the seventh edition of the Weekend Rewind:

Final thoughts on NU

Venric Mark injury a major concern

Concern over Venric Mark’s lower body injury was supposed to have evaporated after Northwestern’s 40-30 loss to Ohio State last week, in which Mark, after missing the previous three games, rushed for 60 yards on 17 carries, caught four passes for 43 yards and trucked Buckeyes safety Corey Brown on a crowd-pumping run at the start of the second quarter.

He was back, Mark – even if his stats didn’t amount to one of the more eye-popping box scores he posted in 2012.

Mark may have played against Ohio State, but after injuring his ankle early in Saturday’s loss at Wisconsin after recording just three carries for eight yards, his status going forward is uncertain. Instead of singing Mark’s praises for the dynamic running and big-play ability he adds to Northwestern’s offense, we could well spend the next couple of week speculating about the date of his return.

Needless to say, this is not good news for Northwestern. The Wildcats managed just 44 rushing yards on 25 carries (1.8 ypc) against the Badgers Saturday, and frankly, I’m surprised they managed to log that many. Wisconsin dominated Northwestern along the line of scrimmage, clogged up holes and often met ballcarriers before they could even think about finding holes and cutting upfield for positive yardage. It was a dominant performance by Wisconsin’s run defense, and a putrid one by Northwestern’s offensive line.

Having Mark in the game probably wouldn’t have helped Northwestern’s ground attack all that much – no running back, not Mark or Treyvon Green or Adrian Peterson, can run well if the big boys up front are losing virtually every physical battle at the point of attack. The Wildcats’ offensive line should be able to open up holes against Minnesota’s mediocre defensive front (though tackle Rashede Hageman, a likely future first-round draft pick, is a force to be reckoned with), but if Mark isn’t able to play, or isn’t at 100 percent, can Northwestern’s ground game be effective? Will Green, Mike Trumpy, Stephen Buckley and Warren Long provide coordinator Mick McCall with the type of balance he needs to devise an effective gameplan?

I’m not sure, but the lingering uncertainty won’t ease the concerns of Northwestern fans still smarting over the way their team’s offense (and run game in particular) failed in every measurable fashion Saturday. This week’s visit from Minnesota should allow Northwestern to notch a confidence-boosting win, but manufacturing an effective ground attack against future opponents Iowa and Michigan State, two of the Big Ten’s top three rush defenses (and even Nebraska, who has made major strides on defense in recent weeks), will require Mark not only return from injury, but regain his All-Big Ten form once back. The Wildcats need their senior star back as soon as possible.

Their ability to rebound from Saturday’s humiliating loss depends upon it.

- Chris Johnson

The rhetoric shifts at NU

At the end of last Wednesday's practice, I asked Pat Fitzgerald a pretty simple question about play-action. It was something to the tune of, "What were the reasons for the issues in play-action, specifically against Maine, and what have you done to correct them?" Fitzgerald was apparently not interested in discussing that weakness and answered that he doesn't even remember that game. More importantly, he said, the Ohio State game proved that NU is a much better team than it was in non-conference season.

Fitzgerald had been giving that kind of answer all week — really, for the last two weeks — but I found it odd. This wasn't some obscure statistic I found just to paint his team in a bad light. This was a legitimate concern, especially considering Wisconsin's heavy use of play-action. As it turns out, NU wasn't at all prepared for play-action. The linebackers and safeties didn't stick to their assignments and too often bit on fakes, helping the Badgers role to a 35-6 victory.

I'm not going to comment on what may or may not have happened inside the walls of the Nicolet Football Center, because frankly, I have no idea. I'm sure NU's coaches discussed how to stop the play-action game, because they're good coaches and really any coach — good or bad — would discuss that when playing Wisconsin. But the rhetoric used outside those walls looks bad.

Fitzgerald spent the entire week leading up to the Ohio State game tempering expectations about his team and minimizing the hype, because that's what all coaches do. In fact, Fitzgerald does a better job than most of minimizing the hype while still talking up his team. But after the game, there was an interesting shift. Fitzgerald said there were no moral victories, but he spent the entire week talking about how great his team was, shooting down any valid criticism with a line about hanging with one of the best teams in the country. Here's the thing: nobody is denying that NU has the potential to hang with the best teams in the country, but that doesn't mean there aren't issues to fix. Too often, fans and coaches want writers to focus solely on the good things that happened, but just because NU did some good things, that doesn't mean there aren't problems, as well.

This week, the rhetoric will surely be different. You can't say much positive about a 35-6 loss, regardless of the opponent. This week, when I ask about play-action, I'll surely get some sort of non-specific, vanilla response. However, we're past the point where disregarding valid criticism is a fair response, if it ever even was in the first place.

- Kevin Trahan

Ohio State fans in awkward position

In most instances, Ohio State fans cheer the failures of their traditional rivals. They actively root for Michigan to lose, hope the Wolverines crash and burn, pray Brady Hoke flames epically fails in his quest to restore Michigan as an elite national program.

Ohio State fans detest Michigan. It has, and always will, be this way.

That basic truism won’t change this season, or ever, but Buckeyes fans – perverse as it may sound – may need Michigan to win a few games this season. Not because the dynamics of the teams’ decades-old rivalry have changed, or because Ohio State fans suddenly developed a soft spot for the Maize-and-Blue. It’s because the Buckeyes – if a national championship is their goal, and why wouldn’t it be? – need to notch as many good wins as possible, and do so in impressive fashion, to be considered for a spot in the BCS title game.

The best possible “win” on their schedule after beating Wisconsin two weeks ago is Michigan (or whoever else emerges from the Legends in the Big Ten title game), even after Saturday night’s wild, four-overtime loss at Penn State. But if the Wolverines keep losing games, poll voters will react to an Ohio State win at the Big House with a collective yawn. Whereas in most years a win over Michigan would be a huge chip on any national championship contender’s resume (I know, I know: college football’s national championship wasn’t always decided the way it is now, but just play along), this season it’s increasingly looking like beating the Wolverines won’t do much to endorse a team’s candidacy.

That means Ohio State – who between now and the regular season finale at Michigan faces games against Iowa, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana – needs the Wolverines to make themselves as impressive a potential win as possible. The Buckeyes are relying on Michigan to be the exotic pelt they hang on their wall, the thing poll voters (and the strength of schedule component) look at and say, “Woah, nice win there. That’s national championship-worthy stuff.”

Because even if Ohio State manages to run the table, other potential undefeated teams – from Alabama to Oregon to Clemson to Baylor to Florida State – will have stronger arguments for championship game placement. The Big Ten has fallen so far behind the other major conferences, that an undefeated run in conference play – on top of an undefeated season in 2012 – may not even be enough to earn a spot in the national championship game.

If Michigan breaks out of its current funk and shows itself to be better than the listless group that struggled against Akron and UConn and lost to Penn State, maybe beating the Wolverines will be enough for Ohio State to claim a spot in Pasadena (not for the Rose Bowl, mind you). If Michigan continues to look less like the Big Ten championship contender most envisioned in the preseason, and more like a plainly mediocre team with major issues on both sides of the ball, Ohio State could find itself sitting behind other top teams in the national championship pecking order at season’s end.

This must be an insane concept for Buckeyes fans to comprehend, but your rooting interests over the next few weeks should fall in line with the people, and program, you’ve grown up hating. It’s for you own good.

- Chris Johnson

Has Michigan State found an offense?

At the beginning of the season, I was confused by all the people picking Michigan State to win the division, or at least come close. The Spartans had no offense, and as last year proved, you have to have some sort of an offense to win in college football, no matter how good your defense is. At the beginning of the year, my assessment of MSU seemed to be right. The Spartans' offense struggled with Western Michigan and South Florida, and it caused the team to come up short against Notre Dame.

However, the last two weeks have shown cause for excitement in East Lansing. The offense came to play against Iowa and Indiana, helping the Spartans start out 2-0 in the league. Scoring against Indiana is no great feat — not scoring against Indiana might be tougher — but the performance against an improving Iowa defense is certainly impressive.

The biggest reason for the Spartans' development is the growth of quarterback Connor Cook behind a strong offensive line. Cook was part of the four-way quarterback battle to start the season, but he eventually won the job away from Andrew Maxwell and has shown no signs of relinquishing it so far in Big Ten play.

I'm still not ready to call MSU a Big Ten contender. Beating Iowa and Indiana is one thing, but being able to keep up with Nebraska, Northwestern and Michigan is quite another, though all those teams have gaping holes in different places. But right now, the Spartans are 2-0 in the Big Ten, with a fairly easy schedule. If they can take two of three against the Huskers, Wildcats and Wolverines, they might have a chance to end up in Indianapolis for the second time in three years.

- Kevin Trahan

Power Rankings

1. Ohio State — OSU might not have played, but Stanford's loss over the bye week helped the Buckeyes' national title hopes.

2. Wisconsin — If there was any doubt that the Badgers were the second best team in the league before, there isn't anymore.

3. Nebraska — Sure, the wins came against Illinois and Purdue, but Nebraska has gotten on a roll and the defense has started to play better.

4. Michigan State — Is the offense legit? That could be the biggest factor in the Legends Division race.

5. Michigan — Michigan's issue isn't that it's really bad at something. Rather, it's that the Wolverines aren't really good at anything.

6. Northwestern — The Wildcats will probably move up if they can bounce back, but the injuries and the play of the defensive front seven are very concerning.

t-7. Penn State — This team has a long way to go, but the Michigan win was a nice starting point.

t-7. Iowa — The Hawkeyes are young, but talented. They'll upset someone this year, but they'll also have down weeks like they did against Michigan State two weeks ago.

9. Indiana — Last week, after the Penn State win, I wrote that Indiana's defense might be able to find some consistency. Ha! Whoops.

10. Illinois — Illinois has shown some fight so far, but with a brutal schedule remaining, the Illini might be a year away from returning to the postseason.

11. Minnesota — Jerry Kill's health issues aside, the Gophers haven't been able to do much of anything right since entering Big Ten play.

12. Purdue — This team might be worse than 2012 Illinois. That's something.