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Northwestern vs. Ohio State: Three questions for the Wildcats' offense

Northwestern must avoid second-and-long and third-and-long situations to win what should be a shootout, and a healthy Venric Mark goes a long way towards making that happen.

John Gress

By all accounts, Northwestern-Ohio State should be a damn shootout. Ohio State's offense is high-octane to say the least, and Northwestern's defense has looked iffy at times -- especially on the type of play action plays Ohio State likes to run. Meanwhile, Northwestern has looked very effective putting up crooked numbers this year, scoring at least 35 points in every game, and Ohio State's defense is good, but flawed.

With that in mind, there won't be a lot of margin for error with Northwestern's offense. If the Wildcats want to pull the upset, they'll probably need to put up 40 or so points. How to maximize that ? Three questions:

1. yo how effective is Venric Mark gonna be?

This, obviously, is the magic question.

Venric Mark is supposedly healthy. And when Venric Mark is healthy, he's tough to keep under 100 yards, and teams really have to account for Northwestern's option game, which makes Kain Colter a more effective runner too.

To summarize Bill C. (YOU MUST READ BILL C. YOU MUST READ BILL C. YOU MUST READ BILL C. YOU MUST READ BILL C.) Northwestern is in trouble if it gets into a lot of passing downs. Northwestern is not good offensively in passing downs. Ohio State is very good defensively in passing downs. To avoid those, Northwestern has to pick up short gains on first down. It would behoove Northwestern to have a running game capable of doing this.

If Northwestern gets 2012-era Venric Mark, it adds levels to Northwestern's attack. But we haven't seen 2012-era Venric Mark since 2012. We thought we would see him against Cal, but instead we got brief glimpses of a guy who seemed slower and less at ease than the blistering acceleration bot we got to know and love last year, and then three straight games where he didn't play.

Treyvon Green has been a splendid replacement considering the first two years of his career, but his game is about being bulky and nimble: finding holes, and then going through them with modest speed. Those holes won't often be there against Ohio State, and when they are, they'll be quickly filled up by Ohio State's linebackers.

I think Northwestern's best hope is to spread Ohio State horizontally with the run game. I probably sound crazy saying this considering the way OSU shut down Wisconsin's horizontal running game based around Melvin Gordon and the fly sweep, such as the play MT highlighted his post. But I think Northwestern's game is a different beast since it features the threat of Venric veering off in one direction and Kain careening off in the other. It's that threat of two super-fast people, one of whom can also pass, potentially jetting off to separate sides of the field that's scary.

If Venric isn't up to snuff, that aspect of Northwestern's attack disappears, and Northwestern is facing 2nd- and 3rd-and-long, and Northwestern loses. Some players can play at 90 percent. Venric Mark at 100 percent is 0-to-60 in three seconds, Venric Mark at 90 percent is just a regular, undersized running back, and that's not scary.

2. Can Trevor Siemian beat Ohio State deep?

I was not alone in being quite unimpressed by Wisconsin's pass defense Saturday night. Bradley Roby came into the year hyped as one of the best cornerbacks in the country, but neither he nor anybody else had any hope at stopping Jared Abbredaris. And that was with defensive leader and starting safety Christian Bryant, who is out for the rest of the year after getting injured with 43 seconds left. Suffice it to say, Ohio State's weakness defensively isn't a stacked front four with some scary linebackers behind it, it's a secondary hurt by injuries whose best player hasn't looked great.

This year, Trevor Siemian has made me a believer. His touchdown to Tony Jones in the opener, his picture-perfect two-minute drill against Syracuse along with some other incredible throws. It's clear he has the arm and the accuracy to extend defenses deep, and Jones has been brilliant as his downfield muse. And since the four-wide spread is littered with other guys who can make short catches like Rashad Lawrence and guys who can go in the middle or go deep like Dan Vitale and Christian Jones, teams either have to play back and let him go to work or press up and dare him to go deep.

Thus far, he's been successful when asked to. (Note: Bill C's point that Northwestern looked great offensively for three halves and hasn't been in the five halves since -- the second half at Cuse and milquetoast games vs. WMU and Maine -- has a lot to do with the fact that Siemian was not asked to do this in those halves. ) But he throws pickable balls from time to time, and OSU is by far the best defense he's faced this year.

Siemian doens't need to throw deep often. In a dream world, Siemian gets NU some points early with a big throw to keep Northwestern in the game and give him the option to hit dudes for first downs, not touchdowns, for the rest of the game. In a nightmare world, he overestimates his strength and some of his deep looks end up in Buckeye hands. If NU can't prey at OSU's weakness by establishing the deep ball, I think they're in trouble.

3. Can NU neutralize Ohio State's pass rush?

Watching Ohio State played Wisconsin revealed something. Ohio State is very good at creating pressure. They have a monstrous pass-rushing front four, and they also have Ryan Shazier, possibly the best defensive player in the conference, at weakside linebacker.

Northwestern's offensive line, on the other hand, has looked iffy at points this year, perhaps on account of them starting four players at new positions. They've allowed seven sacks against, you know, not Ohio State.

Northwestern's quarterbacks will come under a lot of pressure. I don't think NU's offensive line is good enough, NU doesn't really have tight ends, and keeping more than one person in the backfield to block hurts NU's ability to spread the field.  Kain Colter might be able to turn that pressure into gains, Trevor Siemian probably won't be able to.

Watching Ohio State play Wisconsin also revealed something else though: if you gameplan to avoid this pressure, it can be done. LGHL showed ways Wisconsin protected to minimize the rush, and B5Q showed how effective play action can be against OSU.

The best way Northwestern can neutralize Ohio State's rushers is something they're quite good at: Quick passes. Picking up five or so yards at a time, without NU's piecemeal offensive line being forced to block for extended periods of time.

But most importantly, Northwestern has to pick up yards on every first down 

This also ties into the first point: If Venric Mark is good, Northwestern will force Ohio State to play sideline-to-sideline instead of focusing on attacking the QB. If Venric Mark is good, NU can run convincing action on option plays where Kain Colter pulls the ball from Mark's chest and throws to a live passing route. He can't block Mark might be the player that helps the most when it comes to keeping pressure off the QB.

But most importantly, Northwestern has to pick up yards on every first down. Second-and-10 is a situation where Northwestern will need to drop back to throw more often than not, and that leads to NU's QB having to stand around in the pocket, and that leads to the pocket collapsing and the QB getting sacked. Make every second down manageable, and Northwestern's in good shape.

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