BERKELEY, Calif. -- There seemed to be few questions about the running back depth chart heading into Northwestern’s 2013 season. Venric Mark was the lead tailback, the electric second-team All-Big Ten performer, and Mike Trumpy was his bruising complement. Redshirt freshmen backs Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley were entitled to any leftover carries.
The door appeared to be closing on junior Treyvon Green, who after an impressive freshman season – in which he rushed the ball 97 times for 362 yards, the most for a true freshman since Tyrell Sutton in 2005 – lost his place in Northwestern’s running back rotation last season. His depth chart descent began in training camp, when Green absorbed a huge hit to the chest from safety Ibraheim Campbell during an intra-squad scrimmage.
Green was slow to recover from the blow, but when he did, he didn’t have the same speed or explosiveness that made him one of Northwestern’s best running back options after a promising freshman season. He was not the same player. On Saturday night, as Northwestern pulled away late from Cal in a 44-30 victory, a new Treyvon Green emerged.
He looked reborn.
“Yeah, I think so.” Green, who rushed for a team high 129 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, said when asked if tonight’s game was the best he had felt since his freshman year.
From the first moment he touched the ball, it became clear Green was not going to fade into an ancillary role, like he did last season. Instead, Green was arguably Northwestern’s most valuable player here Saturday night. Not Venric Mark – the player most local and national observers expect to lead Northwestern in every rushing-related offensive category. Green’s big night may be attributable, at least in part, to the status of Mark, who didn’t return any punts or kicks, and was used only sporadically in the first half thanks to an unspecified medical issue. After the game, coach Pat Fitzgerald addressed why Mark may not have gotten as many touches as many had expected.
“He’s been a little dinged up here as of late and we were just trying to be really smart with him,” Fitzgerald said. “So we’ll see how things progress as things move forward.” Even Green was willing to concede Mark’s health helped launch his breakout game. “I think it’s all about opportunity. We obviously had somebody go down, so the next person had to step up. I think I just made the most of my opportunity.”
A semi-inactive Mark (his final line: 11 carries for 29 yards) put Northwestern in a precarious position. Last season, the Wildcats relied heavily on option formations involving Mark, and were expected to use many of the same packages in 2013. The option might not have worked well Saturday even if Mark was healthy; quarterback Kain Colter, the more mobile of Northwestern’s two quarterbacks, left the game after suffering an “upper-body” injury junior quarterback Trevor Siemian later said was a “concussion thing” on Northwestern’s second offensive play, a six-yard scramble.
Without the Mark-Colter option, an offensive staple from last season, Northwestern needed to adjust. Cue Green.
“Guy played his tail off,” Siemian said. Green’s 129 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries were all career highs, and the Wildcats, despite the somewhat lobsided final score, needed the junior’s ground efforts every step of the way. Green opened Northwestern’s scoring Saturday with a 33-yard touchdown run in the first quarter (which felt even more important at the time after Cal crafted a quick scoring drive to open the game), broke free for a 55-yard rush early in the fourth quarter to jumpstart the Wildcats’ game-sealing final drive, then finished said drive with a six-yard touchdown run to put NU up, 44-30.
Siemian’s passing – the junior finished 18-for-29 for 276 yards and one touchdown – was arguably just as critical to Northwestern’s season-opening win, but the Wildcats would have struggled to establish balance on offense without Green. The carries Mark, at full health, otherwise would have commanded went to Green, but a larger workload was not the sole reason for Green’s early-season star-turn.
There was also his offseason diet, which he followed for six months and caused Green to lose eight pounds, down to 207, he said. Watching Mark develop into one of the most explosive running backs in the country last season was another motivation. Slimmer, refocused and having completed a full complement of offseason workouts, Green felt refreshed. “I think it’s just a blessing for me to feel the way I feel now, so maybe I look faster, I don’t know.”
In a season where running back was expected to be one of Northwestern’s most predictable positions, the first game of the season offered a reminder of the vagaries of an inherently violent and injury-riddled sport. The Mark-Colter option was a presumed constant of all of Northwestern's 2013 offensive game plans. On Saturday night, that specific set, run by the personnel best suited to it, was scuttled by various ailments. Green seized the opportunity presented in front of him, but his performance was about so much more than receiving more touches. It was a confluence of factors – Mark and Colter's injuries, a successful offseason workout program, a diet, the tweaks made on offense to adjust for Colter’s absence – that propelled Green to the top of Northwestern’s rushing chart.
It was an unexpected development, but if Green continues to play the way he did Saturday, his role in the offense should not be diminished going forward. His resurgence will be a lasting phenomenon.
Saturday night was not a random blip from Green. It was a building block, a tangible announcement of his climb from last season’s depth chart obscurity. It was something Green can carry with him, if never quite replicate, through the rest of the season.