It's hard to take all that much from a game against a bad MAC team, but there were certainly some warning signs and some bright spots in Northwestern's 38-17 win over Western Michigan. Let's take a look...
Treyvon Green's transformation
Treyvon Green's return to the stage has been nothing short of remarkable. Green played right away as a true freshman in 2011 and had a coming out party of sorts against Eastern Illinois early in that year. However, he slowly faded away the rest of the season. That spring, Green was arguably the team's best performer and looked prime to take on a bigger role in the offense. However, the Wildcats discovered Venric Mark, preferring to go with a smaller, more agile running back. Green suffered an injury on a big hit in fall camp last year that sent him to the hospital and he also had to deal with family issues. That, couple with the fact that he didn't seem to fit in NU's offense anymore, made it seem likely he would be stuck at the bottom of the depth chart for the remainder of his career — this spring, it looked like Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones had passed him up.
Crazy how things change. With Mark out, Green has become NU's go-to running back and he'll likely earn player of the game honors for his performance this week — 20 carries for 158 yards and 2 touchdowns. He's slimmed down and is noticeably more explosive than he was in his first two years. That's the biggest difference — he fits the offense now. Don't expect a running back controversy when Mark comes back — Mark will be the starter. However, there will continue to be a role for Green in the offense if he continues to play like he has. Despite everything he went through, he changed his body and his skill set to fit NU's offense and now he's reaping the rewards. You've got to respect that.
Offensive line struggles
Last week, Northwestern passed the ball all over Syracuse, picking apart the Orange's blitz. Trevor Siemian had a great game finding wide open receivers and the offensive line did a great job giving him enough time to throw. When asked what he thought about seeing a team blitz so much, offensive coordinator Mick McCall said he loved it. Fast forward to the first half this Saturday and NU looked like it was completely lost against the blitz. But it wasn't just that — the offensive line was getting completely dominated, in general, not just against the blitz. That can't happen against a MAC team, since the biggest gap in talent between Big Ten and MAC teams is usually on the lines.
To Kain Colter, the issue, it seemed, was play-calling, and that very well may be. He said he and the offensive line agreed that they were trying to be "too cute" early on and needed to run more inside zone. That worked, as NU grabbed the lead an never looked back en route to ending up with two 100-yard rushers in Colter and Treyvon Green.
Eventually, the line settled down and dominated Western Michigan like a Big Ten team should. Overall, the line has performed well this year, so this criticism may seem a little harsh. However, NU's line can't afford to start the Ohio State game like it started this one. With a young offensive line, it's all about consistency, and Saturday's performance wasn't as consistent as it should have been.
Matt Harris' introduction to college football was, well, not how he hoped it would go. Pat Fitzgerald announced prior to the Cal game that Harris would be the first freshman to burn his redshirt. On the opening kickoff against Cal, Harris was the first one down the field in kick coverage and he got absolutely rocked trying to make the tackle. He ended up not coming back that game.
Two weeks later, Harris did a little bit better on the opening kickoff, this time from the receiving end. He returned the ball all the way to the WMU 45 yard line, and it could have been further had he not stepped out — Fitzgerald is unconvinced that he stepped out. He's a speedy player — he claims he runs a 4.35 40-yard dash — who has the potential to be an important player on kick returns in Venric Marks' absence. Heck, WMU refused to kick to him after his opening return. Harris also had a very impressive pass break-up at corner. Could he see more time there with Dwight White and Nick VanHoose struggling? Time will tell. However, if Saturday's game is any indication, Harris certainly seems to have a bright future at NU.
- So why did Fitzgerald decide to burn Warren Long's redshirt? "He's a good player." Does it have anything to do with Mark not being able to play? "Absolutely not." Succinct. Long gained 13 yards on his first college carry, by the way.
- Kain Colter took a lot of big hits toward the end of the game, particularly when the issue was no longer in doubt. Fitzgerald has said over the past year that Colter needs to take fewer of those hits, but he admitted after Saturday's game that it's sort of a lost cause to try to get Colter to change his style now. Colter was asked if he ever worries about this dangerous plays. His response: "Mmm... no."
- Will any other freshmen burn redshirts? Fitz: "Even if I (knew) I wouldn't tell you." There isn't really a need for anyone else to, but Fitz said there are some "flight deck" guys who potentially could. So we'll see.