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Three Northwestern football questions to think about going forward

Now that we’ve completed our backward-looking bye week review analysis, it’s time to look towards the rest of Northwestern’s season. As the Wildcats enter a weekend without college football, here are three questions that will need to be addressed when they do start playing college football again. 

How will Venric Mark’s return from injury impact the offense? 

The absence of Mark could have been a huge issue for Northwestern’s offense. It effectively prevented the Wildcats from running the potent option plays they used so frequently, and so successfully, last season. Treyvon Green’s sudden emergence – starting with his breakout 15 carry, two-touchdown, 129-yard day against Cal – has eased the problem, and solid contributions from Trumpy, Stephen Buckley and Kain Colter have largely offset the production lost by Mark’s continued inability to participate.

When he returns – Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune said Mark is on track to be back for the Ohio State game – Mark will make Northwestern’s already dynamic rushing attack, which ranks fifth in the Big Ten at 5.31 yards per attempt, even better. How much better? A lot of that depends on whether the lower body ailment he’s been nursing through the first four (and change) weeks of the season saps any of the quickness and burst he showcased in 2012. But if Mark is at 100 percent, the Colter-Mark option should quickly re-introduced as a staple of the Wildcats’ offense throughout conference play. When Northwestern’s option runs smoothly, few can hope to consistently stop it. 

Is this the “same old” Northwestern secondary?

Over the past few seasons, Northwestern has developed a reputation for having a vulnerable pass defense. The Wildcats can get stops regularly, the meme goes, but when they really need to bear down in late-game situations, and prevent a critical third down conversion, the pass defense doesn’t hold up. There was optimism heading into the season about the new direction of the pass defense; not only was there promising youth (Traveon Henry, Dwight White), but also a veteran safety (Ibraheim Campbell) on his way towards becoming one of the best players at his position in the Big Ten.

It’s impossible to know how good this unit really is until the Wildcats face some of the Big Ten’s better offenses, but it did survive Cal’s high-powered attack – and in much better shape than freshman quarterback Jared Goff’s 450-yard passing day implied (7.03 yards per attempt allowed) – and has improved incrementally in the three games since, admittedly against weaker competition. The second cornerback spot remains a huge question (will it be Dwight White? Matt Harris?), and Nick VanHoose hasn’t played to his potential yet, but this defense has the potential to be better than the ones we’ve seen in recent years – opportunistic and ball-hawking (4 interceptions from DBs) if not outright stifling.

Are Northwestern’s defensive tackles reliable?

At the risk of spending too much time talking about one topic (Kevin and I have written a lot about the defensive tackles this season), it’s important to note, one last time, that the defensive tackles continue to be a weak point in Northwestern’s otherwise formidable front seven. Starting defensive ends Dean Lowry and Tyler Scott comprise one of the more formidable tandems in the Big Ten, and the linebackers – led by Damien Proby – are fast and instinctive and versatile. All of which was easy to predict before the season: defensive end and linebacker were two of Northwestern’s pronounced roster strengths, and so they remain.

We likewise knew before the season Northwestern would be thin at defensive tackle. The group has performed capably in spots, but remains inconsistent. And after watching both Western Michigan and Maine control the line of scrimmage in spurts, regularly opening up big holes, one can’t help but wonder: how will the defensive tackles play against bruising Big Ten running attacks like Wisconsin and Ohio State (ranked first and second in the conference, respectively, in rushing yards per attempt)? We will find out soon enough: starting October 5, Northwestern faces consecutive games against the Buckeyes and Badgers