In our weekly "Who Has the Edge" feature, we look at which units have the edge in each aspect of the game. This week, it's time for Northwestern vs. Syracuse.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
The extent of Northwestern's "edge" will be determined by whether Kain Colter and Venric Mark can play. Those two add a completely different dimension to the NU offense because of their ability to run the zone read and the option. Both are day-to-day, and while they're listed as starters on the depth chart, neither of them participated in Tuesday's practice.
Trevor Siemian and Treyvon Green showed that, at times, NU can be just fine on offense without Colter and Mark, but the gameplan was far too predictable without the Wildcats' biggest playmakers. Siemian took advantage of a suspect Cal secondary early in the game and Green ran all over the Golden Bears in the first half and the fourth quarter. However, NU couldn't get much going in the third quarter, and the Wildcats struggled to convert short-yardage situations — particularly in the redzone — because of the predictability of the offense. Adding Colter and Mark into the mix makes NU much more dangerous.
However, even without its stars, the NU offense should have the upper hand. Syracuse has a solid defense — it bottled up Penn State's run game in week one and forced four turnovers. But based on what we've seen from the NU offense this year and last year, there's no reason to believe the Wildcats won't be up to the challenge. So don't expect the high-scoring affair we saw against Cal, but still expect the NU to get its yards.
When Syracuse Has the Ball
Northwestern's supposedly improved defense was certainly suspect at times against Cal. The pass defense struggled mightily in the third quarter. New cornerback Dwight White was adjusting to the game, Nick VanHoose played a little softer coverage than NU might have liked and the push from the defensive tackles waned. Of course, there were other times when the pass rush was great and the secondary was solid, making Cal quarterback Jared Goff look like a freshman, not a veteran.
However, to be a more consistent team, NU has to shore up its issues in pass defense. The defensive ends did a nice job rushing the passer — the Wildcats moved Tyler Scott inside for some three-man rush plays, too, which worked well — but the defensive tackles need to get more of a push throughout the game. That figured to be a problem heading into the season, and last Saturday certainly showed a need for improvement.
Luckily for NU, Syracuse is going to try to make its living running the ball, and the Wildcats actually did a good job against the run, save for the first drive and a couple of longer runs later in the game. NU especially did a good job of taking away perimeter runs and tackling on the outside — there were a few missed tackles from the defensive line and the defensive tackles on early runs up the middle, but that improved later in the game.
Jerome Smith is Syracuse's top running back, but the Orange will also get contributions from Prince-Tyson Gulley, he of All-Name Team fame. Those two have potential, but overall, the NU defense has more talent and more playmakers than a Syracuse offense that is still, in general, getting its feet wet.
Northwestern's special teams units were among the best in the nation last year, and while Jeff Budzien was a perfect 3-for-3 last week, there were some other concerns. The coverage unit struggled in the early going, and while it improved as the game went on, NU needs consistency there. The biggest worry was the return game. NU didn't play Venric Mark on kickoff or punt returns, and while he's listed as the starting kick returner this week — Tony Jones gets those duties on punt returns — it's unclear whether he will actually get reps in the game. Mark gives NU a major special teams advantage — Syracuse knows that all too well after his touchdown return last year — and while it's important to keep him healthy, the Wildcats' special teams will take a hit without him.
It's tough to compare special teams this early in the season. A lot has changed on coverage teams and the kickers haven't gotten into a groove. Syracuse's Ross Krautman was fine last year — not bad, not good — and he was 1-for-2 against Penn State. Budzien, on the other hand, is considered one of the top kickers in the country. That's the easiest special teams position to compare, especially without a lot of intel about glaring weaknesses or strengths in the coverage or return games, so NU seems to have an edge. If Mark plays — and he's himself — the Wildcats will get a tremendous boost.