The Dan Persa Era gave way to Kain Colter on Saturday. Even with the offensive line in shambles, Colter managed to deliver a steady performance, which is perhaps exactly what the coaching staff wanted.
After watching Colter last year, fans had to enter the season thinking that much of the Wildcats' hope was predicated on their junior quarterback's decision making. In that area, he thrived. When Colter scrambled for extra yards, he slid to avoid unnecessary contact. When receivers downfield struggled to gain space, he checked down.
By the Wildcats' offensive standards, 135 passing yards seems a modest performance. But with smooth, accurate throws – the touchdown toss to Christian Jones stands out – Colter handled the reins with great success. Even as the lead withered away, most of the collapse can be attributed to thedefense.
Then came the shoulder pain, and in the final stretch, Trevor Siemian took the field with the Cats down 41-35.
Siemian was phenomenal. The Cats never faced a third down until they reached the Syracuse 27-yard line. They would have faced a fourth down had Siemian not drawn a personal foul penalty on the sidelines. One play later, he made a pinpoint throw to Demetrius Fields for the game-winning touchdown.
There will certainly be questions about the quarterback situation in the coming weeks. But with two guys capable of starting, that's not a bad problem to have.
Midway through the first quarter, the Venric Mark experiment appeared a disaster. His first two carries went for minus-one yard. On the third NU drive, he dropped an easy first down pass.
While his special teams play was another story, Mark recovered to proveto be an asset in the backfield, tallying 84 yards in only 14 carries.Add to that his early 21-yard touchdown catch, and Mark makes a case for being player of the game.
Mark, however, lacks the size to successfully run between the tackles. In that department, Mike Trumpy – who has five inches and 35 pounds on Mark – was supposed to fill the void.
Trumpy, though, had a minimal workload, with just two yards on four carries. Treyvon Green, who recently suffered from concussion problems, ran for only eight yards but figures to play a larger role in the coming weeks.
Overall, the Cats had a poor 3.1 yards per carry. With a couple of big plays from Mark and help from the oft-scrambling Colter, it was enough. Don't expect that to be the case next week.
In a talented group of receivers, Demetrius Fields emerged as the number one option. With 83 yards and another game-winning touchdown, the senior added to his impressive career.
Lost in much of the postgame discussion was Christian Jones, who put together a strong first half. His size (6-3, 225)led to matchup problems for the Orange secondary.
NU figured to have one of the deepest receiving corps in the conference. In that area, progress needs to be made. Rashad Lawrence was unspectacular, hauling in only two passes. Kyle Prater, who may be the most hyped fifth receiver in NCAA history, matched that total.
Those complaints may qualify asnitpicking. The Cats threw 32 passes - fewer than half as many as Syracuse did - and with more targets the receiving corps could be downright scary. Tonight, Fields was the man. Next week, it could be anyone else.
It could have been worse. Colter usually re-entered the huddle unscathed, and they did improve as the game progressed. But this unit needs work, and whether that can be fixed by changing starters remains to be seen.
The less-mobile Siemian might not have survived the first quarter. In the early going, the line missed several assignments. Colter, who is comfortable on the move, was flushed from the pocket regularly.
Few expected this offensive line to be NU's strong suit. Oddly enough, Fitzgerald often chose inside run plays, usually with limited success.After a timeout, on fourth and two, down six early, Fitzgerald sent Trumpy on the field for an easy conversion. Not so much. Loss of one.
There were some strong moments. They opened a crease for Mark on his biggest run of the day, a 32-yard scamper right up the middle of the field.
First-time starters Chuck Porcelli and Jack Konopka faced a steep learning curve, as the Carrier Dome environment often grew raucous. Both quarterbacks took hits and were dropped a total of five times.
There was promise and NU boasts a solid center in Brandon Vitabile. Offensive line coach Adam Cushing, though, might need some time to make this unit better than passable.
One word: disaster.
Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz must have been on cloud nine when the Cats seized a 35-13 lead. No NU coach faced more questions over the offseason, and for two and a half quarters, the defense appeared ready to put 2011 behind it.
There was reason for optimism. Nick VanHoose, the redshirt freshman, held his receivers in check for most of the game. Even without making big plays, elite safety Ibraheim Campbell delivered on his potential, making 13 tackles.
After falling behind by 22, Syracuse and senior quarterback Ryan Nassib rallied to score four consecutive touchdowns. Nassib threw for 470 yards, 311 of which came in the second half, as the secondary unraveled. Well, what happened?
Nassib deserves a great deal of credit. He was facing a Big Ten defense and played a smart game. The first of four second-half touchdown drives comprisedseveral short passes and wise decisions from the quarterback. On the next three, he showcased his ability to throw the deep ball.
Demetrius Dugar had a miserable game. The fifth-year senior was whistled for three penalties downfield, and at other junctures he played timidly. When Quinn Evans took the field, perhaps with a chance to seize the starting cornerback position that Dugar currently occupies, Nassib torched him with a 50-yard heave to Jeremiah Kobena. Even Davion Fleming, who played well in the first half opposite Campbell, regressed and was beaten on several occasions.
This plans to be a long week for Hankwitz, and another opportunity for every player listed as a "CB" to leave an impression on the practice field.
A defensive line loaded with potential played a role in aiding Nassib's field day. The opposing quarterback, who faced steady pressure in the first half, was left with ample time to make decisions down the stretch. One sack against Syracuse was certainly not whatthe line hoped for.
If the Orange had been close throughout, their running game would likely have played a larger role. When Prince-Tyson Gulley and Jerome Smith carried the ball in the first half, the offensive line gave them room to work. The Orange used Gulley, who was a stabbing victim last July, with great success. The sophomore back ran seven times for 50 yards and added seven catches for 46 yards.
Hankwitz focused on coverage, sometimes rushing only three, so it may be difficult to lay too much blame on the defensive line. Tyler Scott was the highlight of the bunch, posting an impressive performance with five tackles, including a sack.
When a team allows 41 points, it's just tough to give the defensive line any credit.
Maybe Chi Chi Ariguzo deserves some love. The sophomore scooped up a deflected pass and took it back 49 yards, leading to a Mark touchdown. Later, on the most bizarre play of the afternoon, Nassib threw a swing pass to Smith. Smith dropped the ball, and the throw was ruled a lateral. Despite the lack of whistle, the Orange thought the play was ruled dead. Meanwhile, Ariguzo picked up the ball and took it back 33 yards.
Replays clearly showed Nassib's throw traveled backwards, and the heads-upplay swung the momentum in Northwestern's favor. Ariguzo, in a game with 83 total points, was one of the few bright spots, and inarguably put forth the finest defensive performance.
Senior David Nwabuisi also impressed. An excellent talent, Nwabuisi recovered a fumble. Junior Damien Proby led all linebackers with 10 tackles, showing a nose for the ball. The number wasn't pretty, but the real problems were flying over the linebacker's heads.
In this frenetic game, the first quarter became a distant memory. On NU's first possession, a botched snap on a punt gave Syracuse prime field position. Later, a muffed kickoff return found the Cats pinned at their own 6-yard line.
Thankfully for the Cats, there's this guy named Venric Mark. Mark seems effortless returning punts. It appeared as though he hardly broke a sweat en route to an 82-yard touchdown return that put NU on the board. On his next return later in the half, he went for 52 more yards until finally being brought down.
Jonathan Fisher averaged 52 yards per punt. Venric Mark averaged 67 yards per return.
Jeff Budzien, a weekly question mark at the kicking position, went untested.
On Saturday, Mark served as the catalyst, and his performanceoutweighed the minor special teams issues.
Anytime a team blows a 22-point lead and salvages a win due in part to a questionable call, the coaching staff has to take heat.
Pat Fitzgerald, the play caller, hadmixed results. Colter flourished in five-receiver sets and Fitzgerald's use of Mark out of the backfield was inspired. Then there were several surprises, like the carry by Trumpy on fourth down.
NU tends to take its foot off the pedalwhen it gets a lead. That was the story of 2011, and it could well become the story of 2012. Few question Fitzgerald's coaching ability, but with blown leads adding up, the "Cardiac Cats" refrain is a tired act.
A win's a win? Mike Hankwitz may not sleep this week. With questions still swirling around the entire defense after a weak performance, Vanderbilt will test Hankwitz and his unit.
NU, in the end, beat an unimpressive Syracuse squad by one point. It may have been the worst win in Fitzgerald's coaching career.
For the 2012 Wildcats, gaining national respect starts in Evanston next week. They have their work cut out for them.