Northwestern entered Saturday with a sort of quarterback controversy. In week one, Kain Colter led several scoring drives before his shoulder injury gave Trevor Siemian an opportunity to earn the comeback victory.
Colter, for the most part, struggled to move the ball against Vanderbilt Pat Fitzgerald opened the game with an offense centered on the option. Colter was able to gain space on the outside and ran for a pair of early first downs.
Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, however, proved his worth on the opposing sidelines. Shoop made the necessary adjustments to clamp down on Colter. Taking advantage of an inconsistent Wildcat offensive line, Vandy tried to force the dual threat into completing passes.
The accuracy Colter displayed in the season opener felt like a distant memory. Granted, the starter avoided throwing interceptions, but he overthrew several intended receivers. When the Commodores contained the option, the NU offense stalled completely.
For Colter critics, the script played out as expected. Facing a superior secondary, he turned into a one-dimensional threat, only capable of making plays with his feet. On the night, the sophomore completed seven of 15 throws for a miserable 42 yards.
He did manage 66 rushing yards, 29 on a game-sealing touchdown run. Still, doubts regarding Colter's ability to lead the NU offense will likely creep onto the practice field this week.
Siemian was far from perfect in relief, but gave the Cats another come-from-behind win. His 34-yard sideline heave to Rashad Lawrence was the best throw of the night by either team, and helped to set up the Budzien game-winning kick.
While Fitzgerald indicated Colter would start again next weekend, the junior failed to adequately utilize his talented receiving corps. Given his comfort in spreading the ball, Siemian should at the very least see an expanded role.
Most of the pregame attention surrounded Vanderbilt tailback Zac Stacy, who was expected to outshine Venric Mark. That was not the case, and the Cats may have found a permanent solution at running back.
In just his second backfield start, Mark played like a veteran. The junior excelled in the option look, demonstrating strong chemistry with Colter.
Despite his lack of size, he also showed an ability to break tackles.
With the Cats down 10-6 in the fourth quarter, the game had devolved into a battle of field position.
Neither offense moved the ball with any semblance of rhythm. Both teams were in desperate need of a playmaker, and Venric Mark was the first to meet the task with a 14-yard burst. Had Mark's foot not touched the sideline, he would have raced for a touchdown. Later that drive, he did.
It no longer seems appropriate to reduce Mark's performance to keywords. "Dynamic," "electric," and "speedy" stand out. You know what? Mark just ran for 123 yards and a score against a good SEC defense. He can play all three downs, and looked no weaker between the tackles than Mike Trumpy or Treyvon Green. (For the record, Trumpy and Green combined for six carries and eight yards.)
Mark will likely see his production fall off against more physical defenses, but with 205 rushing yards in two games, he is far more than a return man. He gave the Wildcats their answer.
Make no mistake: the Vandy secondary is excellent. Cornerbacks Kenny Ladler and Trey Wilson were two of the many Commodores who shut down the potent NU receiving corps. They did, though, receive some assistance from dreaded dropped passes.
Tony Jones, looking for a breakout season, disappointed in the first half. The sophomore failed to haul in a pair of catchable balls from Colter, and stumbled to a three-catch, 13-yard outing.
The lone significant catch came in the fourth quarter, when Rashad Lawrence broke away from the secondary for a 34-yard gain. The problem was, the pass was very close to being ruled incomplete, as Lawrence barely possessed the ball before it was jarred loose by a Vanderbilt safety.
Kyle Prater put forth a solid night, catching three balls in a limited role. Otherwise, the wide receiver performance was poor, as the unit did little to help its quarterbacks settle into the game.
The Wildcats opened with a strong rushing attack, propelled by steady line play. Executing the option often leads to missed blocking assignments, but the NU front was steady in the early going. Chuck Porcelli and Jack Konopka appeared to be more focused than they were in the Carrier Dome.
When the initial wave of option calls subsided, the line began to struggle. Colter received minimal protection on dropback passes, and was forced to rush several throws. Statistically speaking, though, the line showed marked improvement. They allowed only one sack, which seemed to be Colter's fault, and opened up several holes for Mark in his 123-yard night.
It's been mentioned on several occasions that the line was expected to be the weakest component of the Cats offense. That may be true, but with a talented center in Brandon Vitabile and a knack for slowing down the pass rush late in ballgames, it's hard to pick on this unit.
On the second play from scrimmage, Nick VanHoose sustained what looked to be a nasty lower back injury.
Suddenly, NU's only decent week one corner left the game— for good. Vandy quarterback Jordan Rodgers and his sidekick Jordan Matthews marched to an easy touchdown drive, and Northwestern fans let out a collective sigh. Long night ahead, right?
Vandy, for some reason, went away from its downfield attack. Perhaps the Commodores hoped to establish the running game with Zac Stacy. That failed miserably, and gave the NU secondary a great deal of confidence.
The Commodores gained 232 yards in the first half, but scored only 10 points after their drives continued to stall. In terms of yardage, the Cats had a mediocre first half on the defensive end.
The Cats opened the second half with an extended drive that led to a 37-yard Jeff Budzien field goal. Vandy took over, hoping to regain momentum, and looked to be succeeding when Rodgers began the drive with consecutive first-down throws. Then he struggled to connect with Jordan Matthews, his primary target, who caught only one pass in the second half.
While the linebackers helped to facilitate Rodgers' struggles, Demetrius Dugar and Quinn Evans had excellent second-half performances. After a terrible outing in week one, Dugar recovered to play with confidence. Evans was picked on initially, until he too managed to settle in.
Rodgers finished with an unspectacular 217 passing yards, averaging 6.58 yards per pass attempt. The secondary avoided giving up a big play, and played well when defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz needed it the most.
Which linebacker had the best game? How deep is this unit?
Chi Chi Ariguzo, fresh off a superb outing against Syracuse, delivered another gem. The sophomore was relentless in the run game, amassing 10 tackles (three for loss) and he added a sack.
David Nwabuisi had a strong performance in pass coverage and racked up six tackles. He recovered a Rodgers fumble late in the first half, and the Vandy offense never recovered.
Damien Proby continued his strong play at middle linebacker. Even without a big play, Proby made his presence felt in the passing game and helped to keep Zac Stacy in check.
To hold a potent Vanderbilt offense to 13 points is no small feat. This one required alert play from NU linebackers in both the running and passing games. The three starters stood tall.
The most important play of the game, I would argue, came near the end of the first half. Looking to cap a dominant first half, Vandy stormed to the NU 19-yard line hoping to seize a two-score advantage.
Rodgers tucked the ball away and sprinted up the middle for eight yards. As he went to the turf, defensive end Quentin Williams jarred the ball loose. Nwabuisi recovered, and NU went to the locker room in striking distance. The play completely changed the tone of the game, and the Cats front four played to its potential throughout.
Down 16-13, the Commodores had an opportunity to drive down the field with 2:01 remaining.
It took one play for Tyler Scott to snuff out Vandy's hopes. Scott broke through the line to sack Rodgers and force a fumble.
Freshman and highly touted prospect Dean Lowry corralled the loose ball, and the Cats celebrated.
Stacy found little room between the tackles and Rodgers felt consistent pressure. Add the critical plays, and Marty Long's crew dominated the battle up front.
After an inconsistent first year as starting kicker, junior Jeff Budzien passed his initial test of 2012. Budzien, who did not attempt a field goal in the opener, nailed all three of his attempts. The furthest came from 40 yards out, but regardless, Budzien certainly put Fitzgerald at ease– especially considering it was a tight ballgame.
Punter Brandon Williams had a busy night, particularly with the stagnant second-half offense. Williams had one short kick and a few fortunate bounces. Still, he managed to show off his strong leg, averaging 41.5 yards on six punts.
When Vanderbilt punted, the strategy was clear: prevent Venric Mark from returning the ball. The Commodores succeeded in doing just that.
Even without a designated special teams coach, NU has overall been sharp in the department during the first two weeks.
Take a bow, Mike Hankwitz. After facing doubters all week, his defense was dealt another blow with the loss of Nick VanHoose. Vanderbilt faced little trouble on their opening touchdown drive, and everything was lined up for another brutal defensive performance.
Credit the overall game plan for the resurgence. Hankwitz focused on slowing down Zac Stacy, which took a great deal of faith in his embattled secondary. In turn, Evans and Dugar elevated their play, combining to slow down Jordan Matthews. Stacy gained only 36 yards on 13 carries. After Rodgers broke containment in the first half, Hankwitz and his staff made adjustments to bring additional pressure. It was a superb coaching job from Hankwitz, and against a lousy Boston College offense, he has the potential for consecutive sharp weeks.
Pat Fitzgerald the play caller is an enigma. The head coach continues to drive home the idea that he has confidence in both quarterbacks. Watching the game, you wouldn't know it. As the offense struggled in the third quarter, he dialed up oddly conservative plays. The Vandy secondary presented a formidable challenge, but still, NU cannot count on its defense to control the opponent every week.
Aside from that, there is precious little to criticize. As several Big Ten foes struggled due to lack of focus, the Cats arrived in Evanston mentally prepared. Beating Vanderbilt qualifies as a good non-conference victory. With several winnable games upcoming, Fitzgerald and the Cats have the ability and firepower to garner national attention.