Grading the Wildcats

Northwestern didn't display its prettiest effort in beating Minnesota, but it was enough to earn a key victory. PurpleWildcats hands out the grades following the game.

Quarterbacks

Well, what's the story here?

Kain Colter completed all 10 of his pass attempts and appeared to be extremely comfortable in a variety of offensive schemes. He amassed just 63 yards through the air but was a steadying influence throughout the afternoon.

Meanwhile, Trevor Siemian had an outing that made his Penn State performance look Heisman worthy. He completed one of seven attempts for four yards.

Antsy in the pocket, Siemian failed to deliver strikes to the sidelines. One incompletion can be attributed to a Colter drop, but even Siemian's mechanics seemed off.

It is easy to fault the offensive rhythm, which involved trotting out Siemian out in difficult third-down situations. Still, the sophomore needs to play well on a consistent basis.

The impact of Colter's continued emergence as a clear number one option (It's clear!) remains to be seen. Will the meltdown lead to Siemian seeing fewer snaps? How will they balance engaging wide receivers and executing zone reads?

Once considered to be a strength, the quarterback position devolved into a massive question mark.

Grade:D

Running Backs

For yet another week, Venric Mark was phenomenal, and remains in competition for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.

Northwestern leaned on Mark early, and he responded by racking up 182 yards on 20 carries. The junior criticized the game plan after the Penn State loss and proved today that he deserves a significant workload in all four quarters.

Mark can give credit to his offensive line for giving him room to work. Once he reaches the open field, though, defenders have trouble catching up. Mark gained 160 yards before halftime.

His nine second-half carries went for 22 yards, but that seems to be the product of numbers averaging out.

Seriously: This guy is the number one back and with the passing game inept of late, should earn about 25 touches per game. Easily.

Grade:A-

Wide Receivers

Can I just leave this blank to summarize my frustrations at the unrealized potential?

Entering the game, no one in this talented group averaged 40 receiving yards per contest. This afternoon, none reached 25 yards.

They block well and usually make plays. Problem is, neither quarterback will get them the ball. The common game plan squanders their talent.

This offensive thrived in week one at Syracuse, when Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones and many others hauled in pass after pass. Sure, the Minnesota secondary is a different beast. But there's no reason for these absurd stats.

Christian Jones and Tony Jones: zero catches. Fields, one. Rashad Lawrence caught four for a meager 24 yards. Nebraska won't play the pushover role as well as Minnesota did. Time to use the receivers.

Grade:C

Offensive Line

The offensive line is one of the positive stories this year for Northwestern. Some may question my assessment here. Granted, there were too many false start penalties and the unit faded late. Konopka had a tough afternoon. But these guys have come a long way.

Despite the final score, the team has little reason to project optimism after an unimpressive victory. The offensive line was one of the few strong suits. In the second quarter, Mark scampered into the end zone barely touched.

For running backs to succeed and step into the ranks of the elite (hint: Venric), they need the help of an offensive line. Top-tier center Brandon Vitabile helps the cause, but Mark has camped out behind a much-improved offensive line as a whole.

Grade:B+

Secondary

The final overall passing line for Minnesota was below average: 16-for-30, 169 yards, one interception.

That suggests a great performance from the secondary. Not the case. Daniel Jones struggled as the starter opposite Nick VanHoose. VanHoose made a pair of strong plays in the end zone, with correct reads on '50-50 balls.' Quinn Evans was poor in limited action.

MarQueis Gray is more recognized for his running capability, but found some holes in the secondary early on. Max Shortell started fairly strong, but faced a great deal of pressure down the stretch. The injured unit showed again that it lacks depth, but a matchup with Taylor Martinez next week might lead to be a better effort.

Meanwhile, Ibraheim Campbell had another excellent game. Campbell led NU with 10 tackles, and in the most memorable play of the afternoon, knocked the ‘M' off of a Minnesota ball carrier's helmet. A big hitter and major playmaker, Campbell regained his stride.

Mixed results. Not bad, not great.

Grade:B-

Linebackers

David Nwabuisi corralled a tipped ball for an interception in the second quarter, which marked a significant momentum swing. After Gray ran for a 25-yard touchdown early in the second quarter, NU sent Siemian on and this led to a typical three-and-out.

The Nwabuisi pick came on the first play of the ensuing drive. Two plays later, Mark sprinted 48 yards for a score. It qualifies as a small surprise that none of the linebackers reached the 10-tackle mark.

They did step up to slow down Donnell Kirkwood. The steady Gophers feature back gained 73 yards on the ground, but an important note: his longest carry went for 11 yards. The fact that they prevented the big play helps to explain Minnesota's low point total.

Grade:B+

Defensive Line

After the NU offense stalled late in the fourth quarter – with the team close to letting another lead slip away – the front four dominated.

Down eight, hoping to rally his team, Shortell took the field with 1:17 remaining. His first pass fell incomplete. Then, he tried to escape from Deonte Gibson, but Gibson tallied a huge sack. The ball came loose, and although Minnesota recovered it, the sack led to a third-and-23 situation. The clock ran, which gave Shortell the additional pressure of racing to the line.

On fourth and 19, the front four applied pressure and refused to let Shortell break loose. Tyler Scott picked up his second sack of the afternoon, a result of his relentless pursuit. The unit sustained its effort for the full 60 minutes despite losing the time of possession battle once again.

The Penn State game was simply a blip. NU's defensive line is a force.

Grade:A-

Special Teams

Not much to report here. Budzien never attempted a field goal. Brandon Williams averaged 37.3 yards per punt on the rainy day, dropping two inside the 20.

On The Opening kickoff, C.J. Bryant – who had basically fallen off the map – recovered a fumble. That led to an early 7-0 Cats lead.

The punt coverage broke down at the start of the fourth quarter, as it allowed Michael Carter to break free down the sidelines. That was negated by a personal foul penalty.

Grade:B

Coaches

I'm already on the record saying this: Fitzgerald or McCall needs to let Colter handle the quarterback job— by himself. Siemian showed nothing against Minnesota. He has talent, no doubt, and will almost certainly find himself with the starting job sooner or later. Now, he's laboring behind center and throwing balls without confidence or accuracy. The offense was shut out in the second half by Minnesota, which is unacceptable. The offense has not reached its potential at any point this season, or come close since the first week.

A win's a win. This one just wasn't very good. Fitzgerald will need to "coach up" his players heading into the pivotal homecoming game against Nebraska next week.

Grade: C


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