Grading the Wildcats

Northwestern earned an important victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes at Ryan Field on Saturday. PurpleWildcats hands out the grades following the win.

Quarterbacks

Kain Colter returned Saturday, and it was pretty.

Colter ran all over Iowa, showcasing his athleticism with three rushing touchdowns.

Even after a costly first-quarter interception, Colter hurled an impressive 47-yard touchdown throw to Christian Jones.

The performance raised a number of "what-ifs?" Would Northwestern have moved the ball with more success against Nebraska while featuring Colter? Probably, but this win looked good.

All Colter really needed was nine passing attempts to establish himself as a dual-threat. He connected with Demetrius Fields on a clever play in the third quarter. Fields went in motion to the right, and then ran a clean route to the far left side of the field. Colter made the throw, and that directly preceded the Jones touchdown.

One concern: Colter was shaky running the option at times – at least from a decision-making perspective. With turnovers an issue for the Wildcats this week, expect ball security to be a focus heading into Michigan.

But it was so fitting for Colter to break free and seal the game in the closing seconds. On the day: 26 carries, 166 yards, three touchdowns. This is a different and more impressive team with Colter involved.

I'm sure Pat Fitzgerald wants his teams to at least reach the 100-yard mark through the air. That being said, he'll take the win and the great game from Colter.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Venric Mark is that much better with Colter in the backfield. Mark went over the 1000-yard mark by the early stages of the second quarter, making him the first NU back since Tyrell Sutton to accomplish the feat.

One of his very few blemishes: on a critical 72-yard run early on, Iowa corner Micah Hyde caught him from behind. Virtually everyone was surprised.

Other than that, it was another memorable night for Mark, who gained 162 yards on 16 carries – 10.1 per carry.

Even Mike Trumpy provided a spark, going for 17 and 11 yards on his only two carries of the night. Meanwhile, Tyris Jones blocked a punt. This unit has been solid all season long.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers

This team certainly owns the weapons to succeed in the passing game. After spending much of the game observing receiver play, I noticed the openings are there. And the formations to bolster the passing game exist.

The best example came on the Christian Jones touchdown. With three receivers lined up out right, Jones gained separation down the field. Without safety help from Iowa, Colter tossed a perfect ball to his 6'3" receiver for an important six points.

With Colter and Mark in the backfield – and of course, the team winning – this bunch simply has to accept a minimized role. It all boils down to execution, and when they had the opportunities, the receivers made plays.

Also, their blocking was mostly excellent.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Brandon Vitabile is usually phenomenal. It shocked me to see several errant snaps, especially in good conditions. Up 28-10, with the Cats driving, Vitabile delivered a high snap to Colter and the Hawkeyes were able to recover the fumble.

Still, in both the run and pass games, NU won the battle up front. They opened up holes for Mark and Colter, ran the option seamlessly and were not flagged often.

After a couple of down weeks, Jack Konopka was solid up front. Neal Deiters continues to play well in a starting role.

They play by the "all five, all day" mantra, and kept up their stamina for a full 60 minutes. This unit has graded out well practically all season long, and nothing changed this week.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Look, James Vandenberg was lousy. After a 25-touchdown season in 2011, Vandenberg appears to have lost his confidence. He missed passes badly, underthrowing several receivers on hook routes and overthrowing balls to the sideline. Although he put together a strong start to the game, Vandenberg cooled off and lost his rhythm.

But we can also give credit to a worn-down secondary that limited Vandenberg to 5.63 yards per attempt. Each of the cornerbacks played well at points and struggled at others. Demetrius Dugar, Daniel Jones and C.J. Bryant all made strong plays and faded at other times.

With the loss of Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans for this week, this could have been ugly. It wasn't. Most important: Vandenberg's long completion went for just 19 yards. Part of that can be attributed to his inconsistent play, but the secondary did more than enough to keep receivers in check.

And, of course, Ibraheim Campbell excelled for the fourth consecutive week. He was sensational and continues to watch his draft stock rise for future years. The guy is a true talent.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

I'm big on the idea that statistics hardly tell the story. In some cases, though, they do. David Nwabuisi had a ridiculous 18 tackles Saturday. He was everywhere, and he rarely missed. The senior has been excellent all season, improving on past seasons with newfound consistency.

The vocal senior leader had help from Damien Proby, who struggled at times to contain Taylor Martinez last week. Proby recovered with 12 tackles in another strong performance from the linebackers.

The run defense was far from perfect, though. After Mark Weisman left the game with an injury, sophomore Damon Bullock picked up the slack with 107 yards on 22 carries. Still, as Campbell would point out, runners barely reached the second level.

Long run of the day: nine yards. Hankwitz and his staff must have a strategy: avoid giving up big plays. It's working.

Side note: Walking out of Nicolet after the postgame press conference, Nwabuisi was talking to a friend or family member. The man looked at the stat sheet and said: "Holy shoot. Ain't no way… Eigh-teen tackles?"

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The front four took full advantage of a banged-up offensive line. They simply dominated.

Tyler Scott, Deonte Gibson and Brian Arnfelt all collected sacks. Arnfelt was particularly good. It was a performance reminiscent of the Vanderbilt game.

The three sacks fail to tell the whole story. Vandenberg was on the run for the majority of Saturday. His line wilted under immense pressure.

There isn't much else to say. After regressing somewhat from week two to week eight, the line returned with a major statement on Saturday. If that carries over to Ann Arbor, then Denard Robinson had better watch out.

Grade: A

Special Teams

Tyris Jones blocked a punt after the first Iowa drive of the second half. It forever changed the momentum of the game, as the Cats quickly scored to take a 21-3 lead. That was the most memorable special teams moment.

Otherwise, the offense executed well, which limited the kicking game. Brandon Williams only punted twice – as opposed to 12 last week.

Colter performed admirably in the red zone and Budzien never had to attempt a field goal.

Grades: A-

Coaches

Fitzgerald had his team prepared for Iowa. The team jumped out to a 28-3 lead and finally showed off an improved offensive game plan.

This was NU's best win of the season. They outplayed the Hawkeyes, forced them into several mistakes. Aside from some bad turnovers, there were few flaws.

Today, Jerry Brown deserves a pat on the back. Talk about "coaching up" players. Bryant, Dugar and Jones held strong at corner.

McCall earned the win as well. He adjusted the strategy to include Colter and watched it pay off.

At 7-2, with the all-important conference record at 3-2, the Cats can earn their signature win at Michigan two weeks from now. They could use the extra week of preparation.

Grades: A-


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