Northwestern flashing big play ability

Seventeen plays of 20-plus yards, ten of them through the air. The Northwestern offense looks like one trying to redefine itself on the spot, writes Nick Medline.

The words "zone read" invoke images of quick and efficient football. When Kain Colter and Venric Mark run their standard play, they chip away at defenses, creating substitution problems and forcing opponents into poor decisions. It can result in big gains, but usually leads to victory through attrition.

This offseason, fans and analysts cried for more "vertical passing." That would stretch out defenses, sure, and more importantly lead to the elusive big plays. This offense thrived last season on its run-heavy attack–taking 62 percent of plays to the ground–and that worked. Still, if the quarterbacks made slight improvements and Mick McCall created an excellent game plan, we figured this would add another dimension. Two-for-two here, 30-for-37 on the field.

The Syracuse defensive backs generally sucked. We get that. But it's not like Northwestern consistently flexed its muscle through the air last season. More often than not, it seemed like a late-game weakness instead of another weapon. In just two games, Colter and (especially) Trevor Siemian created some scary game film for even the Ohio State defensive backs. These minor developments have majorly influenced my perception of the team.

Because aside from the Daniel Jones injury (granted, a huge aside), I couldn't be more impressed with the first two games. NU overcame setbacks in Berkeley to steal a tough win sans blueprint. I'm never a fan of overused sayings, much less "Cardiac Cats," but regardless, they cruised past Syracuse with a different-looking attack than what we've been exposed to.

The game notes are nice to stare at; the team of sports information directors includes a page with 20-plus yard plays. They're at 17 (not counting interceptions or kickoff returns), which doubles what I would have guessed. Ten of these have been through the air, providing the perfect indication of an offseason well spent.

I agree with Pat Fitzgerald, who claimed this week that Tony Jones has played at an All-Big Ten level. This sudden change, though, does appear important for reasons other than an individual. McCall has used Tony Jones well, giving the speedy receiver space to operate. But look down the depth chart and there are plenty of options. Christian Jones posted two quieter but strong outings, as he's capable of doing. Rashad Lawrence will see increased targets in future weeks. Heck, even Kyle Prater showed a pulse, tying his career high with three grabs. There are great receivers, and now, there are great quarterbacks.

A good throw is a good throw. Siemian-to-Tony Jones in week one barely had precedent. They kept coming. Siemian and Colter have picked up confidence–and deservedly so–in the early going. If anyone told me that NU would rank 14th in passing yardage at any one point of this season, I'd laugh.

We might watch this group revert to the older style, breaking teams down with versatile athletes and the occasional throw. From here, however, it looks as though there's been a significant shift. On Saturday, with contributions from nearly every single weapon (wait until Venric returns), the offense reached the potential we've been waiting for.

So I'm confident. It could be baseless or presumptuous. But maybe, just maybe, we're watching the long ball–of all things–transform this team into something greater.


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