Balancing the backs

Treyvon Green and Venric Mark would benefit from a shared workload this weekend, writes Steven Goldstein.

After his star running back was shelved for five weeks with an unspecified lower-body injury, I figured that Pat Fitzgerald would kick off his Monday press conference by finally unveiling Venric Mark's practice regimen. Instead, he said the same three words that have left Northwestern's fans and beat writers looking for answers: "day-to-day."

Damn. It almost seems like month-to-month at this point. It just hasn't been a cause for concern until now.

Saying the Wildcats need Venric Mark for Saturday is an understatement and an overstatement at the same time. Paradoxically, the Cats certainly need their most explosive playmaker and All-American. But at the same time, Northwestern hasn't needed Venric Mark thus far, and regardless of the opponents, it's tough to argue against Treyvon Green's seven yards per carry and six total touchdowns. Like Mark, Green's used his small frame to get low off the line, and like Mark, he's been able to bust off game-changing runs past the second level.

In reality, balancing Venric Mark and Treyvon Green is essential to Northwestern earning an upset. A more pro-style running back, Green should be used to start the game, where he can run between the guards and keep Ohio State's front seven boxed closer together. It opens the edge for the read-option, it introduces a physical element the Buckeyes may not expect to face right away, and it's what the offensive line--which has gelled through the first month of the season--has gotten used to.

Green generally runs straight upfield, and even if that's not as imaginative as what Mark or Kain Colter are able to do, it means a lot against a pro-style defense that ranks third in the nation in third down conversion rate and is allowing a measly 2.84 yards per carry. More significantly, the Buckeyes rank eighth in the FBS in PPP, a statistic that measures explosiveness and yards per play. Don't expect many home runs Saturday.

Green's also better in picking up the blitz, and it's reasonable to expect OSU's defense to come out aggressive and set the tone on the game's opening drives. When things wear on, and Green's made the Buckeye D stay at home, that's when Mark can be most effective and versatile.

But without Mark, Green can't be expected to have the same success. Ohio State has some of the best linebackers in the Big Ten, and Mike Trumpy is too strategically similar to confuse them. Even if Mark is used as a decoy, he opens up the field, either in the option, at tailback or split out wide. And using Mark forces Ohio State to game plan differently, while Fitzgerald and the Wildcats are already scrapping any ideas to contain Kenny Guiton.

"Whenever you have no. 5 back there, it makes my job a lot easier," Kain Colter said Monday. "When I can pitch the ball to Venric or get it to him in the flat, he's going to make a guy miss and get some yards."

A mix of Mark and Green will accentuate both of their skill sets at the right time, and it'll keep the vaunted Buckeyes defense respecting the ground game from more than just the outside.

But for now, Mark's involvement remains shrouded in mystery. Though he's listed as the sole starter for the first time since week one (my idea to start Green will probably be ignored), Fitz tends to dodge questions regarding his status.

"If Venric has a good week, we'll have him at some capacity this weekend," he said. "We'll see how the week goes."

As if this week could get any bigger.

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