No one expected this to happen. Almost overnight, the Northwestern offense evolved into a run-oriented attack.
After years of passing under Dan Persa, the Wildcats looked to continue that trend, beginning at Syracuse. Both Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian threw the ball efficiently, which made it look as though NU had two viable options at quarterback.
Then everything spun out of control. Against Indiana, the Cats cruised to a 5-0 record. It appeared glossy: they put up more than 700 yards of offense with Siemian primarily handling the position.
Penn State exposed the flaws of this system. Siemian struggled, and then struggled again in the loss to Nebraska. After showing serious promise in The Opening five games, Siemian needs to rediscover his confidence.
The passing numbers are ugly. The Cats – who boast a traditionally excellent passing attack – average 162.3 yards through the air. In the past four weeks, they have about 102 yards per contest.
Although the passing game basically disappeared from the NU repertoire, Colter has still found success running the option. It is imperative to take this into account when grading the unit. While imperfect, NU looks to have a promising close to the season on the heels of Colter, who has 622 rushing yards this year.
The biggest surprise of the NU season: Venric Mark. Perhaps he qualifies as the biggest surprise in the Big Ten.
The undersized Mark continues to improve his game on what seems like a week-to-week basis. After running the ball with confidence to the outside in the opening couple of weeks, he has pounded the ball between the tackles lately. However he does it, the results have been shocking. In just the ninth game of the season, he became the team's first 1000-yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.
Even Mike Trumpy contributed, against Boston College in particular. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall has looked to balance their workloads. Trumpy and Mark could provide an interesting chance of pace in future contests.
Out of nowhere, Mark emerged as an elite running back. Raise your hand if you saw that one coming.
No NU receiver averages three catches per game. No NU receiver averages 40 yards per game. No NU receiver has hauled in more than two touchdown passes.
Of course, these alarming statistics signify a couple of things. One, the passing game is not the same as it was in previous years. Much of the fault lies with the team's offensive minds, which have failed to jumpstart the passing attack this year.
Part of the problem lies in the lack of execution. No individual has emerged as a legitimate number one option. Demetrius Fields played the part at Syracuse but is plagued by inconsistency. Christian Jones is a big-play threat and Rashad Lawrence is a solid possession guy. That's about it.
Still, the pieces have yet to come together for a unit projected to be one of the strongest base teams for the Cats. It's a combination of factors, but fans should expect much, much more.
Two first-year starters? Time for panic? Chuck Porcelli and Jack Konopka began the season as major question marks. Despite the stabilizing presence of three experienced players in Brandon Vitabile, Brian Mulroe and Patrick Ward, this group could easily have struggled.
But the improvement has been noticeable. After tiring down the stretch in some early-season games, their durability appears much improved – as does their performance.
Vitabile ranks among the top centers in the Big Ten. Neal Deiters broke out as a starter and played well in recent contests. Konopka is easing into the new position after starting his career as a superback.
Offensive line coach Adam Cushing deserves recognition for this unit's hard-nosed play. That discipline and strength has translated to a revitalized running game.
As a whole, the secondary is tough to grade. They delivered some duds, and the narrow win against Syracuse did not conceal the disastrous performance from this group.
Martinez torched the NU secondary, finding open receivers. Much of the passable play from corners has been aided by poor play from opposing quarterbacks.
In terms of safety play, Ibraheim Campbell continues to emerge as one of the top weapons for NU. After a series of quiet performances, Campbell dominated at Penn State and was equally impressive against Nebraska. Jared Carpenter makes surprisingly little impact alongside him.
There are bright spots to this unit looking forward. This season's group could have been a lot worse.
David Nwabuisi deserves the attention. The redshirt senior has witnessed his work paying off, including an 18-tackle performance against Iowa. Nwabuisi, one of the most physical players on the team, anchors an extremely strong unit.
Despite cooling off in recent weeks, Chi Chi Ariguzo was a crucial playmaker in the early season. He helped spur the team to several victories with his defensive awareness. Though his play in pass coverage leaves something to be desired, Ariguzo is an excellent piece with two years of eligibility remaining.
Damien Proby holds the team lead with 86 tackles, no doubt an impressive tally at this point of the season. Even Drew Smith appears ready to take on a starter's role next year. Overall, the linebackers are the primary reasons as to why this defense has seen general improvement from last season.
As a whole, the defensive line was uneven in the first nine weeks. The unit dominated in wins over Vanderbilt and Iowa, but struggled in the two losses. The Minnesota performance also looked ugly at times – with Donnell Kirkwood and MarQueis Gray breaking out on several occasions.
The Iowa game assuaged some of the concerns, as the front four dominated the line of scrimmage. This base team has produced some of the finest and weakest outings for NU this season.
No one punts to Venric Mark much anymore. His breakout performance in the opening week was a result of his exhilarating returns. Since then, not much to report on that front.
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