You can’t ever take your foot off the gas especially in Big Ten conference play. The Northwestern Wildcats nearly found that out the hard way after nearly choking away a 27-0 lead against the Indiana Hoosiers. One of the constant critcisms against head coach Pat Fitzgerald is that his teams get too conservative with a nice lead. We saw that against the Syracuse Orange in the opener and Northwestern needed a late comeback to win that one. Today, the Hoosiers got it within 8 but Northwestern wouldn’t reliquish the lead any further and is now a perfect 5-0. With that let’s get right to the quick hits.
THE FAB FIVE
Kain Colter: What can you say! He is the best athlete on this team and that was clearly on display today. The Hoosiers defense completely sold out to the running back on nearly every “read option” and that let Colter run free. Perhaps the Northwestern coaching staff finally realizes Colter has a place on the field regardless of if he’s behind center. He has tremendous “short quickness” in the slot that allows him to get a step on the defender. It completely befuddled Indiana and they kept rotating between base personnel and a “strong nickel” package (nickle with a safety defending slot) to counter that. I wouldn’t mind Colter under center in certain red zone packages but his long term spot is at wide receiver.
Trevor Siemian: He was solid all day long but I found a few things that concern me down the raod. First, he has an issue staring down his receivers from the presnap phase and that allowed the Hoosiers d-line and secondary to break up a few of his throws. Working in a simple pump fake would do wonders and allow another window to open for him to throw into. There were plenty of positives though. He was excellent against blitz pressure both up the middle and off the edge. He also showed some solid pocket mobility although the Wildcats might want to can the option looks with him under center. He’s more likely to fumble than do anything positive on the ground.
Northwestern’s running game: Venric Mark was solid and showed his strength inside getting behind his blockers. However, he continues to have fumble issues since he doesn’t know when to go down. Sometimes, it’s ok to avoid a hit and just take what is there. His late fumble nearly cost Northwestern dearly. His counterpart Mike Trumpy showed some surprising edge speed and I like him closing out games late when the opposing defense is worn down.
Northwestern’s secondary: Indiana’s game plan was clear early. They were going to take deep shots, a lot of them, and it worked eventually but it was too late in the end. The constant inability to shutdown the big play is going to catch up to the Wildcats pretty quickly. For some reason, Northwestern’s DBs don’t know how to turn their head when the ball is in the air. Defensive backs coach Jerry Brown has been a legend at Northwestern ever since his time as a player but it might be time to let him go. Scheme wise they were fine (playing a lot of Cover 4, designed to take away deep ball) and Indiana deserves credit for making some phenomenal over the shoulder grabs. However, this is the Big Ten and you have got to show some basic understanding of secondary play which Northwestern just hasn’t so far.
Jeff Budzien: When’s the last time Northwestern had a good, reliable kicker? Sam Valenzisi from the Rose Bowl days comes to mind but either way it has been a while. It appears they finally won’t have to answer that question much longer. Budzien has been a wonder and is nearly automatic under 50 yards. There’s a fair argument to be made that if he kicked like this during his first two years of eligibility, the Wildcats might have already broken their dubious bowl losing streak. He’s 11 for 11 on the year after today’s game.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS: Northwestern will probably be ranked when the polls come out tomorrow. Personally, it’s probably a little bit early. They’ve only gone on the road once and didn’t exactly battle the goliaths of college football. Probably only one team they’ve played has a legit shot at a bowl in Syracuse, perhaps the Boston College Eagles, but you’ve got to list 25 teams by rule. The Wildcats take on a resurgent Penn State Nittany Lions team next Saturday in Happy Valley. Going into a big road game with expectations will be something new for this team. If they win, feel free to go all in and believe these ‘Cats are for real.