The Northwestern Wildcats sit at 7-2 heading into their well deserved bye week and are now at a crossroads of their season. While they blew two games they should have won to the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, things are still looking up in Evanston. The Wildcats haven’t had that “dud” game we’ve seen in years past and they actually won two games on the road to teams that should makes bowls in the Syracuse Orange and the Minnesota Golden Gophers. However, that doesn’t mean you should be drinking the purple kool aid just yet.
As has been the case the last several years, Northwestern’s secondary has been a hot mess. New starter Nick VanHoose has been a major find for head coach Pat Fitzgerald. He has excellent ball skills and reaction time. Meanwhile, safety Ibraheim Campbell has continued his strong play from his freshman year. He’s a force against the run and teams generally don’t throw to his side thanks to his solid recovery speed.
The other side of the field though is where the issues come front and center. Stanford Cardinal transfer Quinn Evans has shown why he didn’t play much there besides on special teams. Sure he was injured but he just isn’t that good one on one. He’s slow and doesn’t anticipate the ball well in the air. However, he has been a nice asset against the run although that got him put on the injured list recently. Daniel Jones was “baptized by fire” last year and hasn’t shown any great strides. He is athletic though and if he can improve his technique I don’t see why he can’t be a contributor going forward. Demetrius Dugar has been hurt quite a bit and while he makes a pass breakup every once in a while, he’s very inconsistent.
Offensively, where has the pass game gone? Offensive coordinator Mick McCall has shown he loves to switch quarterbacks. It’s almost a game at this point for fans to guess which guy is coming in next. Trevor Siemian showed flashes early including that key win in relief of Kain Colter against Syracuse. His ability to master the no huddle despite few game reps was impressive. However, his accuracy and lack of poise against the blitz has been alarming. To me, he just needs more game action but unfortunately for him I doubt it comes this year. The Wildcats have found the offense that works for them. Colter’s running ability is able to offset his lack of arm strength and Northwestern is now basically an option team. While it didn’t work much against Nebraska, the majority of the schedule it has been successful when given a chance to work.
I had to pin down one major factor though in the lack of an aerial attack it has been the receivers. Besides perhaps Christian Jones, the Wildcats receivers have underwhelmed as a group. Demetrius Fields has not been that go-to possession guy we expected during the preseason, Kyle Prater has done virtually nothing and looks out of shape, while Rashad Lawrence can’t get any separation one on one. The quarterbacks need someone to throw to after all.
I’m not just a “debbie downer” though. The emergence of Venric Mark has been incredible for this offense. The small size, big heart back has been a thorn in the side of many defensive coordinators across the Big Ten. He is a legitimate threat to score every time he has the ball. It’s probably been 15 years since Northwestern fans could pinpoint a player that could do that. Also, the offensive line has been pretty darn good despite a lot of shuffling from last year. Brandon Vitabile is going to get a lot of hype for the Rimington Trophy next year. Just watch.
And I couldn’t end this column without giving a lot of love to special teams. Jeff Budzien has been a godsend to Northwestern fans. He’s actually given the coaching staff a kicker they can trust. Brandon Williams, the former walk on, is an excellent net punter who knows his limitations. Count yourself as one of the few if you thought this would be a strength for the 2012 team.
Northwestern might not win the Big Ten Legends division but plenty of goals are ahead of them. Win out and you are certainly looking at a Florida bowl game during a great time slot. Whatever bowl you go to though, just win the damn thing and get the monkey off your back once and for all.