Commentary: 2012 Mid-Season Report Card
by Jonathan Hodges
to believe that the Wildcats are already half way through the 2012
regular season, sitting at 5-1 (1-1). While they ended on a sour note
by dropping that game at Penn State in which they led by double digits
going into the fourth quarter, Northwestern slightly exceeded
expectations by sweeping a non-conference slate that included three BCS
conference opponents and achieving a national ranking in both major
polls after starting 5-0.
there are certainly issues to correct, NU has shown flashes of great
play in all phases of the game: holding two consecutive BCS conference
opponents to 13 or fewer points (wins over Vanderbilt and Boston
College) on defense, racking up a school record 704 yards of total
offense (in a win over Indiana), and hitting every XP and FG attempt
while also excelling in the return game (two punt returns for TD by
Venric Mark). NU still controls its own destiny in the Legends Division
race and is currently looking at a chance to make a higher profile bowl
thanks to a hot start and a slumping conference.
Now, let's break things down by unit and phase. Rankings are national/Big Ten when applicable.
66.1% completion rate; 6.3 yds/att; 9.5 yds/cmp; 4 TD: 2 INT; 198.2 yds/game (95th/9th); 124.03 pass efficiency (86th/9th).
67 carries for 476 yards (7.1 yds/car) after removing sacks, 7 rushing TDs.
tough to rate the QBs together since they present different skillsets
(Trevor Siemian as the primarily passing QB and Kain Colter as the
primarily read option running QB) and also contribute different
statistics (Siemian has thrown 120 passes this season to only 68 for
Colter, though their completion rates are very close at 65.8 and 66.2,
respectively). Overall, they have done a decent job, but have had
issues hitting receivers in key situations (early against Vanderbilt,
in the red zone against BC, and all game against PSU). It's hard to
dismiss such a high completion rate and five wins, though, as they did
lead the offense to production when it mattered the majority of the
time (comeback wins against Syracuse and Vandy during the first two
weeks). Room for improvement, but then again not horrible (though it's
tough filling in for the all-time Div. I career completion rate leader).
Running Backs: A-
200 carries for 977 yards (4.9 yds/car), 9 rushing TDs; 162.8 yds/game.
running backs have had a much better performance than in recent
seasons, with the primary ballcarrier finally being someone other than
a quarterback (Venric Mark), who is averaging over 100 yards per game
by himself (101.7). Although Colter still gets a good share of rushes,
Mark and Mike Trumpy have taken on a good share (58.7% of the team's
rush attempts this season, not counting sacks). Three different RBs
have rushes of 25+ yards this season, something that didn't happen at
NU for a long span of games between 2008 and 2010. The only issue here
is play calling: will these guys get enough carries to make a
Wide Receivers: C+
125 receptions for 1,189 yards; 4 TD.
the expectations for this unit flying high, they have underwhelmed for
much of the year. There have been drops (including at least a couple in
the end zone), holding calls, and guys just not getting open. Hyped
transfer Kyle Prater has been conspicuously absent, tallying just 6
catches for 37 yards on the year. Colter has had one of the highest
profile performances after nabbing 9 catches for 131 yards against
Indiana. Yes, a lot is due to either play selection or quarterbacks not
delivering great throws, but this unit gets a downgrade based on high
Offensive Line/Superbacks: A-
11 sacks allowed for -67 yards (1.8/game, 65th/8th); 5.4 yds/car after removing sacks, 233.5 rush yds/game (14th/3rd).
including the superbacks with the OL this season since, with the
departure of Drake Dunsmore, this is primarily a blocking role (SBs
have combined for 6 receptions for 44 yards on the year). All in all,
these guys have had a great year, especially after I have been riding
them for subpar pass blocking for most of the last three seasons.
They've paved the way for a really solid rushing attack that is among
the best in the nation while also limiting opposing pressure on the QB,
and are improving in that aspect as well (allowing just one sack over
the past two games/71 pass attempts). Patrick Ward seems to be
flourishing at left tackle, while the right side has shored up nicely
after a rough start with Neil Deiters taking over at right guard and
Jack Konopka settling into place. These guys deserve some credit.
432.5 yds/game (43rd/3rd), 32.8 points/game (44th/4th).
they've done the job in all but one game (PSU) despite some rough
patches early in games against Vanderbilt and BC. The run game is doing
extremely well while the passing game is typically solid enough (again,
except for one game). The offensive line has come along nicely, while
the wide receivers have disappointed a bit. The biggest question moving
forward is play calling: how to keep good rhythm and the offense moving
between Siemian and Colter while using their different skillsets.
Defensive Line: B-
10 sacks for -63 yards (1.67/game, 79th/8th); 3.9 yds/car after removing sacks, 102.7 rush yds/game (15th/2nd).
the DL has done a great job containing the running game (NU is on pace
to set a record low in rush yards allowed per game), they have left a
lot to be desired in the pass rush, as they are rarely able to bring
down the quarterback. This was especially evident in this past game
where they tallied just two sacks despite touching the QB many more
times. In order to help the secondary, this unit needs to generate
pressure and needs to do so without blitzing often (something that NU
resorted to against PSU which NU was burned by).
5.0 tackles for loss/game (90th/10th)
six games, the top three tacklers for the Wildcats are the three
starting linebackers: Damien Proby (53), Chi Chi Ariguzo (51), and
David Nwabuisi (46). This is a very welcomed development after NU has
had a safety at or near the top over most of the last few seasons. The
solid performance against the run can be credited to these guys as
well. They have good closing speed and have generally tackled well;
minus one game (PSU, during which many units had issues). Based on
their ability to take down the ballcarrier and plug holes they get a
lot of credit, although they have had issues getting to the QB on
blitzes (they account for just 2 sacks on the year) and have also had
issues against the short passing game (which teams like Vanderbilt and
PSU used to carve up yards).
Pass Efficiency Defense 124.71 (54th/9th); 289.5 yards/game (109th/12th); 2 INTs.
they are better than at this point last season (at which time I gave
them an F). Nick VanHoose has established himself as a solid DB. Quinn
Evans has solidified a starting spot on the other side. And Ibraheim
Campbell has become indispensable (NU's breakdowns against Indiana came
after he left due to injury). But they are by no means stellar, having
to give large cushions at the snap in order to prevent getting beat
deep while still getting called for way too many penalties on passes.
NU is dead last in pass yardage allowed in the conference. Some of this
is due to the lack of a good pass rush along with NU's ability to
stonewall the run, but at least there is some improvement here.
392.2 yards/game (66th/11th); 23.7 points/game (49th/8th)
not exactly locking teams down, the defense carried NU in two games
(Vandy and BC) and has done a great job against the run (again, NU is
on pace to set a school record in that regard). Yes, they've had issues
at times (second halves of games in particular: against Syracuse,
Indiana, and PSU) but have also been the reason NU stayed in and won a
couple of contests. Again, some room for improvement, but they're
better than a season ago.
23/23 XPs, 12/12 FGs (44 yard long)
is perfect on the year in the kicking game. Not much else to say here.
Credit goes to kicker Jeff Budzien, snapper Pat Hickey, and holder
27.4 yds/punt return (3rd/1st); 15.1 yds/kick return (117th/12th)
this was based on punt returns alone, it would be a solid A with Venric
Mark taking two to the house already. Unfortunately, kick returns have
been lackluster, likely because of the offseason changes that result in
the ball traveling into the end zone. NU has been tentative at times in
taking it out and hasn't had the best blocking. That results in a bit
of a downgrade, although overall the return game is dangerous thanks to
39.4 net yds/punt (29th/2nd); 3.1 return yds/punt (19th/2nd); 22.0 return yds/kick (76th/8th)
to more consistent punting from Brandon Williams and great coverage on
those punts, this should be a pretty solid grade. Unfortunately, the
kickoff coverage team had issues against Indiana including allowing a
return for TD, so they get downgraded. Fitz promised to shake things up
and NU saw some improvement against PSU, but NU will have to solidify
things on kickoffs in order to keep the coverage teams performing well
as they have under Fitz's tenure.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
'Cats have won some games thanks to special teams (BC comes to mind),
and the Wildcats are taking care of business in placekicking (perfect!)
and on both sides of punts. Unfortunately both kickoff teams need some
would have the staff graded lower thanks to the last game of the first
half, but overall they put NU a little ahead of where they should be
considering the relative youth and challenging non-conference
opponents. NU was ranked in both polls for the first time since 2008,
and as mentioned earlier the Wildcats are in position to make some
noise in the second half of the season. Some units have seen
significant improvement this season: offensive line, running backs,
placekicking, linebackers. Others have had respectable gains: punting,
secondary. Overall, what really matters is how this team performs down
Game of the First Half: Northwestern 44 - Indiana 29
there were some defensive breakdowns in the second half, but the NU
offense put on a show racking up a school record of 704 yards with NU
doing whatever it wanted on the ground. Mark and Colter racked up yards
while some other RBs even got in on the action.
Surprise of the First Half: Rush Defense
some issues NU has had with the run defense starting at the 2010
Wrigley game against Illinois, it's hard to believe that this unit has
now corrected that and more and is on pace to set a school record while
also ranking 2nd in the conference.
Impact Underclassman: CB Nick VanHoose
are a few options here, like true freshman DE Nick Lowry, redshirt
freshman DT Sean McEvilly, SB Dan Vitale, but VanHoose has had the
biggest impact as he's developed into NU's best cornerback in his first
season on the field as a redshirt freshman.
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