Commentary: 2012 Mid-Season Report Card
by Jonathan Hodges

It's hard 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.

While 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.

Quarterbacks: B
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.
It's 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.
The 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 difference.

Wide Receivers: C+
125 receptions for 1,189 yards; 4 TD.
With 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 expectations.

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).
I'm 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).
Overall, 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).
While 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).

Linebackers: B+
5.0 tackles for loss/game (90th/10th)
Through 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).

Secondary: C-
Pass Efficiency Defense 124.71 (54th/9th); 289.5 yards/game (109th/12th); 2 INTs.
Well, 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)
While 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.

Placekicking: A
23/23 XPs, 12/12 FGs (44 yard long)
Northwestern 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 Brandon Williams.

Returns: B
27.4 yds/punt return (3rd/1st); 15.1 yds/kick return (117th/12th)
If 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 Mark.

Punts/Kickoffs/Coverage: B-
39.4 net yds/punt (29th/2nd); 3.1 return yds/punt (19th/2nd); 22.0 return yds/kick (76th/8th)
Thanks 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.

The '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 work.

: B
Many 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 the stretch.

Game of the First Half: Northwestern 44 - Indiana 29
Yes, 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
Given 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
There 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.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.