Northwestern Takeaways: Wildcats Are Legends Division Favorites
1. Northwestern Is The Favorite To Win The Legends Division Of The Big Ten
It might seem strange to say after a loss, but the Wildcats were impressive on Saturday night. So impressive, in fact, that they should be considered the favorites to win the Legends Division over the likes of Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska. I'd bet on a rematch with Ohio State if gambling on sports wasn’t ill-advised. (Did anyone see that ridiculous OSU cover? I know Vegas and Brent Musburger did.)
The offense is explosive and they were a couple of missed red zone opportunities short of winning that game. One adjustment coach Mick McCall should make: Kain Colter should take over at quarterback in the red zone. He caught a TD as a wide receiver early in the game, but he is more effective running alongside Venric Mark inside the 20.
Trevor Siemian competed admirably, but he simply is not a serious running threat. In the red zone you need versatility. With that tactical adjustment, I don’t see any team stopping the NU offense.
NU won’t see a better offense than Ohio State’s this season. Carlos Hyde is a beast of a running back and he wore down the 'Cats all night. But even though the Wildcats don’t have the best defense, I was encouraged by the fact they stopped the deep ball all night long, something I did not think they could do. Also, Dwight White had a fine game, he was considered the weak point of the defensive backfield. He showed up on Saturday. The main positive for the “D” is how they continue to force turnovers. That is a winning formula.
One last item of note, Mark should be returning kicks. They finally put him out there for the last kickoff the game. He should remain there for the rest of the season. With those adjustments and the fact that they won’t see a better offense than the Buckeyes the remainder of the year, there is no reason NU should not win the Legends Division of the Big Ten. That would most likely set up a rematch with Ohio State, which would become the new biggest game in program history.
2. Northwestern Fans Made Noise
This is no small point. Ohio State covered about half the stadium with red, but their fans were no match for the loudness of the Wildcats faithful. That was the loudest Ryan Field has been in the Fitzgerald era and it was something to behold. Northwestern’s marketing slogan of “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” often gets mocked, especially when teams like OSU bring so many fans to Ryan Field. But the intensity on Saturday of the NU fans was a big step forward for the program. There’s a long way to go in the fan base department. Saturday’s performance from the purple-clad people in the bleachers (there are no seats at Ryan Field) was a good start.
3. Venric Mark Is More Physical Than I Thought
He’s the best player on the Wildcats and it’s not even close. The man runs people over and is SEC fast. The speed part is well known, but I don’t think enough people appreciate Mark's toughness as a runner. He has something to say to the defender who tackles him almost every time. Mark is everything you want in a football player. The fact that he is clearly 100 percent makes Northwestern’s already-good offense even better. McCall should work him into as many packages as possible. It’s his senior year and he’s already missed almost four games.
4. The Wait Continues For Northwestern Fans
They are so, so, SO close to breaking through it’s unbelievable. Last night almost gave NU fans the moment for which they've been waiting, but the wait continues. This is the first time NU has even competed with Ohio State in the Fitz era, as the Buckeyes blew them out the first three times (2006-08). But it wasn’t just competing with the Buckeyes, it was the fact they lined up and went toe-to-toe with Urban Meyer’s squad. The fact that Meyer felt the need to try a fake punt in this game says it all.
But Ohio State won, Northwestern lost. So now what? As I said above, the Legends Division title not only is in play but should be expected. Dealing with high expectations is the next step for the program. Anything less than a trip to the Big Ten title game will be considered a disappointment this season. This is no longer the little program that is a nice story. This is a serious football team that should be able to handle serious goals.
5. Toughest Test Remaining Is Next
Beating Wisconsin in Madison may be the toughest test any team faces in any given year on their schedule. NU needs to be concerned about their run defense, but Wisconsin’s running game is more straight-forward than Ohio State since the Badgers don't feature a running quarterback with Heisman hype. It will be a stiff test, but after Saturday night, I feel about 100 times better about the Wildcats’ chances in Madison than I did before the OSU game. Then again, if NU loses, they’ll have to win out to avoid a trip to the Buffalo Wild Wings bowl or something of its ilk.