Football: Northwestern running game propels Homecoming victory over Iowa
October 27, 2012
For a team without an identity in the middle of the week, Northwestern found something that works for it.
The Wildcats (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) ran the ball 49 times for 349 yards and got past Iowa (4-4, 2-2) 28-17 on Saturday. It was a return to the formula that was working for NU early in the season and slipped away from the Cats as in recent weeks.
“We went back and kind of evaluated things that we were doing very well,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We felt like if we could control the line of scrimmage today we'd give ourselves a great opportunity to win the game. Some of the things that we've done well have had (junior) Kain (Colter) there at quarterback and so we made some decisions to kind of focus on that and, for the most part, it worked out pretty efficiently today.”
The Cats’ offense was predicated on the explosive tandem of junior running back Venric Mark and Colter running the football. Mark got 16 carries for 162 yards, but Colter stole the show with his 26 attempts for 166 yards and three scores. The junior took a majority of the snaps at quarterback as the offense revolved around the read option that he and Mark run so effectively.
The key to NU’s success on the ground was the offensive line, which got a great push for most of the game. Mark said the Iowa defensive line did not rush as many linemen on the running plays, allowing a physical Cats’ offensive line to dominate in the trenches. Colter added that the offensive line has played well the entire season.
“They're really focused on their fundamentals,” Colter said. “That's a lot about what run blocking is. They battled their butts off today. ... They did a great job today and I feel like that's where it all starts, with the offensive line. They don't always get the credit they deserve.
Mark entered the contest less than 100 yards short of the 1,000-yard plateau and with a three-yard gain in the second quarter, eclipsed that mark. He became the first NU player since Tyrell Sutton in 2006 to run for at least 1,000 yards in a season. The junior said it was a tremendous honor to get to the milestone but was adamant about finishing the season strong.
“I'm excited,” Mark said. “I'm not overly excited we still have more games to play.”
The offensive game plan put a decreased emphasis on passing, just a week after NU threw the ball 37 times. On Saturday, the Cats only threw 10 passes, completing seven of them for 84 yards. Most of the passes were shorter routes, but Colter did fire down the field twice, getting intercepted on his first attempt and hitting sophomore receiver Christian Jones for a 47-yard touchdown on the second throw.
“It was great (to throw the ball),” Colter said. “Especially that passing touchdown that we had, that took a little bit off my shoulders, because we were able to get back to throwing the ball again.”
Where the Cats succeeded, the Hawkeyes struggled, only picking up 122 yards on 40 rushes. NU did an excellent job swarming to Iowa running back Mark Weisman, limiting him to 21 yards on nine carries. NU linebacker David Nwabuisi led all players with 18 tackles.
The Cats also put great pressure on Hawkeyes quarterback James Vandenberg, sacking him three times and hurrying him on several other occasions. Vandenberg's three sacks of give NU 19 sacks in nine games this season, which is already two more than the Cats had all of last year. Fitzgerald said the defensive line's positive attitude is paying off this season.
“It seemed like we were having a party in the backfield all day,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what the guys talk about — there’s a party at the quarterback and everyone’s invited.”
The win sends NU into the bye week with a guaranteed winning record. Fitzgerald said this week comes at a opportune time and will help NU refuel for the final stretch of three crucial conference match-ups. However, senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt cautioned a week without a game won’t be all about relaxation for the Cats.
“We’re going to be practicing, it’s not like we’re going to be on the couch eating potato chips,” Arnfelt said. “This team’s really going to embrace the fact that we’re going to improve this upcoming week.”