Football: Wildcats rely on Mark, running game for blowout win over South Dakota


Rafi Letzter/The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald (center) celebrates as wide receiver Doug Diedrick is brought down for the final Wildcat pass of the game in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats had 408 yards of total offense throughout the game.

Rohan Nadkarni, Reporter

South Dakota can take solace in the fact that it lost to possibly the fastest-rising team in the Big Ten.

Northwestern (4-0) maintained its unblemished record Saturday by defeating its first opponent outside of a BCS conference. With their 38-7 win over the  Coyotes, the Wildcats remain the most accomplished team in the Big Ten after the first four weeks of the season.

“At some point in all of our young men’s lives, they dreamed of playing Big Ten football,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “At some point, they realized that they were good enough to have that opportunity. This is the reason while we’re all here.”

The Cats took control of the game in the first half, racing out to a 28-point lead after the first 30 minutes. Junior running back Venric Mark continued his torrid pace on the ground, gaining 97 yards on 14 carries for three touchdowns in the first half alone.  Mark finished the game with 120 yards on 16 carries.

Mark’s running mates in the backfield added two more touchdowns, giving the team five rushing scores, its highest total since a win over Towson on Sept. 5, 2009.  As a team, the Cats ran 53 times for 277 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per carry.

“We just came in with a lot of energy,” Mark said. “(Running backs) coach (Matt) McPherson, he’s a great coach. He got us ready for the game. I  was just really pumped up. The O-line did a heck of a job blocking.”

The only adversity NU faced in the first half came because of injury. In the first quarter, Kain Colter left the game after taking a punishing hit at the end of a long run, injuring his left wrist in the process. Trevor Siemian entered the game for the junior, but the redshirt sophomore went down later in the contest after absorbing a big hit on a third-down blitz that nearly turned into an interception.

However, both Colter and Siemian returned to action without any apparent lingering effects.

The quarterback duo ultimately combined for 118 yards on 11-14 passing, acting as a sidekick to the Cats’ ground game. Colter also added 38  yards rushing.

“In football, if you can dominate the running game, you have a great chance of winning,” Colter said. “Would I like to throw a bunch of touchdowns passes with the receivers catching a bunch of touchdown passes? Yeah, but right now the running game is working for us, so we’re going to stick to that.”

Wide receiver Tony Jones emerged as the favorite target of the two quarterbacks. The redshirt sophomore led the wide outs with four catches for 63 yards, including an impressive 42-yard catch and run.

Coyotes quarterback Josh Vander Maten played admirably, running nine times for 38 yards and his team’s only touchdown, often scrambling away from  persistent pressure by NU’s defensive line.

However, Vander Maten’s inaccuracy while throwing deep took away from his effort on a day the NU secondary did not look particularly dominant. The defense noticeably struggled on screen plays aimed at South Dakota receivers and allowed the Coyotes to notch five first downs on their 12 third-down plays.

But the Cats’ defense ultimately offered its third straight impressive performance of the season, holding the Coyotes to only seven points, after allowing 13 in each of the last two weeks.  The defensive line only recorded one sack but frequently generated hurries and ruined the timing of South Dakota’s passing attack.

NU also showed a marked improvement in the red zone after kicking five field goals last week against Boston College. The Cats scored on all  five of their opportunities when within 20 yards of the end zone, but this week their first four trips resulted in touchdowns.

Special teams also continued to impress for NU. Redshirt senior Steve Flaherty knocked home the team’s only field-goal attempt, a week after the team went five-for-five on kicks. Junior Brandon Williams averaged well over 50 yards on his punts, including an impressive 61-yarder that rolled to a dead stop all the way to the one-yard line.

The Coyotes significantly hurt their effort by committing a sizable amount of penalties. The first-year Missouri Valley Conference squad committed eight penalties for 62 yards in the Cats’ big first half alone.

The win wraps up non-conference play for NU, sending them into Big Ten play with an undefeated record. The Cats first opponent in league-play will be Indiana at home next Saturday.