Football: Breaking down Northwestern’s success on ground


Meghan White/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern running back Venric Mark eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards on the season in the second quarter against Iowa on Saturday. The Wildcats went on to defeat the Hawkeyes 28-17.

Rohan Nadkarni, Assistant Sports Editor

It’s possible that Northwestern’s offensive linemen are truly good people at heart — just don’t ask the Iowa defense.

The Wildcats and their five men in the trenches — tackles Jack Konopka and Patrick Ward, guards Neal Deiters and Brian Mulroe and center Brandon Vitabile — mauled the Hawkeyes’ front seven Saturday, owning the point of attack with much help from the backs and receivers.

The success along the line of scrimmage opened up running lanes on nearly every single one of NU’s 49 rushing attempts, leading to 349 yards at 7.1 yards per carry average. The offense’s success came on a variety of plays.

During the Cats’ first drive, junior quarterback Kain Colter escaped the pocket for two large runs, one for 18 yards and another for 20.

“He’s dynamic, an explosive athlete who can do a lot of things and do them well,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Colter. “I think every time he touches the football he has a chance to make a big play happen.”

On the first of the two big plays, a third and six, Colter stood in the pocket while Iowa brought a linebacker and safety on a blitz.

The line immediately reacted to the blitz, with Deiters sliding over to grab a defensive tackle, leaving the linebacker for Vitabile. Junior running back Venric Mark took out the blitzing safety’s legs, allowing Colter to run up the middle untouched. A down field block by junior receiver Rashad Lawrence opened up more yards.

On a similar play later in the drive, this time on a designed run, Colter found room running up the middle again. Junior running back Mike Trumpy placed a key block on a linebacker in the second level, allowing his quarterback to scamper up the field.

NU’s first touchdown also came on a running play.

Colter lined up in the shotgun with senior running back Tyris Jones to his right and Mark on his left. Colter snapped the ball, faked a handoff to Jones and began running left. Jones ran into the line, picking up a defensive tackle, allowing Mulroe to hit a linebacker on the second level. As Colter ran left, Mark occupied the weak-side linebacker, opening up a wide-open lane for the touchdown.

“We’re running the ball well and that’s a key to victory,” Colter said. “When you can dominate the line of scrimmage and control the clock that’s always a good thing. We also have unselfish receivers on the outside who might not be catching passes but they’re blocking and helping us out.”

 The Cats also proved they could run without spreading out the defense. Their longest play of the game, a 72-yard run by Mark, came with the offense backed up on their own one-yard line.

NU lined up in a big formation with two tight ends and junior superback Tim Riley motioning to the fullback spot, offset to the right. Sophomore receiver Christian Jones split out to the right.

Even in an obvious run formation, the offensive line held its ground, opening up a crease in the middle. Jones engaged the cornerback guarding him, allowing Mark to burst through the first wave of defenders. Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, their deep safety and other cornerback took poor angles toward the ball, allowing Mark to run for 72 yards before being chased down.

Colter’s running score later in that drive benefited from having both him and Mark in the backfield.

The Cats combined their spread play with their big look on the second touchdown. They again used two tight ends, two backs and one receiver. But this time, Colter lined up in the pistol with Mark behind him and Riley to the right. Christian Jones motioned from wide left to up next to the left tight end.

The play started with Deiters pulling to the right and hitting a linebacker on the second level, and Riley also picking up a block on the outside. Colter and Mark ran right, setting up an option for Colter. The Hawkeyes picked up Mark, allowing Colter to scoot in for the easy score.

“It’s really just chemistry,” Mark said of the option play. “Coach (Matt) MacPherson is always teaching us that on those handoffs you don’t clamp down on the ball, you have to treat it like you would treat a lady — nice, calm you know? I think that’s what makes it work so well.”

All of those plays came in the first half, but NU would continue their domination throughout the game.

Ultimately, the running success came down to a variety of formations, a textbook display of blocking by the offense and having Colter in the backfield, something the Cats lacked in the past three weeks.