Football: Wildcats look to make November push after bye week


Daily file photo by Rafi Letzter

Northwestern running back Venric Mark runs in the open field against Minnesota. Mark’s usage is at a career high so far this season.

Rohan Nadkarni, Assistant Sports Editor

For Northwestern to come away with a win against Michigan ­on this weekend — at least an 11-point favorite according to many sportsbooks — its top performers will need to play best games of the season.

However, with the Wildcats historically struggling after bye weeks, and this year’s break coming late in the season, Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor could doom the Cats’ faint hopes for a Legends Division title.

Oddly, NU sports a 0-7 record in games after bye weeks under coach Pat Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, notoriously a firm believer in “stats are for losers,” brushed aside his winless record in post-bye week games, citing the difficulty of the Big Ten.

Last year, the NU bye came in week four of the season, in the midst of a five-game losing streak. This season’s break occurred during week nine, which means for some players it came at the perfect time ­– or too late.

Junior running back Venric Mark saw his playing time explode through the first nine weeks of this season compared to the rest of his career.

In 2011, Mark only had 72 touches in 13 games, for 5.54 touches per game. The majority of those plays came on kickoff returns, which accounted for 40 of the running back’s 72 touches.

Mark obliterated those numbers in nine games of 2012. Mark racked up 207 touches through the first nine weeks, for a 23 touches per game average. This season, his usage in the backfield skyrocketed, with 166 of his touches coming from rushing attempts.

The usage of Mark, listed at 5 feet 8 inches and 175 pounds begs the question of whether or not he will be fresh for the last three games or if the off week is too little, too late.

“We have a plan for a lot of our veteran guys,” Fitzgerald said at his Monday press conference. “We look at how much they’ve played, how many reps they’ve had. And that’s not just Venric, it’s across the board. We have a plan for all those guys.”

To his credit, Mark has yet to show signs of wear and tear, continually putting up strong performances every week.

Other players to watch include the offensive and defensive linemen. The Cats have been fortunate to avoid major injuries on the lines aside from true freshman Ifaedi Odenigbo.

Fitzgerald’s rotations along the defensive line have aided that unit’s health, with standouts such as senior Quentin Williams and junior Tyler Scott often spelled by redshirt sophomores Chance Carter and Sean McEvilly.

Even then, the bye week gave the defensive line a much-needed respite from the grind of the season’s first nine games.

“(The bye week) has really been huge,” Williams said. “For a lot of our guys who’ve been out there in the trenches, we’ve had a week here to get our legs back. There are definitely some guys who are more banged up and really appreciate the time off.”

Ultimately, it will take more than just good health for NU to erase the zero in their bye week record during Fitzgerald’s tenure. But with such a late bye week for the Cats, it will be interesting to see if they have enough left in the tank to make noise during the month the program has deemed the most important.

“People remember what you do in November,” Williams said. “I think this bye week will help with that.”