EVANSTON, IL - SEPTEMBER 8: Venric Mark #5 of the Northwestern Wildcats celebrates after a 7-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Ryan Field on September 8, 2012 in Evanston, Illinois. Northwestern won 23-13. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
In our second of two BC-Northwestern football previews, we swapped notes with the Northwestern blog Lake The Posts. Our questions and LTP's answers below. In exchange, we answered some questions on Eagles football over at Lake The Posts. Be sure to stop by and say hello.
BC Interruption: When I was at the BC-Miami opener, I checked the score of the Northwestern game against Syracuse only to find that the 'Cats were comfortably up by 22 points early in the second half. Next thing I knew, Syracuse scored FOUR unanswered TDs to momentarily take the lead in the fourth quarter. What happened in the third quarter that led the Orange to score 28 unanswered?
Lake The Posts: Uh, yeah, about that. Northwestern fans will tell you that is our program's magnetic pull towards this Cardiac ‘Cats moniker - a seemingly greater force, that regardless of point disparity finds nearly every game we play coming down to a final possession. A pragmatist will confess it was a fifth-year QB, Ryan Nassib, finding his groove, and picking on one of our CBs - Demetrius Dugar. We had 4-5 secondary penalties in the second half, including a hat-trick on Dugar (2 PIs, 1 hold) and a back-up CB who tripped leaving a receiver open for a wide open 50-yard TD. It became pretty painful to watch. Our DL played terrible and couldn't get any pass rush and Nassib got to the point where he could just chuck a bomb and know, regardless if the ball got stuck in the ceiling of that 95-degree hell-hole of a stadium, a yellow hankie would rain down.
Fitz has only 14 double-digit wins of his 37 FBS victories (42 total wins at NU in 7 years, but 5 are vs FCS). Think about that. Yes, we win the overwhelming majority of games that are 7 points or less (as you know, see: 2011), but our inability to really step on a team's throat when we are in that position has been an issue for some time. Give Nassib credit, the guy has improved a bunch, and we had one member of our secondary who had started a season's worth of games - sophomore S Ibraheim Campbell. The play of our secondary had our fan base freaking out against Vandy, but we'll get to that in a bit.
Fitz attributed part of the letdown to the atmosphere. The combination of the sweltering heat in the dome and the noise were something. It was the classic mojo swing where you couldn't seem to stop it. Thankfully, Syracuse seemed to think they had the game won when they scored with 2:44 to go, but ‘Cats fans knew we'd get one more Cardiac ‘Cat shot. I will tell you that Syracuse taking USC to the 4th quarter, down 5 and putting up nearly 500 yards on USC made us feel a lot better.
BCI: Northwestern and BC are not traditionally known for skill players in the return game, yet here we are two weeks in and NU leads the nation in punt returns while the Eagles are ranked 5th. Last season, Northwestern finished second nationally in punt returns behind only FIU. What has been the key to success for the 'Cats in the return game? Do you see the return game playing a factor in the outcome of Saturday's game?
LTP: Two words - Venric Mark. Mark may be a new name for opposing fans, but he's already the ‘Cats all-time KOR leader in school history and last year he seemed to be about a half a dozen shoe-string tackles away from being the nation's PR. Mark was unreal in the Syracuse game as one punt outkicked the SU coverage and Mark just blitzed them, untouched for an 82-yard TD. His second PR was a doozy, a 52-yarder that was a classic Mark return. The diminutive RB/PR/KOR has wheels. He runs a 4.4/40 (easy) and just has that Energizer bunny gene. We've had our fair share of stud PRs (Brian Musso, Lee Gissendanner), but to your point it has been a while.
The key to our success has been Mark actually getting the ball. Vanderbilt did a masterful job of punting as they boomed moonshot after moonshot and Mark didn't get one return (all fair catches or touchbacks). The memo is out, you better have huge hangtime or you're in trouble.
BCI: So, umm, where did this kid Venric Mark come from? He has sort of exploded onto the scene this season. Describe his running style and how he's managed to be so successful through two games.
LTP: As I mentioned above, he's not so new to Northwestern fans, and is simply one of those athletes you need to find ways to get on the field. He played mostly WR last year, but we are so damn deep there (and have size - Mark is only 5-8) he wasn't really getting a ton of reps. The Pat Fitzgerald/Mick McCall move of the season was getting Venric to play RB. It came as somewhat as a shock to me, mostly because of his tiny size you assumed he wouldn't be able to run between the tackles, especially during Big Ten play. I thought, with the crafty Kain Colter (who also has wheels) it would be an option wrinkle that we'd run consistently to the outside. Boy, was I wrong. Venric has simply carried us on offense. He was brilliant against Vanderbilt and took it right up the gut for a 23 car, 123 yd night against an SEC defense that was punishing him with hits. He popped up quicker each time.
The beauty of Venric is his versatility. He can obviously hurt you on punt returns (or kickoffs), but he's a threat to catch it out of the RB slot as well. Against Syracuse he had a brilliant diving TD reception and against Vandy, an 86-yard eye-popping reception and amazing TD run got called back as the refs claimed he toed the sideline chalk. He's averaging over 100 yards a game rushing on less than 20 carries per game and has scored TDs three different ways (PR, rush, rec) already. We're thin at RB, so I can tell you that there is a hold your breath element to all of this as we know we are one nasty hit away from having our offense turned on its side.
BCI: The 'Cats have been fortunate to benefit from a strong turnover margin (+4) in the early going while BC (-1) has struggled holding onto the football. In the Syracuse and Vanderbilt games, how has Northwestern been successful winning the TO battle? Is the O doing a good job protecting the football? The D turning over the opposing offense? A little bit of luck?
LTP: To me, this has been the difference between being 2-0 and 0-2. First, yes, the offense has been doing a great job of holding on to the ball. We've had one turnover and it was when Kain Colter got absolutely crushed on a pass from a blitz that didn't get picked up. It was against Syracuse one play AFTER we had caused a fumble, and up 35-13, were about to go in and put the game away (see stepping on throat challenges above). Against Syracuse we had some luck. We got a gift TD on one of the most bizarre plays you'll ever see. Nassib threw a backwards lateral that got dropped, Syracuse watched it, and LB Chi Chi Ariguzo casually picked it up, starting walking and then his teammates pushed him to run it in. In that same game a great hit by CB Quinn Evans jarred the ball up and Ariguzo had a gift of an INT (he should have had 2 defensive TDs, but got caught by the QB).
In the Vandy game it was more skill. Our defense, which I can't believe I haven't talked about yet, was under Frank Spaziani job security type heat. We were just downright awful in 2011, and in particular our secondary was a mess with miscommunication, blown coverages and a host of other fan-infuriating performance behavior. It has been THE storyline of the off-season. We lost two all Big Ten members of the secondary and THAT unit was bad. How can we expect anything to improve with three unproven players in the secondary?After giving up 596 yards of offense, primarily through the air (470 to Nassib), fans were far from confident entering the Vanderbilt game (Vandy had taken #9 South Carolina to the last second before losing 17-13 in the opener).
Then, disaster struck on the second play of the game. Nick VanHoose, our RS freshman CB got a lower back injury. He was our lock-down corner (yes, having played all of one game). It was clear he wouldn't return. As Vandy marched down for a game-opening drive that featured pass after pass you thought "Oh God, this is going to be bad." However, the defense stepped up. They hit hard, wrapped up guys, swarmed to the ball and the secondary made plays. We caused three fumbles based on hard hits and recovered two of them. It was a thing of beauty and the best defensive game we've played since 2010 and possibly 2009.
In summary, lucky against Syracuse, made our breaks against Vanderbilt.
BCI: I watched the first (read: worse) half of the Northwestern-Vanderbilt game and it struck me that James Franklin and the Vandy OC beat themselves with a number of trick plays that were poorly executed. At the time, I felt that had the Commodores employed a more straight forward, conservative offense that they would have had more success in the first half (and scored more points?) against NU. Is this a fair assessment? In other words, how does a defense go from giving up 41 to Syracuse to only 13 against Vanderbilt in the span of a week?
LTP: I think so. I'm sure Vandy fans are going nuts over the play-calling as they seemed intent to prove that Zac Stacy ("hey, didn't we tell you, where in the SEC?") could run it down our throats. Their bellcow RB was held to 37 yards. To the points earlier, you would think the first, second and third options would be pass, pass and pass some more. However, QB Jordan Rodgers (yes, Aaron's brother) simply missed guys in some key spots. Also, give credit to our DL, which had three sacks and several hurries. You also have to give a ton of credit to our "D" and the coaching staff.
Our 20-year veteran DB coach Jerry Brown has been taking all kinds of heat over the past two years. Last week was about as bad as I've seen it. Our secondary got flagged repeatedly and they deserved to be as they would go stride for stride with receivers, but they never turned their head to play the ball. This fundamental flaw was incensing fans. We heard all week (after hearing all last year) how it was on the coaches and they'd fix it. Fitz even challenged Vanderbilt to "bring it" to his secondary and he did a masterful confidence-building job for the team, publicly. The secondary stepped up after the first quarter. Once our DL got its mojo going and our LBs were able to get leads on their reads on Vandy's seemingly relentless screen passes and short yardage attempts in the flat, the emotion of the team and the crowd (night game at home) had everything clicking on "D". We held Vanderbilt to under 90 yards of total offense in the second half.
I can't remember our fan base being so negative after a win (Syracuse), but I can tell you it has been since Nebraska last year that our fan base has been so happy with the play of the defense after a win.
BCI: If I understand Jim Phillips non-conference scheduling philosophy right, NU has scheduled a number of peer academic schools over the next several years. The theory is if you can beat peer programs on the field, you make the decision of a 17-year old considering both programs that much easier. With wins over BC and Rice (last year) and Syracuse and Vanderbilt already this year, are you seeing this strategy pay off?
LTP: Not quite yet, but you can see it. I'd strike Rice from that list, except that Houston may be our #1 recruiting pipeline city in the US outside of Chicagoland. Our seemingly top recruiting competitors are a host of Big Ten schools and then clearly Stanford. I'd put BC on that list for Jersey/PA kids and we're seeing more and more against Vandy since James Franklin got there. Notre Dame has been a much more frequent competitor as well. I love the philosophy, but man, you start looking at the 2013 and 2014 schedules and you start to gulp. When you consider that we roll Indiana, and a sinking Penn State team off our schedule the next two years and replace it with Ohio State and Wisconsin, you're looking at what I would say is the #1 toughest schedule in America. Next year we open at Cal, play a seemingly rising Syracuse team at home and play on the road at clearly rising SEC Vanderbilt. The following year we add Stanford and Notre Dame to the non-conference schedule (that season's schedule is just downright sick in every way).
I love the philosophy. Folks on the BTN were criticizing Fitz and Phillips for it saying it was too tough. However, playing "name" teams like Vanderbilt, BC and Syracuse, make it also attractive to the non-diehard fan. "BC?" I've heard of them, maybe we should go to the game.." kind of thing. Our marketing team has been incredible and relentless at making NU "Chicago's Big Ten Team" and I firmly believe that fans without association to NU other than geography are moved to get tickets based on the opponent. Plus, and this may sound bad, the fans tend to be much nicer.
BCI: I was fortunate enough to attend both BC and Northwestern and as I see it, there are numerous parallels to both the academic institutions and the football programs. The two schools are kindred spirits, in a way. I wanted to get your take on what aspects of the recent Boston College football program (say, 1999-2009, for argument sake) you think NU should try to replicate with the Wildcats football program. Conversely, what aspects of the current Fitzgerald era do you feel that BC should try to emulate given an upcoming change in leadership at the top and likely change of HC over the next 1-2 seasons?
LTP: Agreed. BCS level competition in a pro sports town. Good academic school in a major metropolis. Private, small schools that struggle to sell out regardless of success. Northwestern students might try and flaunt their #12 US News & World Report Ranking at you, but there are a lot of similarities. In some sense we're trying to get back to the 1995-2000 era. I believe the Cliff Clavin fact about NU football that is least known is that we won 3 Big Ten titles during that span. Being from the Boston area, I'm still reminded of the ‘Cats in 1995 "Weren't you guys good in what, 1995?", but no one seems to remember we repeated in 1996 and couldn't go to the Rose Bowl again because Ohio State hadn't been more recently. We won it again in 2000. However, while we haven't been close to a title in the Pat Fitzgerald era, we're enjoying unprecedented consistency. Long gone are the days of sub .500 years where we'd make a good season strike every 2-3 years. Anything less than a bowl game and it's a major disappointment. We continue to tack on school record straight bowl appearances (had never been more than back-to-back) as we go for our fifth straight (NU will tell you "6th straight bowl eligible season" which we all know means ".500 or better, but we didn't get picked for a bowl in ‘07") this season. However, the thing that I marveled at about BC that is a bar for us to admire is your bowl winning streak. I believe you had eight straight. Well, we've lost 9 straight dating back to 1995 and our Big Ten competitors will be the first to remind you of this.
I think it's fair to say Northwestern fans don't care which bowl we win, just win one. We've put on one hell of a TV ratings show with crazy bowl games, OTs galore and the like, but 1-9 alltime in bowls and losing four in four years is getting really old. Especially when you consider we've tied That Team In South Bend for the record of consecutive bowl losses. I don't need to tell you that Northwestern fans, including me, get a bit touchy when the words "Alltime" and "losing streak" are in the same sentence with NU.
I will tell you that Fitz's approach to academics first, character, football family, while said by many is lived by him. I love the guy. I really do. He's the perfect fit for NU and we've watched him grow as a coach (at age 37 he's in his 7th season, 42-36). We're #1 in the nation seemingly every year for APR (football grade report card). He takes the degree and sells it. He lets his own players thumb up or thumbs down recruits based on character. He creates leadership councils within the team. And, the secret sauce of our program is the mentorship program, which very few teams can pull off based on potential NCAA challenges. Bottom-line, as a parent of a player or potential player (and many of them have told me this) he's everything you'd want in a coach, mentor etc.. While it may come across as hokey to the media or fans, to the "NU family" they're all -in.
If you could take these past two paragraphs and roll it in to a new candidate, then, man you'd be lucky. Really, the triumvirate of our president, Morty Schapiro, the AD Jim Phillips and Fitz, are seemingly in complete lock-step. It's key to have the university/athletics relationship on the same page and right now, with a pro-sports president it has never been better.
NU is about to launch an unprecedented facilities renovation initiative with reports ranging in the $300million area. It's going to be a game-changer in recruiting. The football stadium will likely get a major upgrade (but not a new stadium), while our hoops arena is likely going to be brand new. The reports are that NU is trying to get the Monday-Friday practice facilities on the lakefront which would just be unreal.
BCI: Last one. Prediction time. Who ya got? What's the final score?
LTP: Well, right now I'm seeing what looks like two days of deluge rains for the weekend. I'm going to temper the scoring based on last week's performance and the weather. NU 27, BC 17.