This is new to me. This whole running thing.
I was at Northwestern during a sort of golden age of Wildcats football in terms of wins. C.J. Bacher to Mike Kafka to Dan Persa to Kain Colter now. This is my collective memory of Northwestern. Maybe throw in some Brett Basanez (since he was the quarterback the year before I was admitted to NU; I am a 2010 grad for those that are interested).
The one thing that has been consistent in those seasons was a lack of a running game. The 1,000-yards rushing may not be the feat it once was. But it is a sign of something. It is a sign of a team that can achieve the balance Pat Fitzgerald seeks and can generate offense even when things are not going great. We are only two games into the season, but Venric Mark’s 205 total rushing yards have Northwestern fans dreaming of the team actually having a consistent rushing attack.
There is a lot of time left in the season so — knock on wood — the dream of a consistent run game is not quite yet realized in full. We are still somewhat skeptical because it has been so long since Northwestern has had a consistent running attack.
Consider how much Northwestern has struggled to establish a consistent run game since the last 1,000-yard rushing season from Sutton in 2006. Last year, Northwestern was seventh in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game with 166.6 per game, but were last in the conference in yards per carry with 3.8. In 2010, the Wildcats were again sixth in the conference in rushing yards per game with 155.9 per game, but tied for ninth in the conference in yards per carry with 3.6 per carry. This trend continues all the way back:
|Year||Rushing Yds./Game||B1G Rank||Yards per Carry||B1G Rank|
As you can see, having a strong run game is not everything for Northwestern. However, the Wildcats’ rank in the conference for yards per carry are consistently lower than their rank for yards per game. This suggests that Northwestern continues to rely heavily on the run to set up its pass and that this is done to somewhat limited success. The Wildcats are not among the rushing leaders in the Big Ten in any sense of the term.
Yet, something is different about this season. It may not bear out statistically, but Venric Mark’s ability to grind out yards and his potential to break “the big one” give Northwestern a weapon it has not had before. It gives the offense a new feeling that it has not had perhaps since Sutton’s freshman year in 2005.
The similarities between Mark and Sutton do not end with their height (an issue that dogged both of them in their careers).
Sutton burst onto the scene in 2005 as a freshman with 104 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns in his first game against Ohio. He followed that effort up in his second game with 214 rushing yards on 30 carries and four touchdowns. Sutton was a bull of a back. He was fast, but also willing to take tackles and searched for contact to get that extra yard. It might have been his undoing later on in his career as he was never quite the same after injuries slowed him down his sophomore year.
Mark’s first two starts were not as explosive and overwhelming as Sutton’s. He rushed for “only” 82 yards against Syracuse, but posted 5.9 yards per carry. Against Vanderbilt, Mark had 123 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry. Sutton in his first two games posted 6.1 yards per carry and 7.1 yards per carry in his first two games.
Comparisons of Mark to Sutton are clearly a bit premature (also of note, Mark is now a junior whereas Sutton did all of that in his freshman year). Sutton statistically was a much better running back. But the fact that Mark has eclipsed the 5.0 yards per carry mark has Northwestern thinking that the run game is much more established and solid than, say, the quarterback situation.
No matter who the quarterback is, Mark is clearly a weapon the defense has to account for. Mark gained 55 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries with Siemian in the game against Vanderbilt. While the team figures out a more solid quarterback rotation, Mark seems to be the rock of the offense. And this is something Northwestern has not been able to rely on for quite some time.
There is a reason Pat Fitzgerald singled out Mark for his play last week on a night when the offense really struggled.
The hope right now is that Mark will continue his inspired play. Two games are hardly the sample size needed to make any conclusions about the rest of the season. A lot can still happen. But it is clear Northwestern has something it has not had in a long time with Venric Mark. Mark’s ability to gain five yards per carry is incredibly important for this offense and will open everything else up immensely.
Northwestern’s run game is not perfect. Sacks take away from the team’s rushing yards and there is no second back to take the pressure off Mark when he is off the field. A more consistent passing attack here would also help.
But that thought should emphasize how important Mark is quickly becoming to Northwestern’s offense and to the prospects of a special season. He may not be Tyrell Sutton (yet), but Mark is giving Northwestern a new way to attack offensively and something new for defenses to think about.