The news was seemingly so low on the radar that it kind of elicited a “huh” from me earlier this year. Pat Fitzgerald announced they were switching Venric Mark, our stellar return man, from wide receiver to running back. I don’t know about you, but at the time I was thinking Venric would be third string material, perhaps a speed wrinkle in a Kain Colter option attack. Mike Trumpy, albeit recovering from knee surgery, along with Treyvon Green were for sure in front of him at least in my own mental depth chart. Plus, I had visions of the highly touted incoming freshman Malin Jones and redshirt Jordan Perkins still circling in my head.
Who knew that ten games later, this would prove to be the single biggest off-season coaching decision not only in 2012, but possibly in the past several years? I shudder to think where this team would be if not for Venric. Fitz laments fans’ penchant for citing stats, but the second biggest stat ‘Cats fans have held up as a criticism (behind the bowl losing streak) has been the streak of not having a 1,000-yard rusher. Fitz dismissed this as child’s play, as he claimed to not care how many yards any of his backs got as long as we win. It’s hard to disagree with that, yet, Tyrell Sutton’s exactly 1,000 yard rushing effort in 2006 seemed to get more distant every day as proof of the productivity of the spread offense and NU’s ability to churn out 1,000-yard RB after 1,000-yard RB. Was it the system? Was it our ability to mine overlooked talent? Was it a sign of change from the Randy Walker era to the Fitz era? Who knew? It just felt very much like we didn’t have a go-to guy who you could count on to get that first down when you needed it ever since Tyrell got dinged up in 2007 and 2008.
Mark’s first game at RB, the opener at Syracuse, saw his ground game (84 yards on 14 carries) overshadowed by his ridiculous punt return exploits – 134 yards on two returns including a TD. It was a harbinger of just how valuable Venric would be and seemingly, despite his WOW factor, how unheralded he would remain as his gaudy stats as a do-everything kind of guy seem to overshadow just how prolific a RB he has become. Ten games through the season and Venric sits alone atop the B1G in all-purpose yardage per game with 191 ypg, and is sixth in the entire FBS. To give you context, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah is next in the B1G with 158 ypg and resurgent potential Heisman candidate Montee Ball is fourth in the B1G with 129 ypg. However, when you break it down to a per play basis, Venric crushes these competitors, averaging 8.1 yard per time he touches the rock. Think about that for a minute. Venric has touched the ball 237 times this season and he averages 8.1 yards per touch (for comparison, Ameer Abdullah averages 6.8, Le’Veon Bell 4.6 ypt and Montee Ball 5.1 ypt). The 96-yard KOR he had for a TD that called back on a horrible call would obviously have spiked these numbers even more. However, I don’t need to tell you that all-purpose yardage as a category is highly overlooked by media and isn’t the glory and glamour stat that is rushing yardage and rushing TDs. Oh yeah, by the way, he leads the NATION in punt return average with a Lee Gissendanner-esque (21.6 ypg) (If you don’t know who Lee is, ask a fellow LTP reader for help).
I feel that there are only a couple of offensive individual stats that get any weight by sportswriters. Rushing yards, Passing yards and TDs. Everything else seems to pale in comparison. So, the timing of this post is very intentional for a couple of reasons. I can’t bear to read the comments section these days as the in-fighting has started and the overall bad taste in our mouths as fans has inspired me to do what I do when the going gets rough – accentuate the positive. Second, this weekend’s match-up with Sparty pits Venric Mark, the B1G’s 4th leading rusher (118.1 ypg) against the B1G rushing leader, Le’Veon Bell (124.9 ypg). Bell is #9 in the entire country while Venric is just five slots behind at #14 in the nation. Click here to see the national leaderboard in the sexiest of sexy stats for RBs. Mark is just .15 ypg behind the injured Denard Robinson, whose stats stay propped as he sits out against the meat of the Big Ten schedule. Montee Ball is well within reach with a 122 ypg clip, but the irony of ironies, Northwestern and Michigan State’s respective run defenses should give the star RBs all they can handle this week.
By now you know that Venric thankfully erased one of those “only diehard fans talk about the streak” streaks by eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark in week nine. Mark has 1,181 total rushing yards and 10 TDs with two games to go. In one year he is well on his way to leaving his permanent “mark” in the NU record book in all sorts of categories, yet, to me, the place that doesn’t show up in any stat sheet is what has impressed me most about Venric.
At least 2-3 times per week Venric will get stacked up for no gain by a legion of the opposing team’s defensive line and linebackers. It’s one of those deals where the ref blows his whistle 10 times, yet the pile keeps pushing. Venric almost never goes down, his legs churning. Usually, one opponent goes right up to the line of personal misconduct and shoves Venric one last time. Mark, all 5-7, 175 pounds of him, goes after the 300-pounder, tippy toes to get up to eye level and starts talking smack. I love this. The kid plays angry and right on the edge of losing it. It is a trait that is needed by our team of seemingly Mr. Nice Guys. The same guy who confidently admits he watches Mary Poppins all summer long and uses Miley Cyrus to channel positive vibes as the ball is in the air on punt returns is out there looking to punish opponents. How can you bottle this and spread it around the team? Venric has it. Kain has it. Tyler Scott has it. But who doesn’t?
I’ve been torn this season. I feel the rising tide of criticism is a good thing for Northwestern. The CEO of our team has put expectations out there that this program should be held accountable to win championships. A surprising 7-3 record in a year when we thought it was a rebuild has fans up in arms, just like a “real” big time program. All three very winnable games that have slipped through our hands have been pinned on the coaching staff – and rightly so. The program bar has been raised and an anemic conference offerred Northwestern a season to remember, which now, regardless of what happens will be, but perhaps not for the reasons you’d like. However, regardless of what happens from here on out, Venric Mark would be a Heisman candidate for 2013 on any other program in the B1G of equal 2012 record. He deserves it and as I venture in to the negative, expectations for teams named NU other than 1996 have never been met when we expect them to be good.
For now, I’m worried about Venric. He looked pained when he came out injured the second time in the Michigan game, in OT, and I finally learned from yesterday’s press conference that Fitz very much expects Venric to play. Michigan State will be ready – they boast the nation’s 20th best rush defense with 113.4 ypg given up, and for the second straight week, we face the team ranked #7 in overall defense (we knocked Michigan down a few pegs with our stats last week). Meanwhile, Northwestern gives up only 122 ypg – two below Le’Veon’s average. You’d like to think the rushing leader in this game will a)be on the winning team and b)help salvage their team’s respective season. When you consider Michigan State’s offense and what overall percentage Le’Veon Bell represents and do the same for Venric Mark, this is a game that features one of the more compelling individual head-to-head storylines we’ll have all season long. Personally, assuming Venric is healthy, I can’t wait for it. Consider just a FEW of the alltime NU best categories that Venric has done damage in just part of one season at RB:
NU CAREER ALL-PURPOSE YARDS
Player Rush Rec. Int. PR KR Yds.
1. Damien Anderson (1998-01) 4,485 502 0 0 284 5,271
2. Tyrell Sutton (2005-08) 3,886 1,244 0 0 8 5,138
3. Darnell Autry (1994-96) 3,793 447 0 0 369 4,609
4. Jason Wright (2000-03) 2,625 577 0 0 828 4,030
5. Ricky Edwards (1979-83) 1,369 1,056 0 0 1,499 3,924
6. Venric Mark (2010-present) 1,343 147 0 524 1,820 3,834
7. Noah Herron (2001-04) 2,524 781 0 0 231 3,536
NU SINGLE-SEASON RUSHING YARDS
Player Rushing Yds.
1. Damien Anderson (2000)…………………2,063
2. Darnell Autry (1995)………………..1,785
3. Tyrell Sutton (2005)……………….1,474
4. Darnell Autry (1996)…………………………1,452
5. Jason Wright (2003)…………………1,388
6. Noah Herron (2004)………………………….1,381
7. Bob Christian (1989)…………………………1,291
8. Mike Adamle (1970)………………………….1,255
9. Jason Wright (2002)………………………….1,234
10. Venric Mark (2012)…………………..1,181
NU SINGLE-SEASON ALL-PURPOSE YARDS
Player Year Rush Rec. Int. PR KR Total
1. Damien Anderson 2000 2,063 132 0 0 0 2,195
2. Darnell Autry 1995 1,785 168 0 0 70 2,023
3. Jason Wright 2002 1,234 266 0 0 513 2,013
4. Venric Mark 2012 1,176 100 0 281 355 1,912
When you consider that bowl game stats count, Venric has three games left and will very likely become just the third NU player to eclipse 1500 rushing yards in a season and will also top the list for single season all-purpose yards, possibly by Saturday. It’s been nearly the entire season without a dedicated post to just how incredible Venric has been. He’s blown me away with his ability between the tackles, and of course, you tip your cap to an O-line that has been exemplary in terms of rush blocking. How many huge holes have we seen – Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa – where it was nothing but daylight. One of the many things that keeps me going in a positive direction is the fact we’ve got Venric back next year – along with almost everyone else sans the left side of our OL – and that is reason enough to expect more, expect victory and expect a championship. I’m trying to be big picture perspective here, but when you combine Venric’s on-field stats with the eye test (speed, cutting ability, power for his size) have we ever had an athlete quite like him in our history? It will be remarkable to see what he can do if he stays healthy this year and next as he has a chance to rewrite the NU record book, but more importantly will us to a potential season unlike any other this century.
Quote of the Week
From Teddy Greenstein’s article today on NU:
I enjoy watching Northwestern, but I have to say this: Nobody can cough up a lead like the Wildcats. – ESPN CFB host, Rece Davis – Saturday, November 10.
THIS IS THE YEAR….IN HOOPS
Here I am again, back and suckered in to once again believing THIS is the year NU finally goes dancing. The ‘Cats open up the season tonight against Texas Southern (7pm ct, BTN) at home and a familiar face – former Indiana head coach Mike Davis. We’ll cover the hoops team all year long as you’ve come to expect. It just takes a bit to transition mentally, especially when you’re playing the directional university portion of the schedule. I’m personally excited to see Tre Demps along with the eight other new faces, especially the bigs. I’m already bracing myself for outrage if we get outrebounded.
Teddy Greenstein’s potpourri of coverage on NU football today is must read stuff. In particular, Fitz admitted to being a knucklehead on the sideline after mocking celebration when the ‘Cats got a call on the late hit to Trevor Siemian. If there is a stat kept for late hits received on a per play basis, Trevor has to lead the nation.
I believe Nick VanHoose will be the single most valuable player on the ‘Cats from here on out, as his presence really impacts the productivity of our secondary and is enough to change an opponent’s gameplan, which for now is “throw at #22 whenever he is on the field”. Fitz is optimistic about his chances to play, but far from a sure thing for Saturday. Get well quickly #23, we need you!