Saturday, September 29, 2012

Northwestern-Indiana: Kain Colter Has A Certain Set of Skills

Like Liam Neeson, Kain Colter has a certain set of skills. 

With Michigan off this week, I turned to my current school for football sustenance...yes, the Northwestern Wildcats. Excuse me, the undefeated Northwestern Wildcats.

I actually did not end up going to this game, but I really thought about it. I really, really did. And, really, it's the thought that counts (thousands of Northwestern fans nod in agreement).

Okay, that was not very nice, but still: what gives, Northwestern fans? Are things that different here that a 4-0 team can't sell out Ryan Field? I have no idea what the official attendance figure was, but on TV there were clearly some pretty empty patches throughout the stadium. I know it was just Indiana and all, but c'mon man.

Anyway, here are some football thoughts to keep me sane during this bye week and while deciding who to "root" for in this MSU-OSU tilt.
Just to get this out of the way so I don't say it 30 times: Indiana is terrible, so much of this should be taken with several boulder-sized grains of salt. Nonetheless, Northwestern is not a team for which you could dismiss any single opponent with complete nonchalance. Northwestern has fielded some nice teams in the Fitzgerald era, but they haven't necessarily been immune to the egregious loss. For instance, NU lost to: New Hampshire in 2006, Duke in 2007, and Army last season.

Thus far, Northwestern has taken care of business, often with a very new and decidedly un-Northwestern-like formula: the ground game and defense. The Wildcat defense (particularly the secondary) had been an enormous weakness over the years in spite of Fitzgerald's defensive pedigree. Likewise, the running game had not been functional since Tyrell Sutton left Evanston after 2008.

After taking on three straight BCS conference foes, including an opener on the road at Syracuse, the Wildcats dispensed with all three, classily, intellectually, and generally in an agreeable manner befitting a warrior-poet-gentleman.

After tacking on a victory against the Coyotes of South Dakota last week*, the Wildcats began the Big Ten with a 2-1 Indiana team coming off a bye after losing to Brady Hoke's venerable alma mater in Muncie.

*I like to think that the South Dakota roster consists of a literal pack of coyotes running around on a football field while howling lugubriously at things.

The Offense 
Once again, Northwestern's offensive attack has largely been ground-based thus far, and that trend continued today. Northwestern sped to a 27-0 lead after its opening drive in the second half, capped by a 15-yard scamper by QB/RB/WR Kain Colter.

Redshirt sophomore pocket passer Trevor Siemian actually started the game at quarterback for NU, as the Wildcats continue to go with the poor man's version of Michigan's old Brady-Henson set up in 1998/99. Despite each QB having a distinct weakness, Northwestern has rotated the two to great effect, even if the competition to date has not exactly been exceptional (although it was better than many non-conference slates around the country).

After NU's first two drives ended in punts, Kain Colter took the reins and NU went running like Forrest Gump. The Wildcats went 80 yards on six straight runs (three from Venric Mark, three from Colter) en route to a touchdown, an 8-yard run from Colter. This is the New Northwestern, manifested in a single drive.

Siemian entered the game again to start the second frame. Powered by a Mark rush for 18 and two straight 16-yard passes to Colter and Christian Jones, the Wildcats eventually settled for a 44-yard field goal from potential Lou Groza candidate Jeff Budzien. Northwestern added another touchdown--another 8-yard run from Colter--on its next drive via some more Siemian passing and nifty rushing from Mark and backup tailback Mike Trumpy.

NU added another field goal before the end of the half to go up 20-0, and everything was coming up Milhouse.

After going up 27-0 after the second half's opening drive, Mark fumbled at the end of a 25-yard run near the IU 36, ending what likely would've been another scoring drive. NU bounded back to deliver another TD drive on the back of a 26-yard Colter run and two big passing plays from Siemian to Christian Jones and Rashad Lawrence, ending with Mark punching it in from a yard out.

With IU returning the next kickoff for a score, the score was 34-21 and the pressure was back on the offense after the defense had held the clean sheet through the first half. The Wildcats once again cut through the IU defense like Balboa cutting his way through the forests en route to the Pacific; Budzien chipped in another 29-yarder to take the lead back to 16.

Northwestern had been fairly careful with the ball to date, turning it over only three times coming into today. Unfortunately, the 'Cats coughed up a fumble and two interceptions (one from both Colter and Siemian) against the Hoosiers. The first pick turned into a missed field goal from IU and the fumble was converted via the long Kofi Hughes touchdown grab. Luckily, Siemian's INT in the fourth quarter, with NU up 39-27 and driving deep into IU territory, lead to a fairly lackadaisical three and out for IU.

It was an especially bad pick for Siemian, as he was locked onto Colter in 2004 Chad Henne fashion, but the miscue didn't end up hurting the 'Cats.

Colter then did his thing, finding holes up the middle and on the perimeter in the IU defense. He even took another rush to the house, a 30+ yard scamper that was regrettably called back for holding. Nevertheless, NU soldiered on, plugging away against a horrific IU run defense, eventually leading to yet another Colter TD run on an expertly run zone read. IU actually tackled the running back on the play, which is pretty much a zone read coach's dream. Colter then simply schooled the IU edge defender, #42 David Cooper, before running 22 yards for a relatively easy score.

With the score being 44-29 in NU's favor with only five minutes to go, the game was basically over...just kidding, it wasn't, as the NU secondary still had some derp left in the tank.

The Defense 
The other encouraging development for the Wildcats this season, other than the running game, has undoubtedly been the defense. After a shaky affair in the Carrier Dome, the NU defense has hunkered down of late, holding its last three opponents to a total of 33 points. The Wildcats weren't near the top of the rankings in total defense, turnovers forced, red zone defense, or third down defense, but they were a respectable 37th in scoring defense coming into today.

After a first half in which the Wildcats completely stonewalled the hapless Hoosiers--keeping them to 113 yards of offense and zero points--the second half resembled a dam's complete collapse, with the Hoosier offense being the oncoming flood (I'm pretty sure that's the first time that has ever been said).

The secondary issues of old began to rear their ugly head once again, as Kofi Hughes, probably Indiana's most talented player, went to work against Quinn Evans (a Stanford grad transfer) et al. After an IU touchdown drive powered mostly by some expert running from tailback Stephen Houston, Hughes reeled in two consecutive receptions of 28 and 35 yards respectively, the latter being a fairly impressive TD grab in the end zone. The NU lead was back to 13, at 27-14.

After the aforementioned 1-yard Mark TD, Indiana's Tevin Coleman returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for the score, representing possibly the first kickoff return for a score this season that I have actually seen live (I think).

With the score at 37-21, the IU offense went back to work near the end of the 3rd and into the 4th, executing a 7-play, 69-yard TD drive that included a 33-yard pass from backup QB Nate Sudfield (who had taken over for Cameron Coffman in the second quarter) on NU corner Nick VanHoose. IU scored and Kofi Hughes converted the two-point conversion to make it a one score game at 37-29. What had once been a blowout was no longer, and Northwestern's built up cache of defensive good will had seemingly been squandered in three quarters.

After NU went up 44-29, Sudfield completed a 46-yard bomb to Cody Latimer on Quinn Evans, taking it to the NU 11. After two straight Houston rushes and a fumbled Sudfield snap on third down, IU had to go for it on fourth, but not before a ridiculous false start penalty. After a failed fade attempt to Kofi Hughes in the right back corner, the game was essentially salted away for the Wildcats. Game blouses.

Special Teams 
Jeff Budzien has to be one of the best kickers in the country. He went 3/3 on the day, continuing his perfect mark on the season.

Punter Brandon Williams only punted twice but did a nice job, using his two opportunities to boot 45- and 46-yarders.

The kick/punt return game wasn't a factor for the Wildcats on the day, but it was for their opponent. The Hoosier took six kick returns back for an average of 36.6 yards per, including the aforementioned 96-yard score from Tevin Coleman. Northwestern can't afford to offer more capable teams that kind of space on returns going forward if the defense is to be protected.

Miscellaneous Minutiae 

  • Kain Colter. Colter is a poor man's Denard, but if there is anything that Colter absolutely does better than Denard, it is the zone read. I was honestly kind of jealous watching him run it to perfection over and over again. Yes, it was only Indiana yada yada yada, but Colter seems to have the basically innate quick twitch decision-making with the zone read that Denard for whatever reason hasn't really ever had. Of course, it remains to be seen if Colter can continue to do this against teams with some semblance of a defense; he passed the ball three times today for two yards and an interception. 
    • More offense-related awe: the Wildcats amassed 704 total yards (!), including 6.8 YPC. IU is clearly very terrible, but that is impressive nonetheless. FWIW, it broke NU's single game school record
  • Mark Five. GET IT, MARK FIVE. Okay I'm done. Despite his stature, Mark continues to plug away and deliver big plays for NU on the ground as the QB situation continues to sort itself out. Mark ran for 139 yards on 26 carries (4.8 YPC) and a touchdown. The only blemish on the day for the 5'8'' Texan was a fumble near the end of a long run into IU territory. 
  • Drops. NU has a surprisingly deep group of wide receivers, but from what I've seen thus far this season, drops have been an issue from time to time. Late in the third quarter, Demetrius Fields dropped an easy pass in the end zone that really shouldn't have been. It lead to a field goal and ultimately didn't matter, but it's just something to monitor going forward. 
  • Good times, bad times. All kidding aside, IU does have some offensive talent, namely Kofi Hughes and Stephen Houston. Still, IU's offensive explosion in the second half should give NU fans some pause after. After being held in check in the first half, IU scored 29 in the second--albeit with the help of a kickoff return for a TD--and amassed over 300 total yards in that time. NU corners, Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans, were victimized deep from time to time. The Hoosiers also ran the ball at 5.7 yards a pop, which is a bit worrisome for the 'Cats with run first teams like Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska still left on the divisional docket. 
  • An injury note. One potential explanation for the secondary's collapse: star safety Ibraheim Campbell left with an injury after a pretty jarring hit on an IU offensive player. I don't remember seeing him out there in the second half, so, take that FWIW. 
  • Jeff Budzien=the Robbie Gould of Evanston. It was another perfect day for the NU kicker, who went 3/3 with a long of 44. He's 8/8 on the year, although he has yet to attempt anything past 50 yards out. So, like I said...Robbie Gould. NU won't be able to run roughshod over the Big Ten--yes, even the terrible, lowly Big Ten--the way it has done through five games, so I have to think that Budzien will get many more chances to test out that leg. 
  • Well, this was fun. Michigan bye weeks are horrific, horrific things, but it was nice to get into a game on some level this week. I will be rooting for the Wildcats the rest of the way (as long as it doesn't affect Michigan's chances to win the division, of course). I'll play myself out with this once again: 

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