Northwestern often struggled last season in the special teams game, but as the team's speed continues to increase, it looks like the return game is primed for improvement. Sophomore Venric Mark, now with a year of experience under his belt, appears to be ready to take his return game to the next level.
Mark had three kickoff returns against Eastern Illinois and averaged 40 yards per return. Mark had two long returns, one where he appeared to run straight past the coverage team, and a second where he reversed field away from his blockers. His longest return of the day was 63 yards.
"He's trusted his blocking…" said head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "The second one was great blocking, the first play was him going off the play book a little bit and just running around everybody, which I guess worked today."
The punting game, however, is still somewhat of a question mark for the ‘Cats. Because the offense put up 42 points, redshirt sophomore punter Brandon Williams was only forced to punt twice. On one attempt, Williams was pressured, and his punt went just 14 yards before sailing out of bounds. On his second attempt, Williams tried to pin EIU inside their 20, but instead sailed his kick nine yards deep in the end zone, leading to a touchback.
Overall, Williams did show leg strength in his longer punt. However, Williams needs more control to be able to pin teams deep, and needs to be pressured less. The ‘Cats will look to tighten the punt game up, which will undoubtedly become more important as the season progresses into tougher opponents.
Offensive line owns the trenches
Northwestern ran for an incredible 320 yards total in the game. Fitzgerald said the game plan going in was to run the ball with consistency, and NU did exactly that. While Colter and the running backs made solid plays, the true credit has to go to the big men up front.
"We're starting to play good football up there," Fitzgerald said.
Watching game film as normal preparation for the Panthers, Fitzgerald decided the team would be extremely susceptible to the run. For the offensive linemen, the knowledge that the run game would take a priority increased the motivation for the o-line.
"We were talking about that all week, we wanted to run the ball on these guys," lineman Brian Mulroe said. "It's a great feeling, we know it's our chance to just get after guys the whole day."
The line this year is full of experience with four returning starters. However, Ben Burkett, who previously played center, has made the switch to right guard. Redshirt freshman Brandon Vitabile is taking snaps at center. The transition has yet to slow down the unit.
"We're such a close knit group, and it doesn't matter what age you are on the offensive line," Mulroe said. "Brandon has been stepping up and has been playing well…there wasn't really an adjustment that needed to be made. Obviously Brandon's first game we're going to keep an eye on him, make sure he doesn't get nervous, but he's been stepping up, he's been playing really well. We're excited about the way things have been working, we're trying to be great."
The main Achilles heel of numerous great teams has been penalties. The ‘Cats dominance in all aspects of the game against Eastern Illinois prevented penalties from becoming an issue, but there were negative signs.
Kain Colter had an 18-yard touchdown run called back because of a holding penalty, and two pass interference calls in the red zone led to an Eastern Illinois touchdown. Against better competition, penalties like that may spell doom for the ‘Cats.
"We've got sure up the penalty situation in the red zone on both sides of the ball, that's unacceptable," Fitzgerald said. "The focus things, I've got a problem with. The judgment calls that happen in a game, as long as you're being aggressive I'm all right with that. I liked our guy's aggressiveness. I'm not as critical of the guys on defense as the guys on offense. We can't have those kind of penalties in the red zone."
Fitzgerald said red zone penalties might hurt the team down the road. However, Fitzgerald has spoken multiple times about the discipline and focus the ‘Cats will face at Army this Saturday. If NU wants to come away with another road win, the ‘Cats will have to match that focus and discipline, and avoid suffering any costly penalties.