After beating South Dakota 38-7 Saturday at Ryan Field, Northwestern is now a perfect 4-0 through non-conference play. NU hosts Indiana next Saturday as Big Ten play begins. The Wildcats begin their own run at their first Big Ten title in over a decade.
It is now a perfect time to look at the improvements or regressions that NU has made since the start of the season by position group.
By far the biggest improvement since the Cats opened the season at Syracuse has been in the secondary. After a dismal performance week one, where the Orange passed for 470 yards on their way to scoring 41 points, the 'Cats have not allowed an opponent to pass for more than 291 yards, and the defense has not surrendered more than 13 points.
Sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell is playing at an All Big-Ten level, and Nick VanHoose has flashed signs of future dominance at the corner position. This unit still needs one or two players to elevate their game in order to stop the potent Big Ten passing attacks coming to town the next few weeks.
The NU defense’s front seven has also seen tremendous improvement since the beginning of the season. Chi Chi Ariguzo and Tyler Scott have captured many headlines with their production thus far, but gritty play from seniors David Nwabuisi, Quenten Williams, and Brian Arnfelt have allowed this group to shut down opposing running attacks and force quarterbacks to get rid of the ball faster than they desire.
On offense, the offensive line and running backs have been a pleasant surprise so far this season. Returning starters up front Brandon Vitabile and Patrick Ward have played true to form, and senior captain Brian Mulroe has attracted attention from across the country with his high level of play.
The Wildcats' offensive line and running backs have worked together to produce three 100-yard rushing performances (Venric Mark twice and Mike Trumpy once) and has, with only a few exceptions, kept the quarterbacks' uniforms clean. These units will have much stiffer tests than South Dakota when Big Ten Play begins, but the progress they made during the non-conference season is a sign of good things to come for two units with big question marks on them entering the season.
The two remaining groups, the quarterbacks and receivers, still have such question marks. Tony Jones, after missing all of last season with a knee injury, has shown he has the talent to impact games at any level. Other than Jones, however, no receiver has stood out as a consistent option in the passing game. Christian Jones, Rashad Lawrence, and Demetrius Fields, will all compete for targets the rest of the season until one of them steps up as the best option across from Jones.
No quarterback situation in the country may be as puzzling to fans than Northwestern’s. Colter has started every game, however, when the 'Cats have needed a drive, Trevor Siemian is called into action. Both Colter and Siemian bring big play potential, Colter, through, through the ground and Siemian, rather, through the air. But neither appears to be able to grab a consistent rhythm with their current arrangement.
Most would agree that the ability to use Colter as a change up will benefit the Wildcats’ offense, but the best consistent threat appears at this point to be Siemian.
It is clear that the coaching staff plans on continuing to start Colter, but have Siemian is waiting for his number to be called. It is not clear whether this will be effective against bigger, stronger and faster Big Ten opponents.
Northwestern has clearly made big improvements across nearly all position groups, since the beginning of the season. This team, which is deep in talent, should continue to find its personality as it begins its run at a Legends Division title Saturday against Indiana.
Jack DiNardo was a standout defensive tackle with Northwestern's winningest-ever senior class. He graduated with a degree in political science and is now pursuing a master's degree in liberal arts. Each Sunday following a Northwestern game, DiNardo will offer a column sharing his perspective.