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Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Midseason report: Northwestern

By Brian Bennett

NORTHWESTERN

Record: 6-1, 2-1 Big Ten

At the halfway mark of the season, only one team in the Big Ten has guaranteed itself bowl eligibility. And in fact, Northwestern is one bad fourth quarter at Penn State away from possibly being undefeated.

Are the Wildcats for real? Well, good teams almost always do two things: run the ball, and stop the run. Pat Fitzgerald's club ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing just 109.9 yards per game. That's about 70 yards fewer than Northwestern allowed last season, when it finished No. 10 in the league, so the defensive improvement up front has been impressive.

The Wildcats are also one of the league's top rushing teams, averaging nearly 230 yards per game on the ground (up by nearly 65 yards per game over last season). Tailback Venric Mark has been one of the biggest stars of the first half, and he and versatile quarterback Kain Colter form a dangerous duo, especially on the zone read.

Fitzgerald's use of Colter and fellow quarterback Trevor Siemian has been the team's most interesting storyline of the first half. Siemian finished the opener at Syracuse by leading a game-winning drive, and split some reps with Colter for the first few games. When Big Ten play arrived, Northwestern started using Colter as a receiver and almost exclusively a running quarterback. That formula worked great against Indiana, but Colter didn't get enough touches at Penn State. The Wildcats will have to find the right balance going forward.

Northwestern has also benefited from a schedule that hasn't been as difficult as it looked on paper. According to NCAA stats, the Wildcats have played the easiest schedule in the Big Ten through seven weeks. The competition level is about to rise considerably, with Nebraska coming to Evanston this week, followed by games against Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State. That will tell us for sure whether this team's 6-1 start is for real.

Offensive MVP: Mark. Colter has been extremely valuable, too, with all the different things he can do. But Mark has given the offense a dependable, big-play threat it has lacked for years. Despite his small size, Mark has already run for 792 yards and eight touchdowns this season, and should become the Wildcats' first 1,000-yard back since 2006. He's also a spark plug on special teams, with two punt returns for touchdowns this season.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. The sophomore announced he was going to play a big role, when he had an interception and a fumble return for a touchdown in the opener against Syracuse. He's second on the team in tackles with 59, including 6.5 for loss. Defensive lineman Tyler Scott also deserves notice for his six sacks and 7.5 TFLs.