NCF Nation: Mick McCall

On occasion Saturday night, Ohio State lined up with quarterback Braxton Miller in the shotgun, flanked by running back Carlos Hyde and receiver Dontre Wilson.

If you're a defensive coordinator, that might qualify as a special kind of torture. Think of all the possibilities with that trio. There's Hyde, the 235-pound power back who at times couldn't be tackled by Wisconsin. There's Wilson, still just a freshman but already one of the fastest players in the Big Ten who's fulfilling the Percy Harvin role for Urban Meyer's offense. Then of course there's Miller, who can beat you with his arms or his legs.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsCarlos Hyde's full-time return added another dimension to an already diverse Ohio State offense.
That particular offensive grouping didn't create a ton of damage in the Buckeyes' 31-24 victory. But it showed that, like sideline observer LeBron James, Ohio State now can do a little bit of everything now when it has the ball.

In fact, Meyer's biggest lament about the offense after Saturday's game was that he couldn't find playing time for Jordan Hall and Kenny Guiton. Hall, who leads the team with 427 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, got one carry against the Badgers. Guiton -- who leads the Big Ten in passing touchdowns with 13 -- never saw the field.

Miller quickly showed why the "debate" over whether he or Guiton should start was always silly, because he simply can do so many more things. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman said Monday that Miller still made some mental mistakes and needs to do a better job scrambling straight up the field. But Herman praised Miller's back-shoulder throw to Devin Smith for a touchdown, and Ohio State has now incorporated a vertical passing game to go along with its strong rushing attack. Receivers Smith, Corey "Philly" Brown and Evan Spencer are drawing praise not scorn from Meyer these days, and the trio has combined for 13 touchdown catches.

"They use their weapons well at every position," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday. "They can get the ball to anybody, and they can score on any given play."

Fitzgerald should know exactly what that looks like, because he has built the same thing with his team. In fact, when Northwestern hosts Ohio State on Saturday night in Evanston, we will see arguably the two most versatile offenses in the Big Ten.

The Wildcats, of course, employ a two-quarterback system with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, the former excelling as a runner and the latter serving as something like a designated passer. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall can use the option game with Colter or spread the field with Siemian and a deep group of wide receivers. The two quarterbacks are completing 69.8 percent of their passes.

In fact, Northwestern is fourth in the Big Ten in both passing and rushing yards, the only team to rank in the top four in each of those categories. The Wildcats have accomplished that almost entirely without star tailback Venric Mark, who has dealt with an unspecified lower body injury all season. But Mark, who ran for 1,371 and was an All-American punt returner last season, is listed as a co-starter on the team's depth chart this week.

Fitzgerald said Monday that if Mark gets through practice without issue, "we will have him in some capacity" on Saturday. Treyvon Green (404 rushing yards, five touchdowns) has filled in nicely for Mark and brings a bit more power, but Northwestern's offense takes on a different dimension with Mark's speed, especially when paired with Colter.

Northwestern will likely need every available weapon against Ohio State, which managed to shut down Wisconsin's running game on Saturday while allowing some big plays through the air.

All coaches talk about being "multiple" on offense, but the Wildcats and Buckeyes truly embody that this season. Nebraska can also do just about everything, though the Huskers' offense sputtered against UCLA, while Penn State can keep defenses guessing with many formations and plays. Just about everybody else in the league is looking for a consistent passing game (Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin), a dependable running attack (Indiana, Illinois) or both (Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue).

Ohio State and Northwestern both have inexhaustible options on offense. The trick will be finding which ones work best on Saturday night.
Northwestern's offense has been rooted in the same philosophy -- players, formations, plays -- since coordinator Mick McCall arrived in 2008. McCall shapes his scheme around the players first before choosing formations and plays that maximize their skills.

In the first four seasons under McCall, most of the players ended up being wide receivers and quarterbacks. Most of Northwestern's formations highlighted the wideouts and most of the plays were passes. Northwestern's offense had a clear passing lean, especially in 2009, when the Wildcats ranked 13th nationally in pass offense. The Wildcats didn't neglect the ground game, but when it came time to identify the best players, the running backs didn't make the cut.

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern's Venric Mark
Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY SportsLast season Venric Mark became the first Northwestern running back to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.
"There's been some times in the past at Northwestern in the running back room where there was one guy, and that was it," Matt MacPherson, the team's running backs coach since 2006, told ESPN.com.

MacPherson clearly has his one guy in senior Venric Mark, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012 after rushing for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns. Mark, who earned All-America honors as a return man, was Northwestern's first 1,000-yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.

But MacPherson thinks Northwestern's options in the backfield go beyond Mark.

"I feel like we have four or five guys in my room right now that we can go win Big Ten football games with," MacPherson said. "That gives you a lot of flexibility, and it allows you to do a lot of different things. I came out of spring very pleased with the way they performed."

Mark remains the undisputed starter and will get the lion's share of the carries in the fall. He sat out most live-tackling drills this spring as a precaution, which allowed the other backs -- Mike Trumpy, Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones -- to get more reps.

Trumpy racked up 349 yards and three touchdowns on 76 carries as Mark's primary backup in 2012. Green endured a tough season with injuries and personal issues but bounced back and "had a great spring," MacPherson said. Both Buckley and Jones redshirted in 2012 but likely worked their way into the carries rotation with good springs.

"Our running back room has gotten deeper," McCall said. "We've got some guys that can play in a lot of different situations there. We've continually gotten better in that room."

Northwestern made a noticeable shift toward the run last fall behind Mark and dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter. After finishing no better than 45th nationally in rushing in McCall's first four seasons as coordinator, Northwestern surged to 19th nationally last year (225.4 ypg).

The rushing focus should continue as long as more running backs meet the first principle of McCall's philosophy. MacPherson thinks they will, and Northwestern might go with a two-back formation, which it used for 10-12 plays per game in 2012, more often this season.

"In my room, those eyes light up when they know we're going to start running the ball a bunch," MacPherson said, "and we're going to have two running backs on the field at the same time. That's something for them to get excited about. That just gives another aspect of competition, knowing that, OK, Venric may be the guy, but when we get into the two-back set, who's going to be the other guy?"

It's a question MacPherson is glad to be asking.

Many college football coaches, moonlighting as expert mathematicians, subscribe to the equation that two quarterbacks actually equals zero quarterbacks.

Others who attempt to use quarterback rotations end up with stagnant offenses. Quarterback competitions can be beneficial, but they also often divide locker rooms and lead to transfers. There are rare cases when a two-quarterback system works, and Northwestern appears to have found the formula.

The Wildcats won 10 games last season while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Although Colter started 12 of the 13 games and finished second on the team in both carries (170) and rushing yards (894), Siemian had more completions (128), pass attempts (218) and pass yards (1,312).

The offense wasn't a juggernaut -- 42nd nationally in scoring, 64th in yards -- and the rotation caused a midseason identity crisis, but Northwestern worked through it to have its most successful season under coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Both Colter and Siemian return for the 2013 campaign, and the bar has been raised.

"I believe we have two quarterbacks who can lead us to a Big Ten championship," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com before spring practice.

Why does Northwestern's two-quarterback system seem to work when many others fail?

It starts with acceptance.

As recent history shows, playing two quarterbacks is more of a necessity than a luxury in Northwestern's offense. The team has used multiple starting quarterbacks in each of the past three seasons and four times in the past five.

The nature of Northwestern's spread offense, which requires the quarterback to run and exposes him to injury, makes it essential to have multiple options.

"We'll always have to play our No. 2 quarterback no matter what because [the starter] is going to get dinged up," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "It's going to happen."

No player understands this more than Colter, who burned his redshirt late in the 2010 season because star quarterback Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles' tendon. Colter opened 2011 as the starter because of Persa's injury and shared time with Persa before rotating with Siemian last fall.

Colter's unique skill set -- he recorded 43 receptions in 2011 and might be the team's top receiver and best overall athlete -- increases McCall's flexibility at the quarterback spot. Siemian, meanwhile, has the stronger throwing arm of the two.

"It’d be stupid to say he’s not going to play," Colter said, referring to Siemian. "I think we both showed that we’re both going to play this year. It’s been a two-quarterback system ever since I’ve been here. Do I want the opportunity? Yeah. And I’ve had the opportunity in games where I’ve been the only quarterback, but I also feel at some point, I'm one of the best receivers we have on the field and one of the best running backs, so we have to get me in different areas."

Another key to the rotation is the strong friendship between Colter and Siemian. They both arrived at Northwestern in 2010 and studied the playbook together. Both were on track to redshirt before Persa's injury, which thrust Colter into the fire.

Siemian backed up Colter at times during the 2011 season before moving into more of a co-starter role last fall.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Siemian, who passed for 440 more yards than teammate Kain Colter last season, says the two-quarterback system can flourish at Northwestern.
"We're two pretty unselfish guys," Siemian said. "A lot of times at places, I’ve heard you get a quarterback competition or you get two guys buying time, and that kind of divides the team in two. We're all in this together. That's just part of the culture here as a program. It's not like Kain and I are that special, but we're all going for a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl."

Added Colter: "We've been through this whole thing together, all the offensive changes, all the quarterback changes. He's always helped me out and I try to help him out in any way that I can."

Colter's and Siemian's skills seemed to complement each other well for much of 2012.

As Northwestern transitioned to more of a run-based offense, Colter and running back Venric Mark shined in the zone-read game, and Colter's scrambling skills converted numerous third downs. Siemian showed off his arm on downfield throws and threaded the ball into tight windows. And while Colter didn't play nearly as much receiver because of the injury risk, he and Siemian connected nine times for 131 yards in a win against Indiana (Colter also had 161 rush yards and four touchdowns as a quarterback in the game).

"He’s one of our better receivers when he lines up out there, so for me, selfishly, I like it," Siemian said. "But then again, he's so dangerous when he lines up at quarterback."

Colter is working strictly as a quarterback in spring practice, but the door hasn't been closed to him playing other positions in the fall.

"We need him to get better at playing quarterback," McCall said. "As time goes on, there's always going to be a possibility of he and Trevor playing together on the same snap. That puts pressure on defenses. We can change some things up, they don't know actually what’s going on, it simplifies what they do. There's always going to be that opportunity as we go forward."

Colter's flexibility can keep defenses off balance, which Northwestern struggled to do with its rotation midway through the 2012 season. Offensive production dropped off in early October as Colter handled most run plays while Siemian was brought in for obvious third-and-long passing situations.

In late October, Colter questioned the unit's identity in an interview with ESPN.com, saying Northwestern had to fully commit to an option-based attack. Several days later, Colter and Mark combined for 328 rush yards in a win against Iowa.

"We know exactly who we are," Fitzgerald said. "The bottom line is we want to win, and we're going to do what’s best for the team first. Fans want to say, 'Why don't we throw it better with Kain, and why don't we run it better when Trevor’s in there?' Keep talking all you want, but the bottom line is we won the game. It's one of those situations where you want to play to guys' strengths, but you also don't want to be predictable.

"That's where the balancing act is."

There's also a balance with leadership that Colter and Siemian intend to reach in 2013. Colter, a co-captain in 2012, almost certainly will retain the title as a senior this fall.

He made his desire clear in a recent interview, saying, "No matter where I’m at [on the field], I'm going to be the leader on this team."

It's not an affront to Siemian, who doesn't take it that way.

"I'm a quarterback, so it'd be foolish for me to say I'm not a leader," Siemian said. "But Kain's a tremendous leader. He's done well leading our offense, but I have a leadership role on this team, too."

The Big Ten hasn't had a team with a true quarterback rotation win a league title in recent years. Northwestern hopes to change that this fall.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern running back Venric Mark stands just 5-foot-8 and weighs only 171 pounds, but he has a nose tackle-sized chip on his shoulder.

It's why his favorite run play is the inside zone. It's why he often gets in the face of defenders half a foot taller after between-the-tackles runs. It's why he runs to contact rather than away from it, like many backs his size.

"There's no question on Venric's toughness," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He's a tough, tough guy."

But is he a durable Big Ten running back? Mark suffered some minor injuries during the second half of the 2012 season, in which he rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns and led the Big Ten with 2,171 all-purpose yards.

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
AP Photo/Matt QuinnanNorthwestern running back Venric Mark led the Big Ten with 2,171 all-purpose yards last season.
Although Mark started all 13 games at running back for the Wildcats, he got banged up against Boston College, Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State and eclipsed 18 carries just once in the final six games. Some question whether Mark -- with his size and style of play -- is built to last, even though he tied for fourth in the Big Ten in carries (226) last fall.

Mark greets the durability doubts much like he does those bigger, seemingly badder defenders -- head on.

"They're always talking about, 'Is he durable? Is he durable?'" Mark told ESPN.com. "That was my first year playing running back. People see that I played my freshman and sophomore year. Yeah, but I wasn't an every-down back. So this year, I know what to expect from myself, being my last year, and everybody's going to say, 'Can he last? Can he last?'

"I'm going to let them do their job and talk. I'm just going to play."

He also won't forget what has been said or written.

"It gets on my nerves," he said.

Mark also isn't na´ve about the wear and tear his body will take this coming season. Just because he has been through a season as a No. 1 back doesn't mean he'll last through another. And he can't do a whole lot about his size. This winter, he has gained seven pounds to check in at 171 after losing some weight because of injury during the season. He hopes to play this season around 175 pounds.

To prepare himself for the pounding, Mark has been running and cutting with a 20-pound weight vest. Mark wants to emulate how Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter uses his vision to scan the field while still keeping his shoulders square when running between the tackles.

"For instance, if Kain and I, we're running 2-Knife, and I'm running inside zone, and a defender sticks his arm to turn me, [the vest] will help me keep my shoulders square," said Mark, a second-team All-Big Ten selection at running back and an All-American at punt returner. "That way, if a linebacker comes to my right or left, I can plant and still cut instead of running like this [shows his shoulders turning] where I can't make that move."

Mark also talks about the need to play smarter.

"Instead of trying to always run over people, at my size, I need to dip and drive, I need to sometimes cut back, juke," Mark said. "That will help me last longer, of course."

Mark averaged 17.4 carries per game in 2012 and had 20 carries or more just four times. He said 16 carries is the "minimum, minimum" amount he'd like to have in 2013 and would "prefer to get close to 20."

Wildcats offensive coordinator Mick McCall puts a greater value on overall touches than carries. This especially applies to a player like Mark, who averaged 18.7 yards on punt returns with two touchdowns, also serves as Northwestern's primary kick returner and had 20 receptions last season. And McCall doesn't just look at total touches, but what types of plays are being run.

"If it's inside zone 16 or 17 times, that might be a little high for Venric," McCall said. "If it's 20-25 touches but half of those are out in space, that's not bad. So we've got to manage him, how many touches he gets but more so, where he touches the ball.

"Some of it's got to be inside, there's no doubt. He does a great job in there. And as much as you want to manage it, he's still going to get dinged up. If he was a 225-pound back, look at the big backs from a year ago in our conference, they still get dinged up. That's part of that position."

McCall fully expects to play multiple running backs and multiple quarterbacks every year. And he has been pleased with the emerging depth this spring at running back with senior Mike Trumpy, junior Treyvon Green, and redshirt freshmen Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley.

But Northwestern's coaches have no doubts about their No. 1 back. And Mark expects to prove he's built to last this fall.

"He took some hits last year that he didn't need to take," Fitzgerald said. "It was similar to a quarterback going through his first year. V learned a lot on how he's got to take care of his body. The next step is just being smarter.

"He doesn't need to prove his toughness to anybody. That's always been his trademark."
Spring practice has begun in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what to expect from each Legends Division team this spring.

IOWA

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Questions at quarterback: The Hawkeyes played James Vandenberg for every snap last season, and now that he's gone, they have no quarterbacks on the roster with any game experience. Sophomore Jake Rudock has been viewed as Vandenberg's successor, but he's still a mostly unknown quantity who should get pushed in the spring by former junior college transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard. Whoever wins the job will be tasked with improving an Iowa passing game that finished with a Big Ten-worst seven touchdown passes in 2012.

2. Skills competition: While the quarterback race is vital, Iowa also needs standouts to emerge at the other skill positions to fix an offense that sputtered under first-year coordinator Greg Davis. The wideout corps, which struggled to get separation or make big plays, now is without departed senior Keenan Davis, who tied for the team lead with 571 receiving yards. There's a reason why Iowa signed five receivers in the 2013 class. The running back position has strength in numbers, with Damon Bullock, Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill all competing for carries this spring. The Hawkeyes just need to finally get some luck in the health and off-field departments at that position while hoping one player emerges as the go-to back.

3. Transition game: Iowa long had one of the most stable staffs in the country. But coach Kirk Ferentz added three new assistants this offseason for the second straight year, giving the program some fresh voices but also causing some potential bumps in transition. The offense in particular didn't mesh well last season under Davis, who'll look for solutions this spring. Ferentz has new coaches overseeing the running backs (Chris White) and receivers (Bobby Kennedy) and a new defensive assistant who'll work with the linebackers (Jim Reid). The Hawkeyes hope they can inject some life into a program that has seen its fortunes dip the past couple of seasons, including last year's 4-8 disaster.

MICHIGAN

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Devin Gardner as starter: Denard Robinson is gone and Gardner is the presumed Michigan starter for the first time. How he adjusts to that -- and how Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges develops more of a pro-style offense around him -- are a major launching point for the Wolverines next season.

2. Offensive line play: Michigan is replacing the entire interior of its offensive line and while there is a lot of young talent there, none of the potential candidates have any experience. Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk said he would like to have at least one of the three slots, if not two, settled by the end of spring.

3. Linebacker competition: The deepest position on Michigan’s roster also has the most competition. Jake Ryan at strongside linebacker is almost a given, but the middle and weak side slots are wide open. A bevy of freshmen and sophomores, along with returning starter Desmond Morgan, will vie for playing time in what will be a likely increased rotation in the fall.

-- Michael Rothstein, WolverineNation

MICHIGAN STATE

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Still Maxwell's house?: Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season at quarterback but was pulled in favor of freshman Connor Cook for the deciding drive of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Spartans will open up the competition under center, with Tyler O'Connor and eventually incoming freshman Damion Terry joining the fray. Though he has a big edge in experience, Maxwell will have to prove that he can greatly increase last season's 52.5 completion percentage to hold onto the job through the spring.

2. Replacing Bell: Saying running back Le'Veon Bell was a big part of the 2012 offense is like saying Tom Hanks had substantial role in "Cast Away." Bell carried the ball 382 times last year, more than any back in the country, and gained 1,793 yards. There is no ready-made in-house replacement, as leading returning rusher Nick Hill had just 21 rushing attempts last year and may be too slight (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) to be an every-down back. Junior Jeremy Langford will move back to the backfield after seeing time at receiver. Signees Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton might wind up with the job.

3. New playcaller in town: Mark Dantonio has yet to officially announce a replacement for former offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who recently left for an assistant's post with the NFL's New Orleans Saints. But reports are that former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman has been tapped to lead the Spartans' offense. Can Bollman, whom Buckeyes fans criticized as being too conservative, find the solutions for what was a dreadful attack in 2012? The Spartans' defense once again enters spring ball with very few question marks. Michigan State's hopes rely heavily on how much progress it can make on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 26

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Defensive back end: The Gophers lost two outstanding cornerbacks in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, as well as starting linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Jerry Kill has tried to address this during recruiting, adding a pair of well-regarded junior college linebackers (De'Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson) as well as touted high school corner Jalen Myrick. But some holdovers from last season's roster will have to step into bigger roles this spring.

2. The full Nelson: True freshman Philip Nelson took over the quarterback job midseason and now will enter practice as the starter. He showed flashes of immense potential but still has a lot of things to learn. Kill has said Nelson is no lock to start in 2013 and that he'll face legitimate competition from redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and incoming freshman Chris Streveler. Nelson has the inside track for now but must hold onto it.

3. Receiving line: The Gophers don't have a returning wideout who had more than 375 receiving yards last year, though Derrick Engel showed promise with a 100-yard day in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. You can blame some of that on the turnover and youth at quarterback. But Minnesota needs much better play at receiver to become a more balanced offense. Improvement by guys like Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte this spring will help, as would some immediate contributions from recruits Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky.

NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. Youth movement on defense: The Cornhuskers lost eight starters from last season's defense and will hope that some athletic young players are ready to step in. Guys like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose and Thomas Brown will be given long looks this spring. Nebraska coaches are hopeful that what they lack in experience, they'll make up for in speed. There's no bigger key for Big Red than having its young defenders make great strides in the spring.

2. Safety issues: The safety spot is an important one in Bo Pelini's scheme, and the Huskers lose both starters and a couple of top reserves from that position. Jackson will be given a look there, and the staff is high on Corey Cooper. But no starting jobs are locked down.

3. Martinez's progression: Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez won't be involved in a lot of live drills, and the spring will be a time to get freshman Tommy Armstrong some reps. But Martinez still needs to fine-tune a few parts of his game, most notably his tendency to force throws in key spots. He made great progress last offseason through extra hours of hard work; a similar leap this spring would make Martinez one of the very best players in the country.

NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. The quarterback duo: The Wildcats spent large parts of last season rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, using Siemian for more obvious passing situations. Will that continue this season? Colter needs to improve as a passer to become a better option as an every-down quarterback, and Northwestern's downfield passing game must get better. You can bet there will be a lot of eyes on Colter and Siemian this spring to see what offensive coordinator Mick McCall has planned.

2. Secondary concerns: The news that cornerback Nick VanHoose won't practice this spring because of injury could be a blessing in disguise. The Wildcats' secondary struggled when he was hurt last season, so this may provide an opportunity for others to get better without him. Jimmy Hall and Traveon Henry are youngsters who should see plenty of reps this spring in the defensive backfield.

3. Offensive line makeover: Three starters are gone from last season's offensive line, including both guards and left tackle Patrick Ward. Jack Konopka is the favorite to succeed Ward but will miss the spring with injuries, while 2012 signee Adam DePietro is among those who could step in at guard. Northwestern should have one of the best running games in the Big Ten in 2013 but will need its line to begin to take shape this spring.

It got interesting in the end because with Northwestern, it always does, but the Wildcats avoided another fourth-quarter collapse and found their identity in the process.

Remember what Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter told me this week?
"That's the problem that we're facing, we don't have an identity," Colter told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We really need to develop that with the play calling and find out what we're going to do. Once we finally establish that identity, I feel like teams are going to have to start game-planning to stop us, rather than us trying to game plan and change things and do that for them."

Opponents can start game-planning for the Wildcats now. It goes like this: stop Kain Colter.

Iowa had no answers for the Northwestern junior quarterback, who repeatedly gashed the Hawkeyes throughout Saturday's 28-17 victory at Ryan Field. Colter had 26 rushes for 166 yards and three touchdowns, including a 39-yard dash on third-and-5 to seal the win. He also completed 6 of 9 passes for 80 yards, including a 47-yard scoring strike to Christian Jones in the third quarter.

Colter helped Northwestern hold on after building a 28-3 lead.

Northwestern's quarterback rotation had stalled the previous three weeks, as sophomore Trevor Siemian struggled, Colter received surprisingly few snaps, three-and-outs spiked and time of possession plummeted. With Colter at quarterback Saturday, Northwestern (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) converted 8-of-11 third-down attempts, went three-and-out only once and racked up 20 first downs and 433 yards against an Iowa defense that, until recently, had been very solid.

Siemian likely will be a good Big Ten quarterback some day, but Northwestern's identity on offense is all about Colter, the option game with running back Venric Mark and converting red zone chances into touchdowns. If not for a bad snap inside the Iowa 5-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Northwestern likely would have put this game away long before it did. Mark had another big day, rushing for 162 yards on 16 carries. His 72-yard run from the Northwestern 1-yard line put him past the 1,000-yard mark for the season -- Northwestern's first back to reach that milestone since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.

You have to wonder what Northwestern's record would be if it had stuck with Saturday's offensive approach against both Penn State and Nebraska, teams that erased double-digit fourth-quarter deficits against the Wildcats.

Iowa (4-4, 2-2) had its chances after the bad snap, but the Hawkeyes simply don't have the offensive firepower, imagination or execution to erase big deficits. Watching Iowa try to run the two-minute drill was painful, as the Hawkeyes couldn't attack downfield against a Northwestern defense missing two of its three best cornerbacks. First-year coordinator Greg Davis has had a very rough go this fall.

Senior quarterback James Vandenberg undoubtedly will receive more criticism from Iowa fans, some of which is merited. Although Vandenberg completed eight of his first nine pass attempts and 11 of 16 in the first half, he couldn't hit the big play, took three sacks and, most disappointing, had three delay of game penalties, including one in the closing minutes with Iowa driving deep in Northwestern territory. You just can't have that from a fifth-year senior. In Vandenberg's defense, he once again got no help from his drops-prone receivers.

The Hawkeyes received a nice boost from Damon Bullock, who returned from a concussion to grind out 107 rush yards on 22 carries. Iowa needed Bullock after Mark Weisman left the game with a hip injury.

Iowa hit a low point against Central Michigan in Week 4, rallied back the next two weeks, but has now been thoroughly outplayed in back-to-back weeks. The Hawkeyes' season could come down to next week's game at Indiana.

Northwestern, meanwhile, is still alive in the Legends Division race, and enters a much-needed off week before trips to both Michigan and Michigan State. After nine weeks, Northwestern finally knows what it is on offense.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 9

October, 25, 2012
10/25/12
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten in Week 9 ...

1. Battle of the banned: The harsh reality of no bowl trip hasn't slowed down Ohio State or Penn State this season. New coaches Urban Meyer and Bill O'Brien have revolutionized the offenses in both Columbus, Ohio, and State College, Pa., and have their teams on long win streaks entering Saturday night's clash at Beaver Stadium. Expect an electric atmosphere in Happy Valley as Nittanyville has been packed all week and Penn State fans are viewing the game as by far the biggest of the season. Although neither team will play in the postseason, Saturday night's winner likely will have the label of the Big Ten's best team and will put itself in the driver's seat for the Leaders Division championship.

2. Legends of the fall: While Penn State and Ohio State compete for symbolic titles and a division crown, Michigan and Nebraska are aiming much higher -- for a spot in the Big Ten title game Dec. 1. The Wolverines and Huskers meet Saturday night in Lincoln for the right to sit atop the Legends Division before the final month of the regular season. Although both teams have remaining tests, Saturday's winner gets the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker and a confidence boost for the stretch run. Michigan makes its first trip to Lincoln in 101 years, and Saturday marks the first conference game in NCAA history to feature two programs with at least 850 all-time victories. Nebraska is 27-6 at home under coach Bo Pelini.

[+] EnlargePenn State
Andrew Weber/US PresswireBill O'Brien's Nittany Lions have opened games strong this season, outscoring opponents 66-0 in the first quarter.
3. Ball vs. Bell: The Big Ten's top two running backs -- Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and Wisconsin's Montee Ball -- will share the field Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in a reunion of two teams that last year gave us two thrillers, including one in the inaugural league title game. Ball, back to Mon-tee, has looked like a different player in Big Ten games, averaging a league-best 155.5 rush yards with 10 touchdowns. The Wisconsin senior has averaged three touchdowns per game in his past 17 contests, and needs five touchdowns -- of any kind -- to break Travis Prentice's all-time NCAA record. Bell was limited to just 68 rush yards on 26 carries last week, but still comes in ranked second in the Big Ten and 11th nationally in rushing average (123 ypg), just ahead of Ball (122.8 ypg). If Michigan State has any chance to record the upset and possibly turn around its season, it needs a big performance from No. 24.

4. Possible bowl elimination game: Both Minnesota and Purdue have some work left to get bowl eligible, and the loser of Saturday's game at TCF Bank Stadium will have its back to the wall. Both teams started the season strong, but have fallen off in Big Ten play, going a combined 0-6. Both teams have had quarterback issues and some trouble stopping the run on defense. Minnesota, needing two wins to become bowl eligible, has turned the keys of its offense over to true freshman Philip Nelson, who makes his first home start at quarterback. It'll be interesting to see how the former prep player of the year in the state performs in front of the home faithful. Purdue, meanwhile, comes off of a heartbreaking loss at Ohio State, a game it dominated most of the way. Inconsistency and big mistakes continue to haunt Purdue, which faces yet another pivotal game in the Danny Hope era.

5. Offenses in the crosshairs: Iowa and Northwestern combined for 72 points, 46 first downs and 874 yards in last year's game at Kinnick Stadium, a 41-31 Hawkeyes victory. If another shootout takes place Saturday in Evanston, it will come as a bit of a surprise. Iowa's offense has been a mess most of the season, aside from the surprising play of running back Mark Weisman. Many Hawkeyes fans are calling for a change at quarterback after senior James Vandenberg committed three turnovers in last week's blowout loss to Penn State. Coach Kirk Ferentz is sticking with Vandenberg, who might be able to capitalize on a Northwestern secondary banged up at the cornerback spot. Northwestern, meanwhile, is still searching for an identity on offense after enduring 20 three-and-outs in its past three games, including 10 against Nebraska. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall needs to figure out his quarterback rotation (read: give Kain Colter more opportunities) in a hurry.

6. Win or perish: Illinois coach Tim Beckman took a page from Jim Tressel's book during the off week and told his team to "burn the boats." The phrase, told to Beckman by Tressel, stems from the story of conquistador Hernando Cortes, who ordered his men to burn the ships that brought them to Mexico in the 1500s. "There was no turning back," Beckman said. "Win or perish. I have challenged this team to change." After four blowout losses, Illinois needs a lot of things to change as it hosts Indiana on Saturday. The Illini have a fairly favorable schedule the rest of the way, but they haven't been competitive against an FBS opponent since the season opener. Indiana, meanwhile, continues to find ways to lose and searches for its first Big Ten victory under Kevin Wilson. The Hoosiers have either led or been within one score of their opponents in all five of their losses. They seek their first win in Champaign, Ill., since 2006.

7. Miller's time: Last we saw Braxton Miller, the Ohio State quarterback was leaving Ohio Stadium in an ambulance after being slammed to the ground. Miller fortunately emerged with only a sore neck, and returned to practice this week. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said the team is preparing two quarterbacks for Penn State -- Miller and backup Kenny Guiton, who led last week's dramatic comeback against Purdue. Ohio State will use Miller as much as it can, but how he responds from the first real injury scare of his career remains to be seen. Penn State's defense has been stellar, but the Lions haven't seen a quarterback as dynamic as Miller since Ohio's Tyler Tettleton in the opener (a PSU loss). Given Ohio State's lack of depth on defense and Penn State's surging offense, the Buckeyes likely will need a boost from Miller in a tough environment to remain perfect on the season.

8. Martinez, Robinson on center stage: Michigan and Nebraska are contrasting teams in many ways, but they both have similar, dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the Huskers' Taylor Martinez and Michigan's Denard Robinson. Martinez was brilliant in leading Nebraska to a come-from-behind win against Northwestern, and he has been very good at Memorial Stadium throughout his career. But he'll face the best defense he has seen all season in Michigan. Robinson performed well in his last road game at Purdue, but still needs to distance himself from his early-season struggles away from Ann Arbor against Notre Dame and Alabama. For just the second time in college football history, two quarterbacks with more than 5,000 career pass yards and more than 2,000 career rush yards will square off (the other: Texas' Vince Young and Missouri's Brad Smith in 2005). Robinson leads all active FBS quarterbacks in career rushing (4,129 yards, 351 yards shy of the all-time record for career QB rushing), while Martinez is third (2,242 yards).

9. Roushar's play calling: Michigan State fans are understandably upset about their team's 4-4 start, and they've centered their critiques on offensive coordinator Dan Roushar. The Spartans have had a championship-level defense for much of the season, but the offense simply hasn't held up its end of the bargain. Head coach Mark Dantonio came to Roushar's defense this week, saying, "If they want to criticize, tell them to criticize me a little bit, because I'm in charge." But Dantonio also added, "We’ve got to get more points." Roushar's play calling looked pretty good in the two games last season against Wisconsin -- remember Rocket? -- but he'll have to find a way to move the ball against a solid, but not impregnable Wisconsin defense. The Spartans rank 107th nationally in scoring (19.6 ppg), averaging nearly 12 points per game fewer than they did in 2011. Michigan State should get more from tight end Dion Sims, who returned to the field last week at Michigan and can give struggling quarterback Andrew Maxwell a big target.

10. The start in State College: If season-long patterns hold for Ohio State and Penn State, the Buckeyes will be in trouble early on Saturday night. Penn State has outscored its opponents 66-0 in the first quarter and 100-23 in the first half this season. The Lions have scored in the first quarter in all seven of their games, and have scored at least one first-quarter touchdown in five contests. Ohio State, meanwhile, has been a slow-starting team in most of its games, being outscored 56-51 in the first quarter this season. The Buckeyes have been trailing at the end of the first quarter four times this season. The good news is they came out fast in their first road game against Michigan State, scoring on their first possession. Given how much confidence Penn State has and what will be a huge home-field advantage, Ohio State simply can't stumble out of the gate Saturday night. The good news is if the Buckeyes survive the first half, they should be in decent shape against a Penn State team that struggles in the third quarter.
Northwestern used to know exactly what it was on offense.

The Wildcats based their spread attack on accurate, dual-threat passers, a precise short-to-midrange throw game, elite slot receivers and a bit of option sprinkled in. They had their problems, like translating yards to points in the red zone, identifying a featured running back and moving the ball in short-yardage situations. But the offense almost always produced, and three-and-outs were rare. Northwestern ranked in the top 25 nationally in third-down efficiency in each of the past five seasons.

There have been different dynamics this season. Northwestern has its first elite back since Tyrell Sutton in Venric Mark, who ranks 18th nationally in rushing and fifth in all-purpose yards. The Wildcats are much stronger in the red zone, particularly on the ground, ranking sixth nationally in efficiency (94 percent) with 19 touchdowns in 31 chances. But they've also slipped dramatically in passing, ranking last in the Big Ten and 110th nationally (172.7 ypg) despite boasting what coach Pat Fitzgerald called the deepest receiving corps in recent memory. The team completion percentage has slipped to 62.6 -- OK for most teams, but not stellar for Northwestern. The Wildcats have attacked downfield much more, while their midrange game seems to have disappeared. Northwestern has slipped to 45th nationally in third-down efficiency.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesKain Colter (2) and the Northwestern offense are still searching for an identity.
The biggest change is a quarterback rotation -- Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian -- that clicked early this season but has seemed disjointed the last three weeks, as Northwestern has gone 1-2. Most troubling is the spike in three-and-outs -- six against Penn State (loss), four against Minnesota (win) and 10 last Saturday in a 29-28 loss to Nebraska.

Northwestern's offense isn't what it used to be. What it is exactly remains a mystery, even to key players.

"That's the problem that we're facing, we don't have an identity," Colter told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We really need to develop that with the play calling and find out what we're going to do. Once we finally establish that identity, I feel like teams are going to have to start game-planning to stop us, rather than us trying to game plan and change things and do that for them."

What should the identity be?

"We've been running the ball really well, especially with the option," Colter said. "Having both Venric and I back there, that's a threat. It's hard for defenses to stop. And at some point in there, there also needs to be Trev in the game and I'm at receiver. I don't know what our identity is, but I feel like we definitely need to establish our running game and our option, and then be able to throw and make plays in the passing game, too."

Offensive coordinator Mick McCall adheres to the philosophy of players, formations, plays. He shapes his plans around the strengths of his players.

But Northwestern's approach against Nebraska was a bit of a head-scratcher. Colter had given the Huskers all sorts of trouble in last year's 28-25 win in Lincoln. But Siemian played most of last Saturday's game, as Nebraska loaded up to take away the run and pressed Northwestern's receivers, resulting in numerous shots down the field. It worked on a 26-yard touchdown strike from Siemian to Tony Jones, but Siemian connected on just 15 of 35 attempts.

Northwestern went 5-for-20 on third down, continuing a troubling trend. Colter had 14 rushes for 35 yards and attempted just two passes, while spending most of the game at slot receiver.

"I don't think that was the game plan, but I'm not the one back there calling the plays," Colter said. "I'm just going where they put me. We did have success last year and obviously got that W. Some things have changed this year, I guess, and I'm going where the coaches tell me [to go]."

Colter noted that Northwestern's improved rushing this season has, at times, taken the place of the high-percentage pass game, which the coaches viewed as runs in the past.

"[Former Northwestern coach Randy Walker] used to say all the time the deep ball, the go route, the fade, is going to be executed 12 to 15 percent of the time, and that's what we were [against Nebraska]," Fitzgerald said. "We've just got to come up with better solutions and better answers in-game when some things aren't working. That's on us as coaches, obviously."

The quarterback rotation has been a different challenge for the Wildcats, who have used multiple quarterbacks in the past but typically because one gets injured. Siemian has attempted more than twice as many passes (162) as Colter (80), while Colter has 88 rushing attempts to Siemian's 17. Colter went 10-for-10 passing in the Minnesota game, but never attacked downfield. Siemian, meanwhile, took the field on several obvious third-and-long passing situations and completed just 1 of 7 attempts against the Gophers.

A potential concern is whether Northwestern tips its hand depending which signal-caller is in the game.

"I believe I can throw the ball," Colter said. "I've proved that throughout my time here. If I get that opportunity, I'm going to try and do it. I definitely have a lot to improve on as far as passing and so on, but I feel like I'm more than capable. I don't feel like we need to be predictable as far as when I'm in the game, we're going to run the ball. I feel like we've got to keep defenses on their toes."

Despite the offensive issues, Northwestern remains 6-2, still alive in the Legends Division race. But the clock is ticking to find an identity, eliminate the three-and-outs and feature its playmakers as much as possible.

Colter and his teammates hope to show Iowa who they really are Saturday at Ryan Field.

"We're definitely working on what works best for us, and sticking to that, having our offensive foundation," he said. "We'll see how it goes this week. Hopefully, we can go out there, get a W and change things around, regain momentum as we head into some crucial weeks of the season."
Matt McGloin, Braxton Miller and Joel StaveUS PresswireThe recent performances by (L to R) Penn State's Matt McGloin, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Wisconsin's Joel Stave give the Big Ten some hope for improved quarterback play.
Of the many theories to explain the Big Ten's collective struggles this season, the one about the league's dearth of elite quarterbacks certainly rings true.

Through eight weeks, the Big Ten has just one quarterback ranked among the nation's top 30 in pass efficiency (Nebraska's Taylor Martinez at No. 15). The league has just one quarterback in the nation's top 30 in completions per game (Penn State's Matt McGloin at No. 19). The league has zero quarterbacks ranked in the nation's top 30 in total passing yards.

As former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce told me last month, "A team can't get cut short at that position. I don't know whether the evaluation of the quarterbacks has been wrong, or they had injuries or whatever, but the quarterback position is down in the Big Ten. There's no doubt about that."

Bruce is right. There's no doubt. But there's also hope on the horizon for a league that hasn't had a quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 1995 (Penn State's Kerry Collins).

I sat in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday night and watched McGloin pick apart what had been a pretty salty Iowa defense. McGloin had complete command and tremendous awareness of his receivers and tight ends. He made correct reads and confident throws. McGloin's mobility is, well, limited, but one of his best plays came in the first quarter, when he evaded the rush and spotted tight end Jesse James on a deep crossing route to set up Penn State's first touchdown. As I tweeted at the time, McGloin is simply a different quarterback.

The same Matt McGloin who looked lost for much of the past two seasons has thrown 14 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in 259 pass attempts. The same guy whose selection as the Lions' starting quarterback this spring elicited groans from much of Nittany Nation, and understandably so, is by far the best drop-back passer in the Big Ten. Some say that's an indictment against the league, and they're right to a degree. But it's also a tribute to what new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien can do with a quarterback.

If O'Brien can do this with McGloin, a former walk-on (sorry, Matt, had to mention it) in one offseason, think of what he can do with a quarterback who comes to Penn State with bona fide next-level potential. Like Christian Hackenberg, the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect, who has verbally committed to O'Brien and the Lions.

There are other reasons for optimism at the most important position on the field. Ohio State's Braxton Miller has exceeded all expectations in his first year as a spread-offense quarterback. Whether or not Miller hoists the Heisman Trophy in December -- or even gets to New York for the ceremony -- he'll enter 2013 as the likely Heisman front-runner. There's little doubt Miller's skills fit seamlessly with what Urban Meyer and Tom Herman want to do on offense.

Youth is a common theme among current Big Ten quarterbacks. New offensive systems is another.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill pressed the fast-forward button Saturday, burned Philip Nelson's redshirt and decided the future is now at quarterback. While Nelson made some expected mistakes in his first career start at a very tough venue (Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium), he also showed why Minnesota fans are so excited about his potential. The experience this fall only will make him better in 2013.

The other quarterback on the field at Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin freshman Joel Stave, also is hardly a finished product. But he's a good play-action passer who doesn't make a ton of mistakes in a newish offense. Stave is another guy who should be better in 2013. Wisconsin also will have Danny O'Brien, Jon Budmayr and heralded recruit Bart Houston, provided Budmayr and Houston recover from their injuries.

Northwestern sophomore Trevor Siemian is another young Big Ten quarterback who looks his age. He's a half-step slow on his reads and his deliveries, and he's not connecting on the short-to-midrange routes that have defined Northwestern's offense for years. The good news is coordinator Mick McCall has a proven track record of developing younger quarterbacks into top-level Big Ten players in their junior and/or senior seasons (Dan Persa, Mike Kafka, C.J. Bacher). There's no reason to think Siemian, who has played more than the others as a sophomore, won't make a similar jump in 2013.

Look around the Big Ten, and most of the current signal-callers will be back next fall.

Nebraska's Martinez is a confounding player at times, particularly away from Lincoln, but he also has undoubtedly improved in 2012 -- he completes a league-best 67 percent of his passes with 15 touchdown strikes and four interceptions -- and will enter next year as one of the nation's most experienced quarterbacks. Another player who falls under that label is Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase, who has had his struggles this season but also has been operating in a new system with barely any weapons around him. Scheelhaase and the Illini offense will be better in 2013.

Indiana might have the Big Ten's deepest group of quarterbacks in 2013, as Tre Roberson returns from injury to join Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld in a pass-oriented scheme coordinated by Seth Littrell.

This isn't to suggest Big Ten teams don't have concerns at quarterback, both now and in years ahead. Andrew Maxwell's struggles at Michigan State are unsettling. Then again, he's a first-year starter with no proven receivers. Michigan loses one of the most productive players in team history in Denard Robinson. Then again, Robinson's departure accelerates Michigan's transition to the true pro-style offense Al Borges wants to run. If incoming recruit Shane Morris is as good as advertised, Michigan's future at quarterback looks promising.

No one expected Iowa's James Vandenberg to struggle so much in his senior season. Then again, the Hawkeyes are operating in a new offense under Greg Davis, and another full offseason could pay dividends for the new starter (most likely Jake Rudock).

The quarterback spot is and has been a problem in the Big Ten. There's no sugarcoating it.

But I saw reason for optimism with McGloin in Iowa City, and the combination of coaches, new systems, maturing players and incoming recruits suggests better days lie ahead.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern running back Venric Mark doesn't need a doctor to make the diagnosis.

Like most things in his life, he can do it all by himself.

"I have little man's syndrome," Mark told ESPN.com. "I've had that all my life, since Day 1. I've always been the small guy in the group. I've always been the guy that people go, 'Oh, no, let's not pick him.' So in my head, I'm thinking, 'OK, you're not going to pick me. I'm going to show you why you should have.'"

Any college coach who wouldn't pick Mark after the first half of the 2012 season hasn't been paying attention.

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
AP Photo/Matt QuinnanRunning back Venric Mark is on pace to break 1,000 yards.
Mark might be 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, but he's the single biggest reason why Northwestern sits at 6-1, right in the thick of the Legends division race. Along with Iowa running back Mark Weisman and Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson, Mark has been one of the Big Ten's surprise offensive stars through the first seven weeks, rushing for 792 yards and eight touchdowns.

He ranks fifth in the league and 15th nationally in rushing average (113.9 ypg). He also leads the league and ranks fourth nationally in all-purpose yards (184.6 ypg), recording two punt returns for touchdowns and 15 receptions, one for a touchdown. After putting himself in position to break most of Northwestern's career return records, Mark's emergence at running back has put the team's all-time career all-purpose yards mark (5,271 by Damien Anderson) very much in play.

"He's just playing at a high level right now," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "... He's a joy to coach."

Northwestern had 1,000-yard rushers every season from 2002-06, but none since. The team has lacked a true threat at running back since Tyrell Sutton departed after the 2008 season. For an offense born out of the Rich Rodriguez-style spread, it was a problem.

Few would have pegged Mark, a return specialist who struggled to find a true position for two years, to be the answer. Just don't tell him that.

"He has a level of intensity that if he was Muhammad Ali, he'd be knocking everybody out," said Northwestern linebackers coach Randy Bates, who recruited Mark out of Houston's St. Pius X High School.

Several times after runs, Mark has confronted defenders more than a half-foot taller than him.

"With football, emotions run high, people talk," Mark said. "For me, that's fuel. When they say, 'You ain't getting this,' that just motivates me."

Mark's edginess is his defining trait, even more so than the top-level speed that got him on the field at Northwestern as a returner and has been showcased on long runs, like scoring bursts of 48 and 26 yards last week against Minnesota. He's not a scat back who spends all his time on the perimeter.

He's a between-the-tackles runner who, along with quarterback Kain Colter, has boosted Northwestern's red zone run game, a weakness of the offense in previous years.

"Inside zone is his favorite play," Northwestern running backs coach Matt MacPherson said. "You have to be a special kid, a tough kid, and Venric is pound-for-pound one of the toughest guys on our team. He embraces that role. He wants it."

McPherson likened Mark to former Northern Illinois star Garrett Wolfe, who checked in at 5-7 and 185 pounds and while displaying tremendous speed in space, also had success between the tackles. Wolfe led the nation in rushing (1,928) in 2006.

When Bates began recruiting Mark, he heard some doubts about whether Mark could play in the Big Ten because of his size. Mark won Bates over with his intensity, a quality they share ("We're both pretty whacked-out in our own way," Bates joked).

The question always seemed to be where Mark would play.

Special teams was a given, and Mark became Northwestern's primary returner as a true freshman in 2010, averaging 26.2 yards on kick returns with a touchdown, and 12.9 yards on punt returns. He also stood out on kick coverage.

"There's no doubt in my mind if ever played anywhere at the next level, he could be on all special teams," Bates said. "He was a punt gunner and he was a kickoff guy, and obviously great returning. All that special teams value, even if he never played a snap on offense or defense, he already was a good player."

The coaches tried Mark at slot receiver, but he had just six receptions in his first two seasons, playing behind All-Big Ten selection Jeremy Ebert. There was some talk of using him on defense, but it never materialized. Although Mark came to Northwestern with the idea of simply being the team's starting returner, he wanted more and wasn't happy at receiver.

"I wanted the ball," he said. "I'm that type of player, I'm not going to lie to you. I like having the ball in my hands."

The coaches moved Mark from receiver to running back midway through the 2011 season.

"We weren't quite sure what position we were going to start him at, and as you can see, we were wrong," Fitzgerald said. "Hindsight being 20-20, we wish he would have started in the backfield sooner."

MacPherson knew Mark could make plays in space. His concern was how Mark would handle the mental challenge of being a running back in the Big Ten, where "you get the crap beat out of you," while remaining effective as a receiver and a blocker in Northwestern's offense.

Offensive coordinator Mick McCall wants to get Mark 25 touches per game. While MacPherson admits those won't be 25 inside zone plays, Mark has shown he can be a featured back, despite his size.

"I can take licks," Mark said. "Being a running back, you're going to get bumps and bruises. But it's how you play with them, it's your mindset. Coach MacPherson always talks about [defenders as] nameless, faceless victims. That's what they are."

How many victims has Mark taken this season?

"A lot," he said. "Us as a team, we've taken a lot. And we plan on taking a lot more."
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald likened last week's offensive struggles at Penn State to "having a road map to get home, and it's the wrong map."

The map the Wildcats followed led to several quick dead ends, particularly early in the game. After averaging 82 offensive plays through the first five weeks, Northwestern snapped the ball a season-low 61 times in a 39-28 loss to Penn State. More unsettling: after averaging 51.4 rushing attempts in the first five games (40 in each game), the Wildcats had less than half of that (25 attempts) against Penn State. The total plays marked Northwestern's lowest since running just 57 in a horrendous loss to Army last season.

So when Fitzgerald talked this week about getting back to the "blueprint," it doesn't necessarily mean rotating quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter differently, or using dynamic running back Venric Mark in new ways. Northwestern knows who it is on offense, but it needs more opportunities to showcase its identity, beginning Saturday at Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireGetting Kain Colter and the offense more snaps is a priority for Northwestern.
"Blueprint-wise, we didn't do anything different than we normally would have," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "We didn't have as many plays, and that was us just not converting."

Asked if he has a target number of plays per game, McCall said, "We'd love to get 80."

Northwestern eclipsed 80 plays in wins against Boston College and Indiana, and came close (76) in a victory against Vanderbilt. To get there this week, the Wildcats must start off much better than they did in Happy Valley. Northwestern ran just eight plays in the first quarter and went three-and-out on its first four offensive possessions.

Although the offense woke up a bit late in the second quarter and in the third, the slow start gassed the defense, which couldn't make a stop to possibly seal a win after Northwestern took an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter.

"If you look at who we are, we're an up-tempo, no-huddle, possession-through-plays offense," Fitzgerald said. "And we got away from that [at Penn State]."

McCall wants to have balance -- "Run the ball when we're supposed to pass it and pass it when they think we're going to run," he said -- but the key to improvement starts with the run game.

Top rushing threats Mark and Colter combined for only 18 attempts at Penn State. McCall would like to get Mark, the Big Ten's fifth-leading rusher, 25 touches per game, whether it's as a rusher or a receiver. Colter, who has been most effective as a slot receiver and running the zone read at quarterback, also needs to be a bigger part of the plan going forward.

"There's times where you like him in space," McCall said of Mark. "But there's also times where you like to get him the ball, because he hides in behind there, and he can hit the darn thing and away he goes. Any time you can get Venric Mark 25 touches in a game, that's pretty good."

McCall then added: "Everybody needed to touch the ball more last week. Kain and Venric, they need to touch the ball a bunch."

Both McCall and Fitzgerald downplayed the potential difficulties of managing two quarterbacks, or a shift this season to a more run-based offense. Their road map to success is there, but they have to stay in their lane this week in Minneapolis.

A good indicator Saturday is whether they reach 80 offensive plays.

"It's not a panic mode," McCall said. "It's more just a sense of urgency, and let's get going."
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Pat Fitzgerald doesn't deny the hard evidence, but he also feels there's more to Northwestern's case.

Yes, the Wildcats have seen their wins total drop in each of the past three seasons, from nine in 2008 to eight in 2009 to seven in 2010 to six last fall. After back-to-back 5-3 marks in Big Ten play in 2008 and 2009, Northwestern has seen its league record flip in each of the past two seasons.

It doesn't take a mathematics major at Northwestern to see where things are going and ask the question: Has the program lost momentum?

"You can nitpick everything you want, but there has never been more positive momentum in the history of our program," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "If you're going to choose one thing to make it be whether or not you have momentum, that's unrealistic. But we've got to win football games and we've got to finish games better than we did a year ago.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Reid Compton/US PresswireNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald remains confident that his program is on the right track.
"The program's definitely getting better. You can analyze that one area of wins and losses, which obviously I understand is critically important, but the difference between one or two games is not very much. We could have easily had six wins when we won nine. There's such a fine line."

It's Fitzgerald's job to look at the entire picture, and he notes some of Northwestern's recent accomplishments: four consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in program history; the winningest departing senior class in the program's history; a team GPA of 3.14; a 2012 recruiting class rated by many as the best in Fitzgerald's tenure. The school is also working on a facilities plan that could be a game-changer for the football program, which lags behind most of its Big Ten brethren.

Still, college football is a bottom-line business, and if Northwestern can't reverse the won-loss trend, its bowl appearances streak will end this season.

"Have we achieved our goals? Absolutely not," Fitzgerald said. "Are we hungry to do that? Absolutely. Are we working diligently to tweak the areas we need to improve? Absolutely."

Northwestern will try to make upgrades with a younger roster -- only 11 total starters return on offense and defense -- but quite possibly a more talented one. The team must fill several gaps, none more significant than Dan Persa's at quarterback, and hopes to do so by having what it believes to be stronger recruiting classes begin to pay dividends.

It's no secret the defense needs help after backsliding sharply in the past year and a half. Since a 6-2 start in 2010, Northwestern has surrendered 30 points or more 11 times. Last fall, the defense couldn't get off of the field (114th nationally in third-down defense at 50 percent conversions), fell victim to explosion plays and generated barely any pressure (106th in sacks, 104th in tackles for loss).

"You've got to make 'em earn everything," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "If they make great throws and great catches, you can live with those things. But we had some situations last year where we busted a coverage because of communication or we didn't have anybody back there. They didn't have to make the perfect throw or the perfect catch.

"We can execute better, no question."

The challenge is to improve communication and execution with a group heavy on youth. Although Northwestern returns all three starting linebackers, it will use young players in all three sections of the defense, including redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose, sophomore linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and redshirt freshman defensive end Deonte Gibson.

Consider that Ibraheim Campbell, a redshirt sophomore safety who led the team with 100 tackles in 2011, is viewed as the clear leader of the secondary.

Communication has been a focal point this spring, as players are taking extra measures to ensure they're on the same page.

"When I yell out a call to the D-line, the only way I know they got it is if they tap their hip," linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "We started forgetting about little stuff like that [in 2011]. Now when I make a call, if the D-lineman doesn't tap his hip, I keep on yelling at him until he does. Same thing with DBs to linebackers."

Communication shouldn't be an issue for Kain Colter, who started three games at quarterback in place of the injured Persa last season and evolved into arguably the Big Ten's most versatile offensive weapon (654 rush yards, 673 pass yards, 466 receiving yards, 18 total touchdowns). Colter is the best athlete to call signals at Northwestern since the team implemented the spread offense in 2000, but to maintain the program's recent run of top-shelf quarterbacks, he needs to become a more polished passer.

The junior emphasized velocity and arm strength during the winter -- he tore the labrum and the biceps in his throwing arm as a high school senior -- and expects to execute the high-percentage passes that drive the Wildcats' offense this fall. He'll have plenty of weapons as Northwestern boasts most likely its deepest receiving corps ever, even if USC transfer Kyle Prater can't play right away.

"My timing's getting a lot better, my arm strength's a lot better," Colter said. "I feel like I can make all the throws on the field. That hasn't been a problem this spring."

Northwestern loses four-year starters on both sides of the ball, an NCAA record holder in Persa, two-time All-Big Ten honoree Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, the inaugural winner of the Kwalick-Clark Award as the Big Ten's top tight end. Fitzgerald likened the personnel turnover to a shift change at a factory and acknowledges the team dynamic is different.

Given the declining wins total, though, some new blood might not be a bad thing, and the coaches feel the team's overall talent level is on the uptick.

"There's better talent than people think," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "The cupboard's not bare. We've got guys who can play football. They just haven't had the experience yet.

"It's just their time. Let's go play."
Spring practice at Northwestern kicks off March 3, and for the third time in the past four years, the Wildcats don't return their starting quarterback.

Recent history shows this isn't cause for panic. Mike Kafka went from a guy who threw a backward pass in an ugly loss at Indiana in 2008 to a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009 who led the league in passing. Dan Persa went from a run-first, little-used backup who completed 58.8 percent of his passes in 2009 to an All-Big Ten signal caller who became the NCAA's all-time leader in completion percentage.

Northwestern is hoping for a similar one-year jump from the three signal callers who will compete for the starting job in spring ball.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
AP Photo/Mary SchwalmNorthwestern's Kain Colter started the first three games of the 2011 season
"We've all been here before," offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mick McCall recently told ESPN.com. "It's good that they've followed some people who have been productive. But it's college football all over again.

"You restart and away you go."

Kain Colter played a more significant role for Northwestern in 2011 than Persa did in 2009 or Kafka did in 2008. Colter started the first three games for the injured Persa and appeared in 10 games as a quarterback, leading Northwestern to a win at Nebraska. He completed 55 of 82 pass attempts for 673 yards with six touchdowns and one interception. He also was Northwestern's top rushing threat -- he recorded team-highs in carries (135), rush yards (654) and rush touchdowns (9) -- and excelled as a receiver, recording 43 receptions for 466 yards and three touchdowns.

As the numbers show, Colter is the best athlete Northwestern has had at quarterback since implementing the spread offense in 2000.

But he also faces some obstacles to make a similar jump as his predecessors.

"No. 1 is obvious," McCall said. "I'm sure people talk about it, and Kain knows it: ball speed."

Colter tore the labrum and the biceps in his throwing arm as a high school senior. The injury likely turned away Stanford, the school to which he had committed, and limited his throwing.

Although the shoulder is better now, Colter at times lacks the necessary zip on his passing, which can hamper a Northwestern offense that relies on short, quick passes and accuracy.

"I don't know if it's ever going to be the same, but it's definitely getting close," Colter said of the shoulder. "I see it in flashes. Some throws, I have a lot of velocity, and some throws, I don't. Just trying to be more consistent with it. When it's there, it really is there. I feel like timing and ball placement is more important than arm strength, just being able to make all those throws."

Despite Colter's versatility, the plan is to have him play quarterback full-time during the spring. Sophomore Trevor Siemian and redshirt freshman Zack Oliver also will compete for the starting job. Siemian and Oliver both lack Colter's explosiveness as athletes, but arm strength isn't an issue for either player.

McCall notes that Persa's ball speed wasn't great as a younger player and that he built it up by getting stronger overall in the weight room. Colter has put on 10 pounds since the end of the regular season and hopes to be in the 205 range by the fall.

"He's much stronger now than he was," McCall said. "I don't feel like that’s going to be an issue, but he's got to go out and do it, too. He's got to do a great job of anticipating breaks and taking control of the offense, not just being a playmaker but distributing the ball to our playmakers."

McCall's chief mandate to Colter and the other quarterbacks involves leadership. Persa was the first player named to Northwestern's leadership council in each of his four seasons.

"They're the changing of the guard, and who is going to step up?" McCall said. "I hope all of them step up and make the decision real, real tough. I hope all of them become leaders of our football team."

Colter is ready to answer the bell. He took losses personally in 2011 and absorbed much of the blame for the team's shortcomings.

Despite a disappointing season, he sees enough talent on the roster and is spending the winter "trying to get everybody to reach their full potential, trying to get 100 percent of the effort all the time."

Can Northwestern continue its track record of quarterback development in 2012? Given the team's issues on defense, it's critical.

"It's always going to be different," McCall said, "but we have confidence that our system works.With the guys right now who are in the room, I have a lot of confidence that we’re going to be pretty darn good at the quarterback spot."
The offseason is upon us, and earlier today Brian took a look at the to-do lists for each team in the Leaders Division. Let's now turn the attention to the Legends Division and what teams need to accomplish during the next seven-plus months.

As a reminder, these items aren't recruiting needs, which we'll address in the near future, but rather areas each team needs to repair or restock before Aug. 31 or Sept. 1.

Iowa
  • Reverse the RB curse: Iowa's inability to retain promising running backs is well documented, and the Hawkeyes now must replace prolific sophomore Marcus Coker, who led the Big Ten in carries per game last fall (23.4 a game). The team has shown it produces capable backs, and several players either already on the roster or entering the mix could emerge. But it's critical that Iowa develops multiple options in the backfield in case injuries crop up or the AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back-Hating God) decides to strike again.
  • Replenish the defensive line: A year after replacing three NFL draft picks from the defensive line, Iowa once again has to restock in its front four. The team loses three starters, including standout tackle Mike Daniels, and has very little proven experience back in the fold. Defensive line historically has been an area of strength for Iowa, but the team's new defensive coordinator (yet to be named) and the staff must make the front four a focal point as they try to identify difference-makers.
Michigan
  • Shore up the middle: Baseball general managers talk about the need to build a team up the middle. The same theory applies to football as teams that are strong in the center of both lines typically fare well. Michigan must replace two of the nation's best interior linemen in center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and defensive tackle Mike Martin. Both are NFL prospects and will be missed. The Wolverines need Will Campbell, Quinton Washington and others to emerge at defensive tackle. The center spot could be even more critical as coordinator Al Borges relied so heavily on Molk in 2011.
  • Tightening "Shoelace": Michigan won 11 games and a BCS bowl this past season despite enduring "good Denard, bad Denard" fluctuation at the quarterback position. Looking at the Wolverines' daunting 2012 schedule, they'll have no such luxury when September rolls around. They need Denard Robinson to perform like a senior and show good consistency and improved comfort in the offense. He'll need to cut down on turnovers and deliver more performances like the one we saw against Ohio State on Nov. 26.
Michigan State
  • Develop Andrew Maxwell: Michigan State returns the league's most dynamic defense and should be improved in the run game, too. The big question is whether or not the Spartans can replace quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and a three-time captain. Andrew Maxwell has been groomed for the role and, barring a surprise, will lead the offense in September. It's a big offseason for Maxwell to establish himself in his own way and build chemistry with his teammates, particularly a new-look receiving corps.
  • Take line play to next level: Head coach Mark Dantonio understands that Big Ten success is tied to excellent play along both lines. The Spartans' defensive line looked elite at times in 2011, particularly when William Gholston and Jerel Worthy decided to dominate. Worthy is off to the NFL, and the Spartans will be looking to build more depth in the interior alongside Anthony Rashad White. More important, Michigan State must take a big step on the offensive line, a unit that lacked experience in 2011. The Spartans can't expect to win 11 games again with the nation's 78th-ranked rushing offense. They've established their identity on defense; it's time to return to their roots on offense and pound green pound.
Minnesota
  • Establish a defensive identity: Gophers coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to have an aggressive, pressuring defense, but the team had only 19 sacks and 61 tackles for loss in 2011. Those numbers need to increase and Minnesota must identify more playmakers along a defensive line that returns mostly intact. Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis will lead the linebackers, but Minnesota's defense needs a new quarterback after the departure of productive safety Kim Royston.
  • MarQueis to the max: We've seen snippets of brilliance from quarterback MarQueis Gray, but at other times he looks lost and fails to complete most of his passes (50.7 percent for the season). Minnesota needs to lean on Gray in 2012, not just as a difference-maker, but as a consistent leader every Saturday. Gray enters his second offseason in the system, and his days of splitting time between quarterback and wide receiver are in the rear-view mirror. He's the leader of this football team, and he needs to make the necessary strides to elevate his game.
Nebraska
  • Star search: Nebraska's defense loses two of the nation's best in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. The Huskers don't necessarily need their replacements to be stars, but they need difference makers to emerge on a unit that fell short of expectations in 2011. Defensive line figures to be a very strong area for Big Red, and players like Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith will be called upon to lead the way. Nebraska also must make some adjustments to better handle the big, physical offenses in the Big Ten. Linebacker is one position that could use a makeover.
  • Maturity on offense: Running back Rex Burkhead is exempt from this, as he figures to have a huge senior season after making big strides in 2011. But Nebraska's offense has plenty of players that need to mature for the unit to reach its potential this coming season. The offensive line was green at spots and should benefit from another offseason in Tim Beck's system. Nebraska has young talent at wide receiver with Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. If the wideouts can grow up, they'll be dangerous weapons in 2012. Quarterback Taylor Martinez also fits in here. He showed some good things in 2011, but must perform more like a third-year starter next fall.
Northwestern
  • Find playmakers on defense: Northwestern lacked difference-makers on defense this past season and loses one in All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters, who led the league with five interceptions. This might never be a shut-down defense, but it needs to identify more players who can influence games. Northwestern returns nine defensive starters and will look to players like defensive end Tyler Scott and safety Ibraheim Campbell to take their game to the next level. The Wildcats recorded a league-low 17 sacks in 2011 and ranked 104th nationally in tackles for loss (59).
  • Figure out the quarterback situation: Offensive coordinator Mick McCall has been masterful in turning inexperienced quarterbacks into All-Big Ten players at Northwestern. His next major project likely will be Kain Colter, who filled in admirably last season, but looked limited as a passer, and at times seemed better suited to play wide receiver. Colter will compete with Trevor Siemian and Zack Oliver for the starting job this spring. If he can make a similar jump as his Wildcats predecessors, he could be one of the division's most dangerous players in 2012.

Experts Breakdown: The spread offense

November, 17, 2011
11/17/11
11:00
AM ET

Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall goes over the strategy of the spread offense that has proven successful for the Wildcats.

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