Northwestern got some good news this week: Venric Mark is returning, and it couldn’t be coming at a better time.
The running back, who’s been dealing with a leg injury all season that has kept him out of the Wildcats’ last three games, was listed No. 1 at tailback on the team’s depth chart heading into Saturday’s uber-matchup with the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes in Evanston.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday that he hoped to have Mark back in some capacity for Saturday. Now, it looks like he’ll get that and more. One of the biggest challenges this week for Northwestern will be matching the incredible amount of offensive weaponry the Buckeyes boast at the skill positions. Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde, Devin Smith, Kenny Guiton, Jordan Hall. It seems like the list never ends.
"The weaponry that they have and the talent that they have at every position — there's an All-Big Ten player at every position on their offense," Fitzgerald said on Tuesday's Big Ten coaches conference call. "The vertical passing game, they've been not only effective, they've been deadly. That's how they beat Wisconsin on Saturday, they just were explosive. And you watch the Cal game, the way they were explosive, and really all the games this year. It's just really impressive to watch."
But Mark is one heck of a reinforcement. He was one of the most dynamic players in the conference last season, rushing for 1,416 yards and 12 touchdowns and returning a pair of punts for touchdowns, as well, leading to the FWAA naming him a first-team All American as a punt returner. He was named as one of the conference's "players to watch" before the 2013 season started and carried the ball 11 times for 29 yards in Northwestern’s Week 1 game against Cal before sitting down for the next four weeks.
The news that Mark will be playing Saturday sent Ohio State coach Urban Meyer “back to drawing board.”
"I spend a lot of time watching special teams, so I can tell he's one of the best punt returners, kick returners in America, an All American. When I heard that (Tuesday), I went back to the drawing board on a few things just to make sure we've got the right people out there to go down and tackle him,” Meyer said Tuesday. “Offensively, I haven't watched as much. I have watched some offense, but our defensive coaches say he's a 1,400-yard rusher and an All-American player. Any time you put that right in your offense, that's big.”
Of course, Northwestern did do a pretty good job replacing Mark during his absence. Treyvon Green leads the Cats with 404 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the season. Quarterback Kain Colter and running back Mike Trumpy have followed up with 237 and 203 yards on the ground, respectively. All in all, Northwestern has rushed for 998 yards on the season with 10 rushing touchdowns. The team's 249.5 rush yards per game currently rank fourth in the Big Ten.
But Fitzgerald and the Wildcats will be thrilled to get a player the caliber of Mark back in the lineup. And for Meyer and the Buckeyes, it adds another big item to their to-do-list.
"It doesn't change how you prepare," Meyer said. "It's just that you're aware of him and better get him on the ground."