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A football team always expects to have its depth tested throughout the course of a season, but the Northwestern Wildcats are having their's tested sooner than most.
Injuries to the team's two most dynamic offensive weapons forced Pat Fitzgerald's team to act on the fly in Saturday's season-opening game against California. Quarterback Kain Colter was concussed on the first offensive series and didn't return, while running back Venric Mark left the game with what Fitzgerald simply called a "lower-body issue" after picking up just 29 yards on 11 carries.
Monday, Fitzgerald reported that both Colter and Mark were day-to-day. Thankfully for the Wildcats, however, the next man in played spectacularly at both positions.
Northwestern's second quarterback Trevor Semien — it'd be a mistake to call him a backup in the Wildcats' two-QB system — was 18-of-29 with 276 passing yards and a touchdown, while backup running back Treyvon Green rushed for 129 yards — at 8.1 yards per carry — and two touchdowns. Any extended loss of the two primary offensive weapons would hurt the Cats quite a bit, but perhaps that blow would be lessened given how good the Nos. 2 looked Saturday.
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"I learned that, No. 1, we've got a backbone of character and resilience, resiliency I should say, to fight and to battle," Fitzgerald said Monday. "I thought that we had pretty solid depth that'll continue to be challenged as the season goes along."
The Wildcats overcame those injuries and a rapid assault from Cal to grab a 44-30 win on the road, thanks in part to outscoring the Golden Bears 17-6 in the fourth quarter. Fitzgerald was obviously happy with that late performance from his team.
"We worked hard all offseason from an attitude stand point, the way that we've practiced to regain an edge in the fourth quarter," he said. "That's where our conditioning showed up the most. I thought that's where our focus showed up probably the best. We probably played our best quarter in the fourth quarter of the game, which is something that hopefully we'll build upon as we go into this week."
While the health of Colter and Mark is the biggest concern for Northwestern going forward, the Cats do have a date with Syracuse on Saturday in Evanston. Northwestern beat the Orange last season on the road, sneaking away with a one-point, 42-41 win at the Carrier Dome that Fitzgerald just called "lucky."
"Last year we got lucky in the dome, played well at times but then just got lucky to find a way to win," Fitzgerald said. "They're very talented. I'm really impressed with the way they played against Penn State. I had a chance to get through that game here this morning. Physical on defense, physical on offense, takes on (head coach) Scott (Shafer)'s persona of toughness. They're very well-coached fundamentally."
Like the Wildcats just went through while preparing for Cal, Syracuse is also in the opening stages of a new coaching regime. Shafer was promoted to head coach this offseason after four years as the program's defensive coordinator.
So the challenges keep coming for Northwestern: early key injuries and more difficulties in preparation. Fitzgerald knows there are things that need perfecting, but there's one all-important stat he's very happy about heading into Week 2.
"The last thing I learned is we've got a long way to go," Fitzgerald said. "We're far from the finished product, but we're one of 50 percent of the country that goes into the next week with a 1-0 record. That's our goal again is to go 1-0 this week and grow and build from the things we did a week ago."