Pat Fitzgerald says two-thirds of his Northwestern football team is playing well enough to win games.
What’s surprising is the one part that’s failing the struggling Wildcats.
Northwestern entered the season with aspirations of having one of the Big Ten’s most potent and productive offenses, but instead has floundered.
Injuries are mostly to blame, and they’ll likely remain a factor Saturday, when the Wildcats, on a four-game losing streak, visit Nebraska.
Senior running back Venric Mark, who last season rushed for 1,366 yards, and had an 80-yard touchdown run against Nebraska, isn’t on this week’s depth chart, a sign he’s doubtful to play.
Mark, suffering from an ankle injury, has played in only three games all season, and he’s eligible to apply for a medical hardship waiver, should he not play in another game.
His replacement, junior Treyvon Green, leads Northwestern with 463 rushing yards but sat out the Wildcats’ 17-10 overtime loss at Iowa because of injury. He since has returned to practice, and is listed No. 2 behind senior Mike Trumpy on this week's depth chart.
“It’d be great to have (Green) back in the rotation,” Fitzgerald said on Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches’ teleconference. “I’d say when he’s been healthy, he’s played really well for us.”
But overall, Northwestern’s rushing game has taken a slide. The Wildcats are averaging 181 rushing yards — eighth best in the run-centric Big Ten Conference — after averaging 225 rushing yards last season.
Northwestern began the season 4-0, cracked the Associated Press Top 25 and was in a seesaw game with conference leader Ohio State at home to open Big Ten play. But the Wildcats, trailing 34-30 in the fourth quarter, couldn’t convert on fourth-and-short, and things have gone south ever since.
“We played like garbage in Madison (a 35-6 loss to Wisconsin), and the next two games, we beat ourselves,” said Fitzgerald, whose team has 15 turnovers this season, including two lost fumbles in Iowa territory last week.
“It’s pretty straightforward here, and guys are approaching it with everything they’ve got. They’ve given great effort every week in practice. We just have to coach and play smarter and play with more discipline. The challenge isn’t any easier this week on the road.”
Quarterback Kain Colter, who spurred Northwestern’s upset of Nebraska in 2011, missed the Wildcats’ loss to Minnesota because of a leg injury. He returned last week against Iowa, though, and rushed 18 times for 60 yards, while going 11-of-14 passing to raise his season completion percentage to 81.8.
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But Northwestern, partly because of five penalties, six sacks and two turnovers, had only one touchdown.
“We’ve got to become more consistent offensively and we’ve got to score touchdowns,” Fitzgerald said. “If we do that, we’ll be fine. You just have to keep grinding and do what you do.”
More to prove
So much for what Minnesota’s victory over Nebraska proved.
The Gophers, who are now bowl-eligible, are underdogs for Saturday’s road game against a three-win Indiana team that’s ranked No. 112 nationally in run defense.
Though acting coach Tracy Claeys believes Minnesota’s ground game, which amassed 271 yards against Nebraska, can have similar success against Indiana, he understands why the Hoosiers are favored.
Indiana's potent offense has 51 plays this season of 20 yards or more, and has scored at least 28 points in nine straight games, a program record.
“You can’t get real concerned about some of the yardage, because they do the quick, short throws and they make you tackle in space,” Claeys said. “If we can keep the ball in front of us and play well on third down, then I think we can limit the scoring a little bit. I don’t know if you can stop them.”
This is the first game between Minnesota and Indiana since 2008.
* Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook now ranks among the Big Ten's all-time single-game leaders in completion percentage after going 15-of-16 passing in Saturday's 42-3 victory over Illinois. The 93.8 percentage is seventh on the conference's single-game list.
* From the something's-got-to-give department: Iowa has allowed a nation-low two rushing touchdowns this season. On Saturday, the Hawkeyes host Wisconsin and running back Melvin Gordon, who leads the Big Ten with 11 rushing touchdowns.