Northwestern was left scrambling for a replacement last October when Vanderbilt bought out their multiple-game contract. The result is the first meeting between the Wildcats and Western Michigan.
Coming into Saturday, NU is ranked 17th in the country on the back of impressive wins at Cal and at home vs. Syracuse. For WMU to have any hope, they'll have to play nearly perfect.
BroncoBlitz.com looks at what WMU would have to do to hang with Northwestern.
1. Contain Kain..
P.J. Fleck wasn't shy about who the defensive gameplan for the Broncos will focus on this Saturday.
"You've got to contain Colter," he said. "A lot of their yards come from breakdowns. It happens, and boom, Colter makes a 25 yard gain. He gives them another dimension. I don't think we're going to stop him, but we've got to contain him. So it starts with number 2."
Colter gets a lot of attention from the media (and opposing defensive coordinators), and with good reason. The senior missed almost all of the Cal game to injury, but bounced back in a big way last week by completing 15-of-18 passes for 116 yards and a TD and running for another 87 and a score.
It'll be interesting to see how WMU plans to slow him down. Louie Vaccher of WildcatReport.com offered a couple of ideas earlier today in a talk with BroncoBlitz.com.
"Containment is the key for defending Colter. When he's throwing the ball you can't let him get outside the tackle box, where he can use his dynamic playmaking ability to either run or throw and turn nothing into something. Similarly, when he is running the zone-read, it's better to force him to hand the ball off inside at the mesh point rather than keeping it and getting to the edge, where he can really do some damage. All of that is easier said than done, of course."
Easier said than done, indeed, for a defense that has struggled mightily the past couple years against the read option. I'm anxious to watch the matchup for that reason alone.
2. ..but don't forget Siemian.
Not to suggest that the coaching staff has forgotten about NU's other quarterback. But with all the talk about Colter, much of the media seems to have forgotten about Trevor Siemian.
More of a pocket passer, the 6-foot-3, 210 pound senior obviously had to play the majority of the Cal game. But with Colter healthy again, Siemian still got close to half the snaps against Syracuse, and was very impressive.
For the year, Siemian has 535 yards (11.1 per attempt) and four TDs, including going 15-of-19 for 259 and two scores last week.
Overall WMU probably matches up a bit better against him simply because the secondary is able to man up better than the front seven. Splitting time between the two is just another way the Wildcats make themselves a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare.
3. Will Venric Mark play?
You could immediately follow this question with "Does it matter?"
Venric Mark is one of the best backs in the Big Ten when healthy, but he's banged up right now. Treyvon Green is making a strong case that NU will be fine without the dynamic Mark, though, averaging 6.9 yards per carry in his absence and providing yet another threat out of the Northwestern backfield.
Where the Wildcats might be missing Mark more is in the return game. NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald singled out that unit as one that's not performing up to par right now, and perhaps Mark's injury is one reason why.
So even though Green is more than capable of moving the ball on the ground, it still may be a break for the Broncos if Mark doesn't play. A minor break, sure, but WMU is going to need everything it can get.
4. Keep some balance
"We have to be able to run the ball."
P.J. Fleck re-iterated this idea Tuesday, and it would certainly appear to be true heading into the weekend.
It's interesting to look at what Northwestern has been able to do defensively so far. Against the run, they've been stout, giving up only 3.3 yards per carry and barely 100 yards per game.
Meanwhile, Syracuse and Cal's passing games have found success to the tune of 380 yards per outing and about seven per attempt. But it's boom or bust for the Wildcats, who share the lead nationally in interceptions with seven.
WMU stays in this game by keeping Northwestern honest on the ground. They don't have to be spectacular, but there has to be some measure of ball control to keep the defense off the field and Van Tubbergen upright. If NU can pin their ears back and come after TVT, the Broncos are in trouble.
5. The ball is the program
Through two games, turnovers have been killer for WMU. That has to be a frustrating reality for P.J. Fleck, who consistently extolls the virtue of protecting the football with his "the ball is the program" saying.
Now, the issue with fumbles that cropped up all too often last season appears in early returns to be mostly resolved, but five interceptions, many at inopportune times, have really handicapped WMU.
Combine that with Northwestern's proclivity to picking off passes, and there might be an issue.
This plays heavily off of the last key, because it would seem that developing a running game early would open up a lot for Tyler Van Tubbergen, as well as relieving a lot of pressure. There will likely be opportunities for Van Tubbergen to get the ball downfield against this NU defense-- if he can keep it out of their hands.