Andrew Renneisen | Photo EditorFootball
Northwestern running back Mark powers rushing attack; Smith, Gulley give Syracuse strong performances out of backfield
Heading into Saturday’s game, the Syracuse defense zeroed in on shutting down Northwestern’s dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter.
But it was the Wildcats’ electrifying running back Venric Mark who burned the Orange for 281 total yards. He entered the season among the top return men in the nation and showed why against SU, taking his first punt 82 yards for a touchdown and his second 52 yards to set up another Wildcats score.
“He’s dynamic,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I’ll stand by my statement that I think he’s the best in the country. You get him in space and he has a chance.”
Mark capitalized on his chances in open space Saturday, leading Northwestern to a 42-41 victory over Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. His two punt returns highlighted his brilliant all-around performance, which included a game-high 82 yards rushing and a 21-yard touchdown catch. The running back also became Northwestern’s all-time leader in kick-return yards after picking up 49 yards on three returns.
Mark’s big day started in the return game, where he has excelled his entire career.
With less than a minute to play in the first quarter, Jonathan Fisher boomed a sky-high punt 58 yards, forcing Mark to backpedal to the 18-yard line and wait for the ball.
Then the running back took off down the right sideline – blowing by Syracuse defenders to reach midfield – where linebacker Lewellyn Coker fell to the turf while made a last-ditch effort to take him down.
With Coker and the rest of the Orange in his rearview mirror, Mark cut back to the left side of the field and easily crossed the goal line to give the Wildcats a 7-6 lead.
“We knew No. 5 was a heck of a back,” SU head coach Doug Marrone said. “We didn’t want to go into the game where we would punt it to him.”
But SU would punt the ball to the shifty back one more time.
After Mark accelerated past linebacker Dan Vaughan for a wide-open touchdown catch to reclaim Northwestern’s one-point lead midway through the second quarter, he took a 53-yard punt by Fisher 52 yards to set up a short field for the Wildcats.
Four plays and 28 yards later, NU owned an eight-point advantage.
“After that, we made a decision that we weren’t going to kick it to him, no matter whether it was a kickoff or a punt,” Marrone said.
Still, Mark powered the Wildcats rushing attack, slicing through the SU defense for 82 yards. When Colter left the game after taking a big hit from Brandon Sharpe, Mark carried the offense downfield.
He rushed for 46 yards on four carries to get Northwestern to the 1-yardline. Colter, who had returned from his brief exit, punched it in on a quarterback sneak and Northwestern had its biggest lead of the game.
Though Syracuse defensive tackle Jay Bromley said the Orange expected the “dynamic” player to make things happen, he said the defense didn’t do enough to stop him Saturday.
“As far as the defense, we just have to close in on him and try to get hits on him and hope to slow him down,” Bromley said.
Smith, Gulley split time in backfield
All preseason camp, Marrone said his team didn’t have a primary running back. Out of five players fighting for time, none was worthy of taking the bulk of the carries.
Marrone named Jerome Smith the starter, with Prince-Tyson Gulley second on the depth chart, but he also said the other three players would see the field.
On Saturday, only Smith and Gulley carried the ball out of the backfield for the Orange. They combined for 84 yards on 17 carries in a game in which SU quarterback Ryan Nassib threw the ball a program-record 65 times. Ashton Broyld, who spent all of camp at running back, was utilized in the passing game, making four catches for 28 yards. And Adonis Ameen-Moore and Devante McFarlane spent Saturday watching from the sideline.
Both Smith and Gulley broke free for big runs in support of the pass-happy SU offense. Marrone said Smith gained some tough yards for SU, but he noticed Gulley – who also caught seven passes – a little more.
“I thought Prince broke a couple ones,” Marrone said. “Prince had a little bit more opportunity, called him a couple times and hit it up in there.”
Gulley burst through the line for a 14-yard touchdown run to put SU up 13-7 in the second quarter. Later, as Syracuse made its furious comeback in the fourth quarter, Gulley spun free from an arm tackle and turned upfield for a 21-yard gain.
Though the running game entered the season as a mystery, Smith and Gulley proved to be capable options for Marrone in the opener.
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