Some two months ago, back on Media Day for the on-rushing season, Pat Fitzgerald took time to laud the running back Venric Mark. "What I like most about V so far is his attitude has been tremendous," he said then. "He's like a kid in a candy store. He's having fun. I told him the other day, 'You're a junior now.' He just kind of rolled his eyes. It's going fast for him, but he really invested this summer. He's in great shape."
"As I think about it now, yeah, it has really gone fast," Mark himself would say minutes later. "I remember when I first got here and I can't believe I'm going into my third year ... It gives you a sense of urgency. Coming into your junior year, it's bar none. You've got to make plays. We're all hungry for that. We really are."
Mark, of course, has made myriad plays in the season now upon us and, along the way, exhibited a toughness, an ability to run between tackles and talent enough to put up some gaudy numbers. He is averaging 99.8 rushing yards per game, best on the 'Cats and fifth best in the Big Ten. He is averaging 30.6 yards per game on his punt returns, best in the Big Ten and second-best in the nation. He is, most tellingly, averaging 178.5 all-purpose yards per game, again best in the Big Ten and eighth-best in the nation.
These are impressive numbers for any performer and even more impressive for one who goes (by his reckoning) a mere 5-foot-7 and 174.3 pounds. Yet there is a fire in him now, that fired stoked by the urgency he alluded to some two months ago, that blazing fire the offensive tackle Chuck Porcelli alluded to some weeks ago when he said Mark was the most passionate of all the 'Cats. "It's just deep down inside, to be honest. It's just me growing up," Mark himself will say when asked about that observation.
"I've honestly always been like that in everything I do. Playing cards, playing dominoes, playing soccer. I always play with a chip on my shoulder because I was always seen as that little guy. People always said, 'You're a little guy.' I'm not going to lie. I really, I really disliked that. But it kind of feeds me, so I like when they think that. That way, when they come and make contact with me, they think I'm a little guy. Then once I hit them, they're 'Whoa! What the heck just happened?' So it's really to my advantage."
Is that chip still there on his shoulder?
"Oh, definitely. And it's not going to go away. I have it in practice. I've gotten into multiple confrontations this year in practice. That's just how it goes. But we're still teammates. We still love each other."
What has clicked for him this year and propelled him to such productivity?
"Basically, I have two more years left, to be honest with you. As I was looking back, my freshman and sophomore years, I didn't really seize the moment. I did OK on some returns and stuff like that. But I kind of got complacent. Coming into this year, I felt I wanted to do more and actually have a chance to start. Then I came into the running back room and coach (Matt MacPherson) said, 'The (starting) job is up for grabs.' When I heard that, I said, 'Hey, I got to go.'"
Does he still feel, after all he has done, that he is still looked at as the little guy?
"Honestly, I couldn't tell you. I try to, like Coach Fitz always tells us, stay out of the media, don't always read that stuff. So I try to stay out of that. But, just looking at me, I know people say, 'Well, he doesn't have the body frame of a back. He's not 200 pounds.' I've taken some hits and people think, 'He's hurt. He's hurt.' Then I came out this (South Dakota) game and did what I did (117 rushing yards on just 16 carries). So I just let people think what they think."
We tell him now about Michael Jordan, who would create slights even when they weren't there to motivate himself, and wonder if he does the same thing.
"I don't have any specific team or individual (I do that with)," Venric Mark finally says. "But in my mind I do go onto the field and think, 'You know what. They probably do think I'm too little. So let me go out and show them.'"
MORE SPEED: The 'Cats open their Big Ten season Saturday at Ryan Field against Indiana, which -- according to its game notes -- runs a play every 21.4 seconds. Northwestern is also known for its up-tempo offense and so we wondered if Fitzgerald kept a similar stat. "No, no. We only track wins and losses," he said initially.
Then he tucked his tongue into his cheek and added, "But we've got the flux capacitor out this week. Set at 1.21 jigawatts. Tempo and speed. Ah. I would like to think we're prepared for it because that's what we do. We expect it. We've played it before too. We've played the Texas Tech offense. At times in that game (the 2011 TicketCity Bowl) we played very well, and at times we missed tackles and played like garbage. So, hopefully, we'll rise to the occasion."
WE ALL KNOW WHAT FAMILIARITY BREEDS: Not only are the ante and the talent level upped in Big Ten play. That is true too of all those abstracts like intensity and passion and pressure and urgency. It very much resembles, in that way, an ardent sibling rivalry, a premise we presented to linebacker David Nwabuisi while discussing the challenges now awaiting the 'Cats. He chuckled that idea away and then said, "None of these schools are little brothers or older brothers. Each school is its own entity. And every game, you don't need a rivalry. You just want to win. At the end of the day, you just want to win. It wouldn't matter if we were playing a D-III team, we'd want to win. That's what it all comes down to."
Then what makes conference games different, tougher?
"For one, every team knows the other team's makeup pretty well since we play each other every year," he said. "We don't play Boston College every year, Vanderbilt every year. So we don't really know what they're going to come at us with every single time. But now that we're in conference play, we play Indiana almost every year. So they know our team very well, we know their team very well, they're well-prepared, we're well-prepared, and we just have to come out and play hard. Now that we're playing for that Big Ten trophy, every game matters. We haven't proved anything yet. We've got to go out there and prove ourselves everyday in practice. Then when it comes around to Saturday, we've got to prove ourselves in that game. Every game you go into, you want to respect your opponent. But at the end of the day, you have to earn their respect on the field that day."
"I think everyone knows each other," Fitzgerald would later echo when asked the same question. "We see each other every year, every other year, and now, with the divisions, you're going to see everybody in your division every year. So, as you move forward, you've got a good feel for your opponent, you've seen these guys year in and year out. Also, there's just so much respect. I think everybody knows that anybody can win on a given Saturday in a conference game. You look across the board, some other leagues have already played conference games and they're all dog fights. You look at the track record of this series, a lot of close games. A lot of close games."
QUICKLY NOTED: Seven of the last eight games between the 'Cats and the Hoosiers have, in fact, been decided by seven points or less. The exception was last year's. . . The Hoosiers lost Tre Roberson, their starting quarterback, for the season when he suffered a broken leg in week two. Cam Coffman, who replaced him, then suffered a hip pointer in their last outing, a loss to Ball State two Saturdays ago. He was replaced by true freshman Nate Sudfeld, who went 13-of-20 for 172 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter of that game. But Coffman returned to practice last Monday and is expected to start against the 'Cats. . . Coffman, a sophomore, is a junior college transfer who last season threw for 2,244 yards and 21 touchdowns while playing for Arizona Western CC. His father Paul was a tight end for the Packers from 1978-85 and his brother Chase was a tight end on the Missouri team that defeated the 'Cats in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. . . The Hoosiers, no matter their quarterback, are averaging a Big Ten-best 326 passing yards per-game. They are also averaging 538.3 yards of total offense per game, second best in the conference. It is no surprise, then, that Fitzgerald said, "It's going to be the best challenge we've had to this point as a defense.". . . It is also no surprise that the Hoosiers are so potent offensively. Their head coach is Kevin Wilson, who was the Northwestern offensive coordinator in 2000 when they switched to the spread, shared the Big Ten title and played in the Alamo Bowl. "I have a ton of respect for Kevin. He's one of the top offensive minds in the country," Fitzgerald said of him.
AND FINALLY: Fitzgerald, on the task ahead: "I think the hardest thing you're ever going to do is win a Big Ten football game. You kind of throw the records out every game. There's always going to be great environments. There's always going to be hostile environments. Hopefully we can get it started off in the right way. I think we've built some pretty positive momentum in Ryan Field. We've had great fan support, the best crowds that we've had since I've been head coach in the nonconference schedule. A four-game homestand is kind of rare in college football. Now we need to finish the homestand."