Oct. 2, 2013
Skip Myslenski files this midweek report from Northwestern practice, which for the first time in several weeks featured a rejuvenated Venric Mark.
A FEW MINUTES WITH V: "I feel pretty good. I feel real good," running back Venric Mark is saying. "I'm just taking it day-by-day. I had a full practice today. I'm just ready to come back and help the team."
He is standing outside the 'Cats locker room and, for the first time in a month, taking questions. He will not answer the most obvious one and identify just what has kept him in street clothes for his team's last three games. "It was a lower body injury," he will only offer, echoing his coach, and then he will smile and add, "C'mon, guys. C'mon."
But he will reveal that it struck him back in August, back before the 'Cats headed up to Camp Kenosha, and that he wasn't fully healthy for their season opener at Cal, where he played sparingly. "We knew something was wrong before the game, but I'm a stubborn player," he will add here. "The coaches were asking me, before going in there, what I wanted, and I told them I wanted to help the team. Who knows if it was the right decision or not? All I know is we got the `W.' We're 4-0 right now. We're looking to get another one."
Has it been hard not playing?
"I've been itching to get back on the field. I feel like a spectator a little bit. I'm not really used to that at all. So I've been having high energy, and I'm ready to go."
Did he lobby to come back sooner?
"I did a little bit. But at the end of the day, the coaches know what's best for the team. So I respect their decision. Clearly it was the right decision. . .I'm just glad to feel really good now. I've got mojo back. I'm happy. I'm just ready to get back on the field."
When he didn't have his mojo, was it frustrating, depressing?
"I wouldn't say depressing. I'm not really the type of individual who gets depressed. But I want to be out there. I want to play. That's when I'm the happiest here at Northwestern. I'm glad being around my teammates. The coaches will tell you I've always had a positive attitude. But being on the field just brings me a certain feeling and I haven't had that feeling in awhile. So I'm just glad to finally feel like I'm back up to par."
Does the timing of his return strike him, that he's got his mojo back, that he's back up to par just in time for program's most important game in at least a decade?
"You know what. That's, I guess it's kind of a reward in my eyes. Northwestern, we're just going to worry about Northwestern. Ohio State, great players, great team. A lot of those guys remind me of myself. High energy. After they make a big play, they love to celebrate, things like that. It's going to be a good game. We're going to be ready. They're going to be ready. And when it's time to go, it's time to go."
Will he be returning punts and kickoffs against the Buckeyes?
"My plan personally is to do returns. But you never know what the coaches want. They know what's best for the team though. So coming into this game, what matters for the team is what matters for the team. So if they want me to do that, I'm going to do that. If they don't want me to do it, I'm not going to argue with them."
THE V FACTOR: "It's a heck of a free-agent pickup. You get an All-American back who hasn't played yet, it makes a big difference," Pat Fitzgerald would say of Mark's expected return against the Buckeyes. "But we'll see. As I've said, we'll see as the week progresses. I'm optimistic, as I said (Monday), that things will go well. But we'll just see how things go."
Can he sense how eager Mark is to play?
"I think all the guys are eager to play," Fitzgerald said. "Obviously he's been out a couple weeks. But I think the guys have been working hard over the last two weeks. When you have a bye week, it just seems so long since the last time you played. But the guys have been really focused in the practices we've had and hopefully they'll just continue to enjoy the moment. That's what I just told them after practice. I loved their focus today. It was terrific. It was maybe the best I've been around. But let's go have some fun."
WHAT GOES 'ROUND: The 'Cats last faced Ohio State way back in 2008, losing that affair by 35. At Ryan Field that afternoon on an official recruiting visit was defensive end Tyler Scott, a native of Warren, OH, and a big Buckeye fan. But that very day he got an offer from the 'Cats, which he soon accepted, and now he is set to face the school he once cheered on.
"It's a cool experience," he says of that. "You always want to play the best people in the league and they're one of the better teams. It's definitely going to be a challenge. I think we're prepared for it, though.
MATCHUP: Here is what Fitzgerald said when asked if, after watching Ohio State on film, he thought there was a talent gap between the Buckeyes and his `Cats: "I think there's a talent gap between anybody in the top five and everybody else. Not just us. Everybody. I had a chance to watch a couple of the top five teams (last Saturday) and I think they're incredibly talented. But I think we're pretty darn talented too. So. Beauty's in the eyes of the beholder and I think our guys are incredibly talented. That's why we brought them here. I think they're the full package. I think they're the real deal. And I think we're doing everything possible to coach `em up and make `em better and develop them. But, obviously, those top five teams are talented because they play up to their talent consistently. That's why they're talented. Not because of what their recruiting rankings were. But because they're executing what their coaches ask them to do in a consistent fashion."
AND FINALLY, Venric Mark, on Saturday: "We give Ohio State respect. They respect the game of football just like we respect the game of football. Every time they step on that field, they're ready to play. We know that. But we're also ready to play and we have a lot of confidence right now."