Vanderbilt, Northwestern to meet after wild starts
Northwestern's Venric Mark returns a kick for a touchdown against Syracuse's during last Saturday's road game.
Strong academic institutions in top athletic conferences, Vanderbilt and Northwestern have a few things in common. Put wild openers on the list, too.
The two teams opened the season on dramatic notes last week and will look to build on them when Vanderbilt visits Northwestern on Saturday.
The Commodores are trying to move on from a 17-13 loss to No. 9 South Carolina in which pass interference went uncalled, ending their bid for an upset. Northwestern, meanwhile, escaped with a one-point win at Syracuse.
"We're just taking it as this week we're 0-0 right now," Vanderbilt linebacker Archibald Barnes said. "We're going to play Northwestern. We're going to win. In our mindset every day, we come out everybody wants to be a winner. We take that week by week. Hopefully, we'll see the wins piling on ... That loss it's in the past. It's not our focus anymore."
That's probably for the better for Vanderbilt, considering the familiar start to this season. The Commodores had some close losses a year ago on the way to a 6-7 record, and it happened again last week.
South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger grabbed Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews' left arm on a fourth-down pass from Jordan Rodgers, preventing him from possibly catching the ball deep in Gamecocks territory with about 1:47 remaining and basically sealing the game.
It was a disappointing finish for a team that held South Carolina to just 67 yards passing — an eye-popping number for a team coached by Steve Spurrier even if quarterback Connor Shaw bruised his shoulder in the first half. It didn't help that the Commodores allowed five sacks, but even so, they were in it right until the end.
Now, their focus is on a team that had its share of drama a week ago.
"I'm not sure we're going to win the Miss America contest this year," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "But I'm really not worried about it. I'm just worried about winning."
Northwestern survived at Syracuse, building a 22-point lead and then rallying in the final minute for a 42-41 victory with starting quarterback Kain Colter on the sideline. His upper body had been badly bruised because of some hard hits, and when Syracuse scored to go up six in the closing minutes, he made a decision. That was to put the team above himself.
He told offensive coordinator Mick McCall the Wildcats would be better off with someone else running the two-minute drill. So they went with Trevor Siemian, and he led them on a 75-yard drive, connecting with Demetrius Fields in a corner of the end zone for the go-ahead 9-yard touchdown, the final twist in a wild start to the season.
"To me, that's a pretty strong statement of a guy who's, No. 1, confident in himself and selfless in his leadership style to say, `You know what, right now I might not be able to go out and do the things my teammates need me to do for our team to win,"' Fitzgerald said. "That's a pretty strong statement of his leadership. And the first guy to meet Trevor coming off the field was Kain."
Along with that late pass, Northwestern also got a dazzling performance from Venric Mark. The junior sure made his first start a memorable one.
He set a school record with 134 yards on punt returns, running one back 82 yards for a touchdown. He also returned three kickoffs for 49 yards, giving him a school-record 1,513, and chipped in on offense with a career-high 82 yards rushing.
By the time he was through, Mark tied a personal best with 281 all-purpose yards.
Colter, meanwhile, completed 14 of 21 passes for 135 yards and ran for 40, while Siemian was 8 of 11 for 78 yards in the game.
"We're really focusing on their quarterbacks, their pass patterns, things like that," safety Javon Marshall said. "We have a lot of confidence coming off the first game."
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