EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — As nice as a 4-0 start is, Venric Mark realizes this is no time to get giddy. His teammates won't argue, either.
Mark ran for 117 yards and three touchdowns to lead Northwestern to an easy 38-7 victory over South Dakota on Saturday afternoon.
This one figured to be a breather, and that's exactly what it was. The Wildcats (4-0) barely broke a sweat against a FCS opponent after tight victories over Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College, building a 28-0 halftime lead with Mark going off for 97 yards and doing all his scoring.
"We still have a long way to go," Mark said.
They're off to a good start, though.
The only real scare in this one came when Kain Colter took a hard hit from South Dakota's Chris Frierson at the end of a 10-yard run rather than slide. He landed on his left wrist, which has been bothering him since the opener against Syracuse, and spent most of the first quarter on the sideline. But Colter came back and finished with 46 yards passing and 38 rushing.
Running back Mike Trumpy, meanwhile, sat out the first half and ran for just 10 yards, after going for 106 and a touchdown the previous week against Boston College in a game that coach Pat Fitzgerald said left him "a little banged up."
Northwestern wanted to limit the touches for Trumpy and Mark. But with Mark making the most of his 16 carries, the Wildcats wound up with 277 yards on the ground and 408 overall.
Trevor Siemian added 72 yards passing. Quentin Williams came up big for the defense with two pass breakups and a sack, and the Wildcats remained unbeaten heading into their Big Ten opener against Indiana.
"The mentality our team likes to take is that it's a clean slate for us now," Williams said. "While we did go 4-0 in nonconference, it doesn't mean much if we don't do well in conference. ... We're in a great place right now, but we have a long way to go and we're going to work toward that."
South Dakota coach Joe Glenn basically said the same thing about his team, that the Coyotes (1-2) have a long way to go. He used words like "pathetic" to describe their play and was particularly peeved at center Tim Ross for botching snaps. Put simply, he didn't hold back.
"I want to tell you how sick I was at halftime," Glenn said. "We didn't have to help them. We made way too many mistakes that had nothing to do with Northwestern."
Josh Vander Maten threw for 189 yards, but the Coyotes managed just 51 on the ground and fell to 2-26 against the Big Ten.
Northwestern had no trouble finding the end zone after struggling to get there the previous week against Boston College. This time, the Wildcats scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, and Mark was the one setting the tone.
He broke off a 47-yard run on the game's second play from scrimmage and capped the opening drive by carrying it in from the 4, a good start after he sat out the final quarter the previous week with a lower body injury. Things just got better for Mark and the Wildcats after that.
Tyris Jones scored on a 5-yard run on their next possession after Siemian and Tony Jones connected on a 42-yard gain, and it became a 21-point game midway through the second quarter.
Northwestern started on its 43 after a 17-yard punt by Cole Zwiefelhofer and quickly took advantage. Colter scrambled 24 yards, and Mark finished the drive, crashing through the line for a 6-yard touchdown that made it 21-0.
Things got worse for South Dakota in the closing minutes of the half.
Vander Maten wasn't ready for the snap, and the ball hit him in the knees. Northwestern took over, and Mark scored on a 4-yard run.
It was an encouraging start for the Wildcats, but the work is just beginning.
"What IU's doing is completely different from what we saw from South Dakota today on both sides of the ball," Fitzgerald said. "Are we going to really get after it and really prepare the way that championship teams do and the way that mature teams do? Or are we just going to be fat and sassy that we won a couple games here in the non-conference?"