It is the biggest identity question any offense has: Who is your quarterback? Who is the guy leading the way, calling the plays in the huddle, and ultimately carrying the team to the finish line in a tie game?
These are big questions, one that you hope to have answered in training camp in a clear way.
Northwestern thought it had that. The team thought it had a new answer to that age-old question. The mix of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian through five games looked immaculate, defying age-old adages and complementing each other brilliantly while confounding defenses. Colter provided the legs and speed in the option game. Siemian provided the touch and arm strength in the passing game.
There always seemed to be waiting this sense of explosion and outburst of scoring at any time as these two — along with the preseason-acclaimed wide receivers and the emergence of Venric Mark at running back — worked together to wear down defenses. Syracuse got beat by Siemian and his throwing ability in the end. Vanderbilt got beat by Colter on the ground and a mix of the two in the air. Indiana was dismantled as Siemian continually found Colter in open space as a receiver and the two worked in tandem.
What could possibly go wrong?
Kain Colter has a pretty good idea of what can go wrong. In an interview with Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com, he said Northwestern has lost a bit of its offensive identity. And the Wildcats, including important players like Colter, are struggling to figure out exactly what this team’s identity is and how to get back whatever identity the team had:
That’s the problem that we’re facing, we don’t have an identity,” Colter told ESPN.com on Wednesday. “We really need to develop that with the play calling and find out what we’re going to do. Once we finally establish that identity, I feel like teams are going to have to start game-planning to stop us, rather than us trying to game plan and change things and do that for them.
“We’ve been running the ball really well, especially with the option,” Colter said. “Having both Venric and I back there, that’s a threat. It’s hard for defenses to stop. And at some point in there, there also needs to be Trev in the game and I’m at receiver. I don’t know what our identity is, but I feel like we definitely need to establish our running game and our option, and then be able to throw and make plays in the passing game, too.”
Northwestern found out painfully what lacking an identity and being confused on what the team is trying to do offensively can do in the last three week. The team has gone 1-2 and hardly looked like a team capable of posting 700-yard games of offense. Questions have arisen more and more about what the offense is trying to do. The playcalling has come into question. The quarterback rotation and substitution patterns have come into question. There seems to be a general level of concern about the offense.
The Wildcats offense has simply stopped working. Everyone can see it and it is frustrating to watch considering the potential and talent on the field.
And it all comes back to the quarterback and the apparent lack of rhythm created in the constant flipping of quarterbacks from one series to another or even one play to another. It was the kind of move that looked brilliant when it worked, but now looks like it is muddying things up.
NU has passed for 250 yards only twice so far this season — against Indiana and Boston College. Overall, Northwestern is completing 62.6 percent of its passes. But in the last three games, NU has completed 48 of 90 passes (53.3 percent). Against Nebraska, Northwestern completed only 16 of 37 passes (43.2 percent), the first time since the TicketCity Bowl against Texas Tech in 2010 and had not happened before that since the Miami (Ohio) game in 2009.
Even against Vanderbilt this year, Northwestern struggled to pass the ball with the quarterbacks combining to go 17 for 31 for 133 yards. It is not simply a problem of Nebraska’s gameplan of pressing receivers at the line and forcing Northwestern to beat them over the top. The strategy suffocated Northwestern’s short-passing attack as Siemian struggled to get the ball to his receivers with simple throws in space to pick up yards.
This year has been a strange anomaly when it comes to Northwestern’s passing game. Fortunately, the emergence of Venric Mark at running back and Kain Colter’s ability in running the option have helped keep Northwestern’s offense afloat and made the team still very dangerous — 6-2 dangerous to be precise.
This is where the oddity of Northwestern’s quarterback situation comes in. The Wildcats at the two-third pole of the season have clearly become a running team even if the play calling or other identifiers have not quite caught up. This shift in identity has had its hiccups because of the lack of a consistent pass game. For whatever reason, Northwestern has become extremely predictable with its passing attack.
Kain Colter is not in to pass, he has attempted only 80 passes in eight games and has had four games with less than 10 pass attempts. If you are a defense preparing for Northwestern it seems like Colter is not in the game to pass the ball.
Siemian has been called upon to pass the ball, particularly in third and long situations where his arm strength come more fully into play. But in the last three games, Siemian has really struggled. He has completed only 47.4 percent of his passes, including the 15-for-35 passing performance against Nebraska — a performance which marked the first time since the Outback Bowl a Northwestern quarterback had 20 incompletions in a game… and then it was understandable considering NU threw it 70-plus times. More than that Siemian has regressed some as he has stared down receivers, particularly Kain Colter when he is in, and has missed receivers on those passes that he seems to be in for that Colter has not developed the consistency to make. It is easy to forget after Siemian led the comeback against Syracuse that this is pretty much a first-year starter.
What is not easy to forget is what we are seeing: a Northwestern offense that is really struggling to establish a consistent passing attack and thus a consistent offensive threat. Many recognize that some of the defense’s problems late in games are correlated to Northwestern’s offensive problems.
So how does NU fix it?
Simplicity may be the key. The reason NU likes the dink and dunk passes is because they are easy completions for a player like Colter to make and help NU set up its run and option game and the occasional deep pass. More importantly, it gets the talented receivers out in space where they can make a play and opens running lanes later on. Getting back to the root of the offense, possibly with Colter at quarterback because of his experience, will help this team find its identity tremendously.
Former defensive lineman Jack DiNardo, writing for PurpleWildcats.com, notes that if Northwestern is going to use this two quarterback arrangement, the team has to put both players in opportunities to succeed.
Simplifying the offense — maybe sticking with Colter as quarterback a bit longer and mixing in some throws for Colter (possibly evening out how much Colter throws compared to Siemian) — may establish that rhythm and establish the kind of gameplan Northwestern wants.
One thing is certain, Northwestern cannot continue to have an offense that struggles to stay on the field and struggles to pick up first downs. With the defense already stretched thing some by injuries, the offense needs to be turned loose and carry a bit more of the weight for this team to have success.