An Offense Grounded

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, 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 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.

Poor passing performances like this one are very rare in Northwestern’s recent history.

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, 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.

  • Chasmo

    The old saying which declares that if a team has two quarterbacks it really has no quarterbacks seems to be in evidence in Evanston. It’s one thing to give a quality backup a chance to play a couple of series in a game but the Cats seem committed to alternating quarterbacks depending on down and distance on every series and we’ve seen that hasn’t worked well against non-losing teams.
    Why is this happening? Have Fitzgerald and McCall lost faith in Colter as a passer? Is Siemian looking great in practice every week so the coaches stick with him in games despite his struggles? Whatever the reason, NU’s current system insures that neither Colter nor Siemian get the normal amount of reps in practice that starters usually get and that neither gets a chance to get into a rhythm during a game because rarely does either quarterback play more than three or four plays in a row.
    NU’s quarterback system defied conventional wisdom at the start of the season but in recent weeks it seems conventional wisdom is making a comeback.
    Let’s hope for the best vs. Iowa.

    • PDXCat

      Come on, this 2-QB thing makes it hard for teams to game plan against us. Let’s not forget: the QB platoon has worked really well.

      Oh, just once.

      Oh, against Indiana.

      Never mind.

  • CatInTheHat

    Apologies for an off-topic question, but Adam Rittenberg, on the ESPN Blog today, referenced an article in a local Jacksonville paper this week that apparently went into detail regarding why the Gator Bowl does not want Northwestern and would pick a 7-win MSU team over an 8- or 9-win ‘Cats team, even though they know that NU would travel better.
    Does anybody have a link to that article or have a rough idea of the content?

    • Mark
      • CatInTheHat

        Thanks–you are a gentleman and a scholar. But jeez, the tone of that article is downright insulting. Clearly, they DON’T realize that we were one of only two B1G schools to sell out our bowl allotment last season. That article really puts a bone in my craw or whatever the old saying is.
        “Although Catlett didn’t rule any Big Ten team out, Northwestern is unlikely to get to Jacksonville because most non-BCS bowls shy away from private schools with small enrollments and alumni bases for economic reasons: They don’t buy many tickets or bring many fans to a bowl city.”
        Good grief!! After that, I don’t want to give them my money anyway. Eff ’em.

        • That makes me very sad and I am sure a lot of Florida alums really sad. I would definitely be in Jacksonville.

          • CatInTheHat

            It makes me sad too, primarily because it’s yet more proof that the NU perception needle has moved very little in the past 30 years, despite our best efforts to make it inch in a positive direction. It also most likely axes our best shot at a New Year’s Day bowl. That said, I prefer Phoenix as a destination to Jacksonville.

          • I have all the confidence in the world that the good Dr. Phillips has the “right people” at each bowl well educated on the NU pitch. I’ve seen it in action in person and can tell you this is one of the many things he works on yearround that folks don’t know about. The fact we’ve leapfrogged two schools in the past three years that have larger alumni, better attendance proof.

          • CatInTheHat

            True–Phillips is never to be underestimated in this department. @jonathanhodges:disqus is also correct in pointing out that nobody quoted in the article mentions Northwestern by name.

      • CMF

        Screw the Gator Bowl. Let’s get this offense going and finish strong.
        Outback Bowl or better – even if it does give us a tougher opponent. I
        don’t want to break the bowl streak against a cupcake anyway.

      • Richard

        I have no desire to go to Jacksonville anyway.
        In fact, they are the sole B10 bowl location that I definitely would not go to.

    • Timc

      Holy crap and just as well, as we would get pulverized by any one of those potential opponents.

    • It’s clear that the slight against NU in the article is the writer’s own opinion, and I wouldn’t expect such a person to know the ins and outs of the selection process.

      Fortunately the Gator Bowl has been around for a while and I trust that Jim Phillips knows how to pull the right strings. I used to always assume NU would get slighted in bowl selection until he came around and got NU into the Outback & Texas bowls ahead of teams with better records from the Big Ten.

  • bandcat


  • zeek

    At least we’re acknowledging this. I think has been a real big problem for us late in games as our offense sort of throws its hands up in the air and tries low percentage strategies.

    Against Penn State, after giving up a td, we did a quick 3 and out on the ground, which led to another Penn State td that gave them the game.

    Against Nebraska, we did that through the air…

    At some point, we need an identity we can count on, we don’t have that yet.

    • bandcat

      “We’ve just got to come up with better solutions and better answers in game when somethings aren”t working”. Fitz….. JUST DO IT!!!!!! Take Control…

  • NUmanager

    People say they want Kain full time, but I haven’t seen anyone offer any logic/numbers to back up that argument. Kain leading us full-time and we are quite likely sitting at 4-4 right now. Pull out the one long run from last week by Venric and we had 100yds rushing on 37 carries against one of the worst defenses in the B1G. We are developing a young QB who will lead us to great things in the future. If a rough few games was enough to bail on a young QB, we would have never seen Baz again after his soph year.

    • NUmanager

      The numbers are stunning. Basanez was the 2005 B1G Offensive Player of the Year. In 2003 he had a 53% completion percentage with 4 TDs thrown. He started all 13 games and threw 300 passes. People need to relax on Siemian and think about where we’d be without him. Seimian didn’t blow big leads against PSU and NEB, but he sure as hell bailed us out in the non-conf. People need to relax.

      • Richard

        Actually, Siemian did, because when we needed to control the ball and run out the clock, Siemian didn’t do that.

      • Dave

        All of this talk about Siemian and no mention of how lucky he has been to only have one interception this year?

        He throws about 2 or 3 should-be INTs per game. If our opponents capitalized a little better, this whole colter vs siemian thing wouldn’t even be a discussion.

        Therefore, let’s only use him on drives when taking risks is OK and it’s obvious we’re going to pass (like down late in the 4th quarter)

      • TexasCat

        3 and outs dont help the team and contribute to blown leads… Colter moves the ball… But yes, Trev was great when we didnt ask him to do to much… Not so much lately.

    • Richard

      This logic makes no sense.
      Take out Siemian’s longest pass (the TD reception), and Siemian’s yards per attempt are even more atrocious when compared to other QB’s.
      If Colter was in the game late against PSU and UNL, we likely win those games, so I very much doubt that we’d be doing worse than we are now.

    • TexasCat

      Colter moves the ball. In a year like this, that is all the defense needed to catch their breath in the fourth. Dont need numbers to tell me that if we can hold the ball (not necessarily score) at the end of the Penn Minnesota and Neb games we are probably undefeated right now. Your comment fails to adjust to the reality of this season….. Our D CAN AND HAS won a few games(I know its different, but it is what it is). Letting Trev sling the ball around for predictable 3 and outs has been our downfall. As for letting Trev grow up…. Good idea. Put Trev in a limited role that does not jeopardize games. Do not force him into situations he is not ready for while also taking Colter out of his rhythm so we are left with 2 unproductive QB’s instead of one. This is NOT a rebuilding year. Spring, two a days, Non-conference games are the only times I want to see Trev “learning”. We did not come into this season with a QB problem. We created one.

  • Watching and (Mostly) Waiting

    I don’t believe the two-QB system is fundamentally flawed. What I think hurts us is the way we’re running it–Colter only runs, Siemian only throws. Our opportunities lie in the other side of the playbook for both QB’s. Predictability and conservative play-calling are our downfall. Have we run a reverse all season? Was excited to see the first shovel pass of the year to Vitale early against NEB, then never saw it again. And almost every pass against NEB was lobbed to the edges, which are the toughest for a young QB to make. C’mon, guys, let’s mix things up a bit and take some chances on offense. Play to win, not to avoid losing.

  • Richard

    My stance is still the same as it was several weeks ago:
    Colter to start and to close out games when we have the lead; Siemian in when we are trailing late and need to take risks throwing downfield. If the coaches had followed this gameplan, NU likely is undefeated now.
    Colter should be allowed to pass more. Even if he is weak-armed (he is) and the short passing game is taken away with press coverage, have Colter throw jumpballs down the sideline to Prater if we need/want to go deep.
    It does beg the question of why we haven’t used Prater more. Even if he is slow, he is big, and can outjump almost any CB.

    • Nate

      I’ve wondered the same thing about Prater. He was single-covered last week and if Trevor didn’t lock onto Kain, he might have connected with KP on a deep ball.
      I agree with your stance on the QB situation and I haven’t wavered on my thoughts about it all year: Kain is the starter, gets the ball moving and (hopefully) puts some points on the board. Trevor is the reliever, the guy NU goes to when running the ball isn’t an option. If defenses keep giving NU the deep ball, go for it. Hopefully the receivers will be more aggressive this time.

  • TexasCat

    Whether the cause of the offensive problems is play calling or lack of experience, We have a proven playmaking, game winning, chain moving baller in Cain. I liked the bonus points we got from Trev early in the season, however his lack of experience has caught up with him. I believe that eventually this will be an actually “controversy” as Trevor has huge upside but it is not now. The bottom line is, the kid is NOT ready to carry the load our OC has pushed on him. He has been exposed 3 games in a row (Minnesota could have easily gone as bad as Penn and Neb). Whats worst, we have benched what we once called a possible heisman candidate in the 4th quarter to allow an inexperienced kid to learn on the fly…. (head scratch)…. Are we in a rebuilding year? Did I miss something? Trev will be probably be great, but I do not like the decision to risk games, and the season trying to force him to grow up when he is obviously not ready AND WE HAVE CAIN. Even when Dan the man was hobbled we didnt ask Cain to do to much and he was arguably more ready for the moment then Trev is now. Save the QB competition for spring/two a days and let me know how it turns out coach. I’m sick of the experiment and the obvious favoritism. Turn Cain loose!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!