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Northwestern went from having two great QBs to two mediocre ones. What gives? The coaches have set them up to fail.
Remember earlier this season, when we had an embarrassment of riches at QB? When we pbbbbted at anybody who said that canned line, "When you have two QBs, you have none"?
Well, after two straight subpar performances from our signal callers, maybe there's something to that. The more nuanced answer, I believe, is that our offensive coaching staff has gotten away from what made the platoon so successful early on.
In the first five games of the year, we had Kain Colter starting and doing his thing. And every few series, Trevor Siemian would come in to give defenses a completely different look for a drive or two. Opposing teams had TWO gameplans to develop to stop our offense, and we'd mix and match with about a 60/40 Colter:Siemian ratio to keep them off balance.
But the last two games, our quarterback rotation has been, in a word, confounding. We have not mixed and matched. We have used one quarterback primarily, leaving the other to stay cold on the sidelines. Against Penn State, Siemian was QB1A, while Colter got a mere 14 snaps out of 61 plays. Against Minnesota, the situation was reversed, as Siemian got just 10 out of 51 plays.
But more so that just the raw number of snaps is that our offense has become completely predictable when QB1B comes into the game. When Colter came in against Penn State, it was almost exclusively to run the option. Colter didn't even attempt a single pass. When Siemian came in against Minnesota, it was usually 3rd and long, an obvious passing down.
As a result, our quarterback production has declined markedly. After averaging 6.9 yards per attempt through the first five games, Colter and Siemian have combined to average just 3.8 ypa in the last two games. Colter's running has suffered, too, dropping from 7.1 yards per carry in the first five games to 3.8 ypc against PSU and Minnesota.
Simply put, I believe in the last two games, our coaching staffs have put Colter and Siemian in no-win situations, where they have become completely one-dimensional and predictable. Colter is clearly not being allowed to throw downfield. This actually goes back to the Indiana game, when he had just three pass attempts. Colter had a superficially nice line of 10-for-10 against Minnesota, but those completions went for just 61 yards. Only two of the passes can be described as vertical passes, as the other eight were screen, swing or shovel passes. With defenses not having to worry about his downfield passing, the option game has been pretty effectively throttled.
Siemian, meanwhile, had a bad game against Penn State, and then was muzzled against Minnesota. Last week, I did a snap-by-snap of Colter's plays to show how underutilized he was. I'll do the same for Siemian this week. Against the Gophers, Siemian was allowed to start just one series. Out of his 10 snaps, just two came on 1st down. (His only completion of the day came on one of those 1st down passes.) Five of his seven official pass attempts came on 3rd or 4th down and at least six yards to go. Two other 3rd down pass attempts were wiped out on pass interference calls. Let's review the snap-by-snap:
NU's 2nd drive
Colter leads the offense from the NU 25 deep into Minnesota territory, where NU faces a 3rd and 6 from Minnesota 9 with 5:49 left in 1st. Siemian comes in for his first snap of the game. He passes in the endzone to Demetrius Fields, but Tony Stoudermire is called for pass interference. Colter comes back in, and two plays later, he keeps on the option for a 2-yard score.
NU's 3rd drive
Siemian comes in for NU's first drive of the 2nd quarter, leading 14-10, following a kickoff that is downed in the endzone for a touchback. This is the only drive Siemian starts all game. On 1st and 10 from the NU 25, Siemian completes a short pass to Colter for 4 yards, his only completion of the game. On 2nd and 6 from the NU 29, Siemian hands off to Trumpy, who is dropped for a 2-yard loss. On 3rd and 8, Siemian's pass down the sideline to Tony Jones is underthrown and broken up by Jeremy Baltazar. NU punts.
NU's 5th drive
The Wildcats are leading 21-10 with about 7 minutes left in the half, when Colter's helmet comes off after a 4-yard run on 1st and 10 from the Minnesota 34, forcing him to come out of the game. Siemian enters and takes the snap on 2nd and 6, handing off to Mark for a loss of 2. On 3rd and 8, Siemian tries another sideline pass to Kyle Prater, who has a step on Baltazar in the endzone, but again, the pass is underthrown, and Baltazar breaks it up. NU goes for it on 4th down, and Siemian passes to Colter, who has the ball jarred loose by Stoudermire. Turnover on downs. This is the last possession in which Siemian gets more than one consecutive snap.
NU's 7th drive
NU receives the kickoff to start the 3rd quarter, still leading 21-10. Colter starts the drive as QB. On 2nd and 5, Colter goes back to pass and scrambles but is dropped for a 5-yard loss. Siemian comes in on 3rd and 10. He's flushed out of the pocket, rushes for no gain, and NU has to punt.
NU's 8th drive
Colter also starts NU's second possession of the second half, after Minnesota kicks a field goal to make it 21-13 with 8:47 left in the 3rd. After two plays, the Wildcats get a 1st down at the NU 34. Siemian comes in. Aside from the one series he started, back in the 2nd quarter, this is the only other time Siemian gets a snap on 1st down. He passes....to nobody. Lawrence is the closest receiver on what looks to be a misread or a miscommunication, or maybe the wet ball slipped out of Siemian's hand. Colter immediately comes back in as QB. A personal foul on Jack Konopka and then a false start on Christian Jones make it 2nd and 30 from the NU 14. Colter hands off twice, and the Wildcats punt.
NU's 9th drive
Still leading 21-13 with 2:43 left in the 3rd quarter, Colter runs the first four plays of the drive. Siemian is brought in on 3rd and 12 from the NU 34. He passes down the sideline again, to Tony Jones, and the Wildcats are bailed out on a pass interference call on Baltazar. Colter comes back in as QB on the subsequent 1st down, and five plays and a false start penalty later, Siemian comes in again with the Wildcats facing 3rd and 8. Siemian's pass to Colter is knocked out of Colter's hands by Brock Vereen. Then comes the perplexing sequence, where Siemian leads the offense out for 4th down, Minnesota calls time out, then Northwestern calls time out, then NU takes a delay of game penalty, and then punts.
NU's 10th drive
We're in the 4th quarter now, with 10:18 left to go. NU takes over after a punt at the NU 38, and Colter leads the offense. Five plays, one false start and one delay of game later, Siemian comes in on 3rd and 21. His screen pass to Tyris Jones under heavy pressure falls incomplete. NU punts. That is Siemian's last play of the game.
So there you have it. Besides two series where he actually gets to take a snap on 1st down, Siemian is mostly asked to convert 3rd and longs with his arm, in a game that is cold and rainy. That is not really putting him in a situation to succeed.
The offensive coaching staff needs to get back to an effective platoon that makes both quarterbacks effective. This means Colter needs to be allowed to throw downfield to keep defenses honest. And Siemian has to get opportunities that don't involve just 3rd and long, with no running game to keep defenses honest.
The other option is to stop the QB rotation, and if that's the case, then Colter clearly has to be the guy. I've long been a Siemian backer, but at this point of the season, Colter's experience and athleticism give him the edge.
The Wildcats appear to be a team badly in need of a bye week to regroup and retweak. Unfortunately we won't get that bye for another couple of weeks, so Fitz and Co. will have to figure the QB situation out on the fly, with Nebraska coming in on Saturday.