Kain Colter as Northwestern's QB against Penn State

Justin K. Aller - Getty Images

He got just 14 snaps as quarterback. Why so few?

It's been 48 hours since the loss. It still stings. On an NU sports listserv that I belong to, the following stats were presented--

  • Since 1994, Penn State has outscored Northwestern 125-20 in the second half of games.
  • In his three games against Northwestern, ordinary QB Matt McGloin turns into Drew Brees, completing 66% of his passes with 8 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Happy graduation, Matt. May you never haunt us again.

I don't really subscribe to long-term trends in sports, especially in college football, where the rosters turn over so much every year. But clearly, Penn State $#(*&%($ &^&#%^(_+ @)!~!_)%@#! our $#(!@~@% Fitz #@)()~@% ?:#@>?: #)%(*!@% meltdown @#)*!~)( #%?$>?<: (}[])@!% mother#!*${}*)%&)( %@~!%%~ $&_+!@ Glopknar #(*&!~ NU Alum c/o 2002 $#@(&#%)_)_+_ ~!~!~(*&^&(!@ $=^$*&(!?>} Mike Capocci.

Anyway, I burned the game tape, so I don't have any insights from re-watching the game. But let's delve into the controversy on NU fans' minds: How come Kain Colter, the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week, didn't get more touches?

As a receiver, Colter was shadowed all day by Penn State defenders. You may have heard that Penn State is called Linebacker U. Well, they showed it. When you can have linebackers (with some defensive back double teams) effectively covering a guy as athletic, quick and shifty as Colter, limiting him to just three catches for 17 yards, that's some good linebacking.

I would have loved to see the Wildcats use Colter in some screen passes, to take away from Penn State's aggressive pass rush. Give Colter the ball in space, and let him work his magic. But that wasn't part of the game plan, for whatever reason.

So, how come he didn't get more snaps at QB, especially on a day when it was clear Trevor Siemian was not having his A game? As best as I can tell, using the box score, the play-by-play, and my clouded memory of viewing the game from the upper deck of Beaver Stadium, Kain Colter took 10 snaps as QB, compared to 51 for Siemian. There might be one or two plays that I missed, but I think that's right. [EDIT: Teddy Greenstein, who actually does his homework, reports that it was actually 13 snaps. EDIT 2: After watching the online replay, I counted 14 snaps. I've updated the snap-by-snap breakdown and the rest of this post to reflect that.]

All 14 of those snaps resulted in runs, as the one designed pass still resulted in a scramble. I haven't been terribly impressed with Colter's throwing ability, but Rodger said it right last week: If you're going to have him in the game as QB, you ought to let him throw every once in a while to keep defenses honest. Colter didn't even get a chance to have the three throws he had against Indiana.

Here are the results with Colter at QB:

  • Colter dive up the pile for 2 yard gain. This was on NU's first offensive play, when the Wildcats were backed up on the 1-yard-line. Understandable play, to get some breathing room.
  • Same series on 2nd down and 8, Venric Mark takes a handoff for 2 yards.
  • Same series on 3rd and 6, Colter rolls out for a pass, receiver Christian Jones slips, so Colter scrambles for 1-yard gain, and the Wildcats have to punt from their own end zone.
  • Colter comes out to start the first NU series of the 2nd quarter. He gives to Mark on the zone read on 1st and 10, and Mark gets three yards.
  • On the next drive, later in the quarter, Colter comes in on 2nd and 8 after a Siemian scramble. Penn State completely busts up the zone read, and Colter is dropped for a loss of 1.
  • Still later in the second quarter, NU takes over deep in Penn State territory after the Nittany Lions muffed a punt. Colter runs on first down for a gain of 12.
  • On the subsequent first-and-goal from the 5-yard-line, he gives to Mark for a 3-yard gain.
  • On 2nd and goal, he runs the option pitch, pitching the ball to Mark, who goes in for a 2-yard TD, drawing Northwestern to within 10-7.
  • On the next drive, Colter comes in on 3rd and 1 around midfield. He hands off to Trumpy, who never had a chance and is tackled for a 2-yard loss.
  • On the Wildcats' first drive of the second half, Colter comes in on 2nd and 15 after Siemian is sacked. Colter hands off to Mark for a 5-yard gain.
  • Later in the third quarter, with NU trailing 17-14, Colter comes in on 1st and 10 after six straight Siemian snaps. He does the zone read with Mark, and gives to Mark for a 4-yard gain.
  • On the next play, Colter runs the option pitch with Mark and pitches to him for a 7-yard gain.
  • On the same drive, Colter comes in on 3rd and 2 from the Penn State 10-yard-line. He runs the zone read option perfectly, keeping for a 10-yard TD.
  • In the fourth quarter, on the critical drive highlighted by Mountain Tiger in his plays of the week, Colter comes in on 2nd and 8, runs the zone read with Trumpy, and hands off to Trumpy for a two-yard gain.

To sum up, 14 plays with Colter as QB, of which Colter himself runs on five of them. Two of those keepers were very effective, the 12-yard gain in the 2nd quarter, and the 10-yard TD in the 3rd. The other three keepers didn't do much. In all, he got 25 yards rushing.

Of his nine handoffs, Mark got in for a two-yard TD, but other than that, the average gain was three yards.

So, clearly, Colter wasn't having overwhelmingly huge success as QB. But he probably should have gotten more than 14 snaps. And he probably should have been allowed to throw a few times. Colter didn't get a single pass attempt after the first drive. On only three drives did he play QB for more than one snap. The offensive game plan was very perplexing and frustrating all game.

I still think Siemian overall is the best option NU has going forward as QB, with Colter coming in every now and then as a change of pace. Mick McCall's playbook for the moment appears to let Siemian handle 1st and 2nd downs, as well as any 3rd and longs. Colter typically comes in on 3rd and under-5s, and occasionally, maybe one out of four possessions, he gets to start a series.

I think that game plan is sound, but sometimes you have to adjust it to game situations. While we don't necessarily know what conversations are taking place between the coaches and the QBs, I think it's pretty safe to say that Colter ought to have been in a bit more as QB, given that Siemian was struggling to handle the defensive pressure. Especially on that crucial 4th quarter drive, when we were still up 28-25 and looking to burn some clock to give the gassed defense a rest. Maybe the result wouldn't have been any different had Colter been in there on 1st down, but I would have liked to see what he could have done. It's not like you were going to have Siemian pass.

At any rate, it'll be interesting to see how, if at all, the game plan changes for another tough road contest at Minnesota.

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