Was Kain Colter Dan Persa vs. Boston College? A Look at Northwestern Quarterback 1B's Passing Game

What should we expect out of Kain Colter looking back at his first performance?

I reread the headline to this and wanted to wring my neck for apparently turning into every sportswriter ever about a substitute quarterback. They always go ahead and write some dumb column comparing the quarterback to the starter. The column includes words like "moxie", "grit", and eventually questions the starter and probably calls for the backup to start. They suck. 

I don't want to suck. So instead of sucking (or, depending on your viewpoint on my writing, in addition to sucking), I rewatched Northwestern's game against Boston College: looking at a statsheet tells me Colter went 17/24 for 197 yards and a pick. But those are numbers. 

I went through and looked at all 25 of Colter's passes - yes, 25, I recounted several times, my suspicion is that one of his screen passes was ruled to be backwards and therefore went in the box score as a rush, the play-by-play also gives him 18-for-25 - to look at what types of throws he was making.

I divided Colter's throws up by location on the field or type of throw. In retrospect, I wish I had also categorized them by my initial impression of how difficult a throw he made and the time in the game he made it, but, I'll discuss those things later. 

Throwaways: Two, 0/2 complete (obviously)

Screens: Six, 6/6 complete, five to wide receivers, one for loss to Adonis Smith

Shovel Passes: One, 0/1 (a pass to Drake Dunsmore on NU's first possession that Dunsmore wasn't expecting)

Passes to sidelines, under ten yards: Seven, 5/7, with two passes hitting the receivers in the hands but still being incomplete. Most of these passes were against zone defenses playing well off the receiver, hitting them with no defender within five yards. Many went for first downs despite being hook routes about six yards downfield.

Passes to sidelines, over ten yards: Four, 3/4. One badly overthrown pass, two completions off play action and the throw to Christian Jones on third down for NU's longest completion of the game.

Middle of the field, under ten yards: Four, 3/4, one interception. All of these passes were what I'd classify as "difficult" throws - where a bad pass could have or did end up in opposing hands. Two were to Ebert facing coverage by linebackers, one was to Drake Dunsmore, and the other was Jacob Schmidt releasing from his block in the backfield.

Middle of the field, over ten yards: One, 1/1, the 23-yard incredibly difficult throw that Colter made on third down to keep NU's last scoring drive alive hitting Jeremy Ebert in stride.

 

From this, you can see that the majority of Colter's throws - 13 of 24 - fall into the category of either screens or short passes to the sidelines with nobody close to the defender. And he did excessively well with them, completing 11 of them with two drops. (In retrospect, I wish I'd put down yardage for each so we could really see how successful these plays are.) Meanwhile, of his 25 throws, only five came to the middle of the field. Colter took everything the defense gave him: on the sidelines, BC's corners started 8-10 yards back at the line of scrimmage and dropped back even further when the ball was snapped. In the middle of the field, BC's talented linebackers dropped into pass coverage and watched his eyes in case he decided to take off. Over and over, he hit his first reads on the outside, often on hook routes for four or five yards, with ample time to throw. The ball could sit in the air and the receiver didn't have to go anywhere - although they often did, busting out first downs on several short routes that didn't take them past the first down marker. For the most part, he had easy throws to make and he made them with ease.

However, watching the game, I noticed something else I hadn't while attending the game, and haven't seen written up much elsewhere. Colter started out poorly. At the 8:03 mark of the second quarter, he hadn't made any great throws, had been forced to throw the ball away twice, had thrown a pick on a miscommunication with Jeremy Ebert, and had led one of his receivers out of bounds on a deep out. He was 6-for-12 with an interception. As math will tell you, that meant he had had six incompletions. He finished with seven incompletions. That last incompletion came on a drop on a ball thrown slightly low to Demetrius Fields that Fields should have caught. Over the game's last 38 minutes, Colter went 12-for-13, including three touchdown drives without incompletions. That's spectacular.

However, not only did the throws he make become more successful as the game went on, they became more difficult. The passes for six yards to the sidelines were turning into passes for 15-20 yards to the sidelines. The pass to Ebert in the middle of the field was unlike any route Colter tried to hit in the game's first three quarters. As the game progressed, Colter became exponentially more effective, serving two purposes: making him more confident and therefore giving dumbass sportswriters something to write about, but also, having proven his ability to hurt the defense with short, easy completions eating up yards (but simultaneously seeming incapable of throwing the ball downfield), the defense began giving Colter openings downfield. And given the go-ahead to hit them, he did, finding Ebert and Jones downfield. 

When it comes to throwing, Colter can make the easy throws. And the majority of his throws were easy (at least for a Big Ten quarterback): even the majority of the throws downfield to the sidelines were to receivers in space with no defenders around. To be a Northwestern quarterback the skill to make these throws to open receivers, which travel as far east-and-west as they do downfield, is essential. After all, Dan Persa wasn't completing 73 percent of his passes on 30-yard strikes. If I had to guess - and again, I wish I'd written down my thoughts while watching the game but don't feel like spending another three hours - about 20-23 of Colter's throws would qualify as "not dangerous": not intended to hit a receiver with a defender within five yards. (this is so unscientific and such a dumb statement that I feel stupid for writing it. But I think the point is important.) But it was always the difficult throws were what made Persa stand out. 

I was truly impressed by Colter's seeming on-field coming of age, turning a shaky start into a pinpoint passing drill. But let's not for a second see Colter's great performance and call him Dan Persa. This is what aforementioned annoying columnists do. He has work ahead of him. He'll have to become more comfortable at throwing to the middle of the field, because it's where his two best targets - Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore - reside. And besides the bullet to Ebert across the middle, his passes tended to float a bit, probably costing his receivers a few yards after the catch. But he's off to a good start about a million times better than what we'd asked for.

I think we can all agree the sooner Persa - who, after all, is a more known entity, and will be less likely to throw interceptions due to inexperience - returns to the playing field, the better. But I'm definitely confident in Kain Colter's ability to run Northwestern's offense smoothly. 

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