In the days leading up to Northwestern’s game at Penn State, Trevor Siemian prepared to start at quarterback, just like he had the week before against Indiana. But after Penn State downed the ball at the one-yard line for NU’s first possession, things changed.
“I think we just got backed up on the first possession,” Siemian said. “We had to come out in our two-tight end, two back and that’s Kain (Colter)’s deal, so he just ran out there. It wasn’t a big deal because we’re so used to adjusting all the time.”
Siemian wouldn’t start another game the rest of the year, but he saw the playing field just as much as the year went on. Coach Pat Fitzgerald liked to call them “1.A. and 1.B.” rather than starter and backup, because even though Colter started more games, Siemian wound up throwing more passes and taking plenty of snaps.
“Really, a lot of that just goes into gameplan and what we’re doing well,” Colter said. “Who starts doesn’t really matter to the game,” Colter said. “Both of us have to play well throughout the game.”
What does matter, at least to Fitzgerald, is that the gameplan is clearly communicated earlier in the week.
“As a coach, you tell a young man, ‘Hey, we’re going to play you on Saturday.’ And then we get to Saturday afternoon and you don’t play, we’ve got a problem — we’ve got a player-coach problem,” Fitzgerald said. “And that trust that needs to be developed in that relationship, I believe is critically important. So one of the last things I want to hear on Friday in our meetings with our whole staff is by position, who’s playing and how much?
“And with the quarterback it’s one of those situations that could be fluid week-to-week, and a lot of times it’s the same four or the same three. So when (a player goes in) it’s no surprise to anyone, and most importantly, it’s no surprise to the young man.”
But sometimes, the gameplan goes out the window, as was the case with the Penn State game. In cases like that, the reason for the switch is clearly communicated to the player who didn’t see the field. There always needs to be a strong reason to shift away from the gameplan.
Balancing switching between the quarterbacks — planned or not — can be difficult to manage. Some criticized the NU coaches for making changes without regard to what was working last year. However, as Fitzgerald reiterated several times, there’s always a reason for switching quarterbacks, even if it’s something noticed behind the scenes.
“We’re not just doing it to do it,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s that simple. I’ve got people who email me after games and say, ‘Why didn’t you blitz more?’ Well when we blitzed, we were effective. We can second-guess everything, but the key is we made the decision that we made for the reasons in that specific moment.
“It could be that game that we expected pressure coming in that series, because that’s what we scouted. So that’s why we put Kain in, because we expected pressure and we wanted to run some option into it and make them pay.”
Experience from last year will certainly play into who starts and who plays more at quarterback for NU this year, but personnel changes — not even those at quarterback — will dictate how the quarterbacks are rotated this year. Last year, NU tried to establish the run at the beginning of games, and Colter was more suited for that job since he’s more effective than Siemian is at running the option. That led to Colter starting nearly every game. However, while Fitzgerald likes to establish the run, that’s not always suitable for the personnel he has.
“Two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, we had to throw the ball — we had to throw the ball almost every play to win,” Fitzgerald said. “That was just what the makeup was that we had offensively, and the skill set to win.”
Last year, Northwestern had a really strong offensive line, and the offensive line’s abilities often decide what the entire offense’s identity is going to be.
“We had good athletes (on the line), but we were physically stronger, we had a back that was hard to see, and could get in and out of cuts and in and out of the hole as quick as or quicker than anyone in our league, and that was our strength,” Fitzgerald said.
“Could we throw the ball pretty well? Yeah we could, but (running) was our strength. The decisions we made after practices like this and through camp (were based off), ‘What can we go win a championship with?’ And we thought establishing the run (was key).”
This year, depending on how the line comes together, we could see more option — with Colter and Venric Mark returning, the skill players are certainly there for the option to work well — but the identity could also change a little bit. With Jack Konopka, Paul Jorgensen and Matt Frazier — all of whom will see significant playing time and could star next year — sitting out the spring, Fitzgerald will not know how to best rotate his quarterbacks until the summer or fall.
But no matter how the identity of the offense comes together, NU has a quarterback for every situation.
“Their skill sets or their strengths are unique (and that gives) us a really dangerous quarterback with those two guys,” Fitzgerald said. “We can make you pay in multiple ways with both guys, but their strengths are very dangerous.”