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Northwestern's Offensive "Identity" Comes Into Focus in 28-17 Win over Iowa

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

More than a few eyebrows were raised last week when Kain Colter dropped this stinger about Northwestern’s offense. “That’s the problem we’re facing, we don’t have an identity,” he told ESPN.Com. It was a legitimate gripe, borne of the growing disruption in NU’s quarterback rotation and the resultant schematic equivocation that system created. With Colter playing quarterback, the the majority of offensive snaps are run plays; Trevor Siemian under center means the passing game reigns. In the wake of NU’s 29-28 loss home loss to Nebraska – in which the QB shuffling threw the offense into a constant state of flux, teetering back and forth between a Colter-led option attack and a pass-focused scheme under Siemian – the comment felt particularly fitting. NU did not have an offensive identity. However much Colter’s choice words may have been rooted in frustration over his own performance last week (5 passing yards, 35 rushing yards), the description, on its face, was accurate.

After NU’s 28-17 victory over Iowa Saturday, where the Wildcats held a 28-3 lead midway through the third-quarter before allowing the Hawkeyes to make things interesting in the final minutes, Colter reassessed his statement. He did not classify NU’s offensive identity, nor did he make mention of any frustration with the quarterback situation. What he did do was confirm what most have come to believe about this offense, that a run-oriented system with Colter taking the majority of snaps is the most effective route going forward. “When we got Venric [Mark] back there and me back there, we’re hard to stop. I feel like that’s the direction we need to go.” With Fitzgerald staying mum on the subject in his post game press conference, Colter’s words spoke volumes about his proposed fix to the offensive identity crisis.

To be clear, Colter was not referencing his comment from last week. In point of fact, he tried to deflect any indications that his words bore any sort of connection to the “identity thing,” as Colter called it. Still, there was no questioning the spirit of Colter’s words Saturday, which he rattled off with a smile unseen through the first eight weeks of this season. “When we’re able to do that efficiently, we’re winning games,” Colter said of the run offense. That’s not an earth-shattering statement by any means. Every team wants to win, and if running is the best way to reach that goal, so be it. All Colter did was put it in words; crystallize a concept that has for much of this season remained up for debate. Colter wants to be under center, running the option with mark, keeping defenses off balance with varied drop backs and designed runs, moving forward with a ground-based mindset.

Judging by NU’s playcalling Saturday, Pat Fitzgerald and his staff may be leaning that way, too. The Wildcats attempted just 10 pass plays, including only one four-yard attempt for Siemian. Colter connected on six nine throws, one of them a 47-yd dime over the middle that Tony Jones retrieved in-stride and ran into the end zone. More impressive was Colter’s control of the run game. The Colter-Mark option was firing on all cylinders against Iowa’s feeble front seven, with Hawkeyes pass-rushers struggling to differentiate the faker from the ball carrier.  On several occasions, Colter ripped off big gains while Iowa was using a quarterback spy to keep him in the pocket. When your designed Colter-stopping defense is ineffective, the dual-threat QB is bound to have a big day. Colter did exactly that, carrying 26 times for 166 yards and three touchdowns. That’s an impressive statistical outlay, perhaps Colter’s best quarterback-only performance to date. It was also a mostly unsurprising occurrence. We’ve long known the potential of Colter’s latent athletic talents when used in the right schematic constructs. Limited offensive play calling in recent weeks failed to maximize those talents. On Saturday, his running and throwing talents, complemented by a diverse playbook that kept Iowa’s defense guessing, produced an expected result: offensive continuity, success and, dare I say, an identity.

The larger takeaway from Saturday’s win is not statistical milestones, not Colter’s four touchdowns or Siemian’s scant usage (he appeared in just two offensive plays). More than anything else, it’s what Colter laid out as the blueprint for NU’s offensive plans. At face value, his stated offensive predilections can be spun as an appeal for greater involvement in the offense. After all, pushing for a greater number of run plays would lead to more snaps for Colter, and less for the pass-inclined Siemian. Saturday’s results proved his run-first preference is not a singular desire. It’s the system that maximizes this team’s offensive talent. The way NU’s offense flourished under that mantra, an option-based run-first philosophy, lends credence to his claim. Validated by the offensive flow and rhythm NU established Saturday, Colter’s statement carries more weight. The question now is whether the Wildcats will stick to the ground-heavy gameplan they established Saturday, or whether they’ll revert to the undefined scheme Colter referenced last week. Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s difficult to imagine major tweaks to the offensive plan of attack. The run-based offense Colter promoted – the one he orchestrated to 433 total yards, an 8-of-11 mark on third downs and four touchdowns – looks here to stay.