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Column: Northwestern Coaches Must Be More Efficient in Use of Quarterbacks

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Trevor Siemian passed for 308 yards in Northwestern's 44-29 victory over Indiana. Kain Colter? 2 yards. But that doesn't tell the story of who the best quarterback was on Saturday; it doesn't come close.

Colter did everything for NU on Saturday, rushing for 161 yards, picking up 131 receiving yards and accumulating four passes. As Pat Fitzgerald said in his post-game press conference, there isn't anybody in the conference who can do what Colter does. Heck, there might not be anyone else in the country.

Yet, mind-bogglingly, there are people who don't think Colter should be the No. 1 quarterback. In fact, there are people who don't think Colter should play quarterback at all. Maybe that's true if you still have the conventional view of what a quarterback should be — a passer. However, this isn't a conventional offense, so why force it to be one?

The quarterback has the largest impact on the game, so what better way to take advantage of that than have your best player touching the ball on every play? Colter has the ability to make something out of nothing on every play. He's extremely elusive and gives NU a number of different choices on every play from passing to designed runs to the option to the zone read. Even when protection breaks down, Colter can make something happen. That kind of ability is invaluable to an offense.

Another flawed assumption is that Colter can't make big passes. Of course, he was out-passed by Siemian on Saturday, but considering how well the zone read was working, why should he have even attempted more than the three passes that he did. Trust in Colter's passing abilities wasn't the reason for the low passing totals. Rather, Colter was just exceptionally good as a runner.

"We believe in Kain as a thrower," Fitzgerald said. "Trust me on that."

It's good that the coaches trust Colter — with a 66.2 percent completion percentage and just one interception on the season, who wouldn't — but the way they shuffled their quarterbacks on Saturday was puzzling, at best.

Sometimes it seems like NU's use of Siemian or Colter is completely arbitrary. There are times when NU is in an obvious passing situation and it will go with Siemian — I disagree that Siemian is a superior passer, but that's at least understandable — but there are also times when the coaches swap quarterbacks seemingly at random. On one drive in particular in the first half, the offense was rolling thanks to Colter and running back Venric Mark running the zone read, and NU randomly inserted Siemian for a play that went nowhere. It didn't matter, since Colter took the ball in for a score on the next play, but it was still a puzzling decision. Why mess with the offensive rhythm? Why try to run the zone read with a much less mobile quarterback?

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That's what Colter said about the use of the running game last week. However, it seems the NU coaches didn't act on that motto.

Obviously, it is beneficial to have Colter at receiver and Siemian at quarterback at times, but the coaches have to know their personnel. Even if they had a reason to put Siemian in for one play on that drive, why waste that play on something Colter can do better? Mark isn't nearly as effective on the zone read with Siemian since he becomes the only running threat, so why try it?

The Northwestern offense can be incredibly efficient if run the right way. However, the coaches have to do a better job of managing the game and using each quarterback to the best of their ability. Colter is the starting quarterback — unconventional as he is, the coaches know that he's too talented to not touch the ball on nearly every play. Siemian is also the starting quarterback — that "1.B" label is very accurate.

Once NU's coaches can figure out how to use both of their "starters" effectively, the Cats have the potential to be the one of the most efficient offenses in the country. It's a process, just as Fitzgerald likes to say about the development of his team, and just like the team's development, this process still has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential.

But knowing that there is still a long way to go even after putting up a school-record 704 yards of offense has to be a good feeling for the NU coaches.