"Emergency quarterback" Kain Colter might not have been able to play against Minnesota on Saturday, but after a 20-17 loss, Northwestern (4-3, 0-3 Big Ten) needs emergency help in a lot of places.
Call it a lack of execution, call it bad playcalling, call it injury problems — something needs to change after consecutive weeks of punter Brandon Williams being the offense's most valuable player.
Heading into the season, the common refrain was that the offense could lead NU to a Big Ten Championship, and that the defense needed to be the unit to step up. Even headed into this game, the offense's issues at Wisconsin were regarded as somewhat of a fluke, while the big matchup everyone was focused on was the NU run defense vs. the Minnesota running backs. And while the defense certainly still needs work — the run defense as the clock wound down was "very disappointing, as Fitzgerald put it — the offense was once again the problem.
You could blame it on injuries. Early-season controversy aside, the numbers certainly point toward the two-quarterback system as the best option for this team, so Colter's absence is certainly a major blow. However, the Trevor Siemian-run offense is the same one that put up 44 points on Cal, so it's not like the offense hasn't even been effective with Siemian at the helm. That's what makes this loss, and this sudden offensive incompetency, so puzzling.
NU could have had a drastically different outcome with Mark and Colter in the game, but given how the Wildcats played earlier in the season without their stars, they shouldn't have needed them against a Minnesota team that, by all accounts, hasn't been able to do much of anything right on defense since playing halfway decent competition.
The question now becomes "what next." Forget the Legends Division title, forget the bowl pecking order, NU needs to figure out what, exactly, the problem is. It might be "execution" — a favorite buzzword for coaches — but that's about as vague of a reason you can come up with. It doesn't give you any tangible solutions. However, the more specific issues that make up "execution" could hint at why the Wildcats' offense is struggling so much:
Siemian's awareness: Decision-making has never been a big issue for Siemian, but he's struggled mightily in that area ever since the second half of the Ohio State game. He threw similar interceptions against OSU and Minnesota in which a defender jumped the route for a pick-six, telegraphing both passes. And in the last two games, he's struggled to find open receivers. He's allowed a lot of sacks, and while part of that is on the offensive line (more on that later), he has to do a better job on his hot reads and on throwing the ball away. A number of NU's drives the past two weeks were killed on sacks. Siemian isn't Colter — he can't escape pressure as well — and he needs to recognize that.
Offensive line: Maybe Colter made the offensive line look better than it was, but after a pretty solid start to the season, this young offensive line has really struggled. We're focusing on the offensive, but line play on both sides of the ball has been an issue (though the defensive line was better today). That has to be fixed in a hurry, because with physical teams like Iowa and Michigan State still to come, things could get ugly.
Drops: It was a bigger issue in the Wisconsin game, but NU struggled with more drops against Minnesota. The receivers were a bright spot at the beginning of the year, but they've regressed a bit since then, struggling both with drops and creating separation. They got some of their mojo back at the end of the game, but will need to be better with a Siemian-heavy gameplan.
So what does all of this mean? Two weeks ago, people were talking about NU playing in the Rose Bowl. Now, bowl eligibility doesn't seem like a guarantee. It's important to remember that with a healthy Colter and Mark, NU can beat anyone remaining on its schedule. However, who knows when they'll both be back?
Heading into a game against a physical Iowa team, NU has a lot of things to fix on offense. That's not to say that game isn't winnable — we've seen before what Siemian can do leading the offense — but the Wildcats won't be in the position they expected to be in when they head into Kinnick Stadium.