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Analyzing Northwestern's Situational Quarterback Use

Yesterday, ESPN's Big Ten Blog quoted Pat Fitzgerald saying he believes Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian can lead Northwestern to a championship. Fitzgerald has been criticized for how he he has rotated both of his quarterbacks, but both have unique skill sets and different weapons they can bring to the table. For that reason, the rotation makes sense — it has proven to be the best way to move the offense.

“We’re not just doing it to do it,” Fitzgerald told us last week.

We're not going to get into who will start and who will play more, because really, it's situational and will depend on the week. However, we'll take a look at the stats to see how the offense changes in different situations depending on which quarterback is in, also taking into account how the top two running backs, Venric Mark and Mike Trumpy, play into the equation. Particularly, we'll break down what each quarterback does in different third down distances to give a numerical view of the strengths of each of NU's quarterbacks in specific situations. (As an aside, if you’re a stats junkie, check out, where we got this info.)

First down

Mark rushes — 118 attempts
Siemian passes — 88 attempts
Colter rushes — 66 attempts
Colter passes — 63 attempts
Trumpy rushes — 33 attempts
Siemian rushes — 7 attempts

Second down

Mark rushes — 88 attempts
Siemian passes — 66 attempts
Colter rushes — 51 attempts
Colter passes — 50 attempts
Trumpy rushes — 33 attempts
Siemian rushes — 7 attempts

Third down, 1-3 to go

Colter rushes — 22 attempts
Mark rushes — 13 attempts
Siemian passes — 11 attempts
Trumpy rushes — 7 attempts
Colter passes — 1 attempt
Siemian rushes — 0 attempts

Third down, 4-6 to go

Siemian passes — 19 attempts
Colter rushes — 12 attempts
Colter passes — 10 attempts
Mark rushes — 4 attempts
Siemian rushes — 2 attempts (hey, one went for 8 yards)
Trumpy rushes — 0 attempts

Third down, 7-9 to go

Siemian passes — 15 attempts
Colter rushes — 12 attempts
Colter passes — 12 attempts
Mark rushes — 1 attempt
Trumpy rushes — 1 attempt
Siemian rushes — 0 attempts

Third down, 10+ to go

Siemian passes — 15 attempts
Colter passes — 12 attempts
Siemian rushes — 4 attempts
Colter rushes — 3 attempts
Mark rushes — 2 attempts
Trumpy rushes — 0 attempts


So what do we take away from this? First, it's important to note that NU didn't do that much quarterback-switching within series. It happened at times, but more often than not, the quarterback that started a series finished it. Plus, that's not important to what we're looking at here. We're looking more at what NU will do with its personnel in different situations, particularly on third downs, because of the yardage breakdowns.

- First and second down are majority runs, which makes sense, considering NU was generally a run-first team last year.

- Not surprisingly, Colter and Mark are used the most on third and short. That's typically a rushing situation, and it's very conducive to the option, so Colter and Mark's rushing numbers in that situation aren't surprising.

- Also not surprisingly, Siemian almost always passes in the 4-to-6-yard range on third downs. That's not a typical rushing situation, so Mark's carries go down. However, Colter runs the ball more than he passes it in that situation. He averages 8 yards per play on those rushes and 7.9 yards per play on the passes, but got 8 first downs on the passes and just 4 on the rushes. Siemian, meanwhile, got nine total (8 through the air, 1 on the ground). The takeaway here: If Siemian is in, it's probably going to be a passing play. If Colter is in, who knows what he'll do — scramble or throw it.

- The 7-to-9-yard range is very similar to the 4-to-6-yard range. Siemian will almost always throw the ball in that situation, while Colter is still just as comfortable scrambling/running as he is passing (12 rushes and 12 passes).

- As expected, the 10+ range is a passing situation. Siemian got 5 first downs on 15 pass attempts. Colter had 3 first downs on 12 pass attempts. However, he got 2 first downs the 3 times he took off running.

- Another unrelated, but interesting stat: When NU is backed up inside its own 20, Mark has 34 attempts, Colter has 29 attempts (16 rush, 13 pass), Siemian has 20 attempts (17 pass, 3 rush) and Trumpy has 10 attempts. That's an obvious run-heavy situation, so that breakdown makes sense. The closer NU is to its own endzone, the more the Wildcats run and the more Colter is used. And example: During last year’s Penn State game, Siemian was supposed to start, but NU got backed up on its own one-yard line, so Colter started the game.

- Obviously, these stats aren't a perfect way of analyzing NU's personnel in different situations, but it's an interesting look at the general strategy in different situations. On third-and-short, the Wildcats will usually utilize the option if Colter is in. When you move back from the line of scrimmage on third downs, NU will almost always pass the ball when Siemian is in, and if Colter is in, there's no real formula for what he'll do with the ball. Ultimately, the numbers highlight the strengths of both quarterbacks.