After seven straight losses last season, Pat Fitzgerald finally got to have a fun post-game press conference when Northwestern beat Illinois. It was a tough season for the offense, particularly Trevor Siemian, but Fitzgerald got to brag about his quarterback after he torched the Illini for the 10th best passing game in Northwestern history.
Naturally, we wanted to know what had gotten into Siemian, since the Illinois pass defense wasn't great, but still ranked in the 60s nationally. Fitzgerald's answer: Siemian had finally gotten healthy from a heel injury he suffered during the Wisconsin game (six losses earlier) that we didn't know about.
It was a heel injury for Siemian. Why he was so limited against Minnesota.— InsideNU (@insidenu) December 1, 2013
We had known that Siemian was injured earlier in the season, but we didn't know what it was and what the scope of it was. Some were skeptical that this was an excuse, and while I think it's a bit far-fetched that Siemian went from severely hobbled to perfectly fine in a week — note: Fitzgerald didn't suggest that, but some fans did — I believed that Siemian was hurt. Still, we never got answers to two questions: Just how hurt was Siemian, and how much did it impact his season?
This year, there was reason to think Siemian would improve now that he was healthy — after all, that Illinois game was impressive. However, he's regressed, throwing for just 5.85 yards per attempt. For reference, the CFBStats.com rankings only go through the top 100 quarterbacks, and the 100th-ranked player still throws for 6.1 yards per attempt. Last year, Siemian threw for 7.21 yards per attempt.
But injuries may be the culprit once again. Siemian went down against Northern Illinois and needed to be taken out of the game without putting any pressure on his leg. It turns out it was an ankle injury. It was clear that if there was a game the next week, he would not have played. He healed during the bye week, and although he was not 100 percent, he played against Western Illinois.
It appeared the injury was improving, but this week, Siemian was limping at times, and he had a massive ball of tape on his ankles.
Northwestern's policy is that Pat Fitzgerald will not discuss injuries in-depth. He will get as specific as "upper body" or "lower body." That comes from the training staff. However, I asked Siemian how his ankles were after the game and if the tape meant anything.
"I've spatted (taped) them all year," he said. "I'll just keep doing it, I guess."
This is the pre-packaged answer Siemian's supposed to give, but it's also not true (at least not to this extent), as we can see from the Cal game. The ankles were a bit more taped in the game he suffered the injury and were taped similar to this week against Wisconsin.
We're not going to get an answer from Northwestern, and that's fine, but here's what we know we have: A quarterback who hurt his ankle pretty badly against Western Illinois, who has walked gingerly on it at times, who is now using an enormous amount of tape and has been struggling like he did last year while playing with an injury.
So this brings us to that question again: How hurt is Siemian and how is it affecting his play?
The first one is hard to judge, but it's clear there's something wrong. Clearly, Northwestern doesn't think he's hurt enough to bring in a backup, but that doesn't mean it isn't affecting his play. He's had issues with sailing passes, which could very well be due to the inability to plant his feet effectively.
Now, the question becomes whether it's worth giving another quarterback a shot. We've noted in practice that Siemian is clearly ahead of Zack Oliver and Matt Alviti, but practice is a much more sterile environment. Siemian has more time to set up his throws, and even in the team scrimmage drills, he knows he's not going to get hit. But again, there's no telling if one of the backups would be any better, and we've heard from many people around the team and within recruiting circles that the quarterback of the future at NU is true freshman Clayton Thorson, who is redshirting (and no, they should not burn his redshirt like they did to Kain Colter in 2010).
Still, it's fair to wonder just how much Siemian's injury is getting in the way of his performance, and whether it would be worth giving Oliver a shot. Maybe Siemian with an injury can do enough to get NU to 5-3 or 6-2 in the Big Ten, and maybe the injury will be gone soon. But after the issues last year, it's a fair question to ask, as many of you have. Just don't expect to get an answer.