Who is Northwestern's No. 1 receiver? Complicated by the season-ending injury to Christian Jones in mid-August, this question has hovered over the team all season. It wasn't until Northwestern's 43-40 upset over Notre Dame that the answer finally became clear.
Throughout the season, play calling, pass protection and quarterback Trevor Siemian have taken the blame for NU's offensive struggles. But on Saturday, that all changed. The play calling worked. The passing game finally looked explosive. Heck, the Cats put up 43 points. Receivers were open.
Behind a sturdy offensive line, Siemian threw the ball extraordinary well against the Fighting Irish. He kept plays alive with his feet and was more accurate than ever. Deep balls he usually sails were right on the money.
But the receivers let him down.
Drops plagued the receiving corps all game. Austin Carr let a perfect throw go through his hands on a fourth down. Garrett Dickerson lost a costly fumble. And Tony Jones dropped three touchdowns.
Amazingly, Siemian still found a way to overcome these ghastly errors. But he couldn't have done so without his new number one receiver, Kyle Prater.
With his teammates struggling, Prater turned in the best game of his career, using his big frame and sure hands to haul in 10 catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. Prater also had eight catches and 87 yards against Michigan.
Over the last two games Prater has emerged as Siemian's favorite target. The chemistry between the two seniors continues to improve with every snap. Siemian trusts Prater more than ever, and it showed on Northwestern's final drive in regulation.
Down three points with a minute and a half left, the Cats needed to go 50 yards to get into field goal range. With everything on the line Siemian went to his favorite receiver. Prater had three catches on the final drive, none bigger than the one he made over the middle to get to Cats in field goal range.
"There were a lot of great plays by him," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "But that one in the two minute when he was able to catch a slant, use his length to get off a tackle and fight and scratch and claw to get out of bounds and stop the clock was probably one of those plays that doesn't oooh and ahh everybody but that's just a great awareness play. That's a great football play by a great football player. And a big time play in the moment."
Prater doesn't wow anybody with his speed. He isn't explosive. But he's become Siemian's safety-blanket, his Mr. Reliable. Someone Siemian can always go to when he needs a completion. And he's finally showing some of that five-star potential.
With the rest of the receivers plagued by injuries and drops, Prater has been at his best.
"With the injury issues we've had Kyle's really had to step up and he's done a magnificent job of it," Fitzgerald said.
No one expected Prater to be Northwestern's No. 1 receiver this season. But he's stepped up when no one else has. And for that, he's earned it.