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With Siemian down, it's Zack Oliver's time to shine

The redshirt junior quarterback was fine Saturday, but now everything rests on next Saturday's "playoff game" with Illinois. And it will probably all rest on Oliver.

Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Northwestern was rolling. So was Trevor Siemian. With a 21-0 point lead early in the second quarter, NU’s senior quarterback had already dropped in a beautiful ball to Dan Vitale for a touchdown, and had led another touchdown drive on which he hit Kyle Prater for a 19-yard completion on 4th-and-14.

But on a 4th-and-1, as Siemian drove forward in search of the first down marker on a QB sneak, disaster struck. Helpless among a pile of linemen, Siemian’s knee twisted in an awkward way, and just like that, his career at Northwestern might just have ended.

"It looks like a pretty serious knee injury," coach Pat Fitzgerald admitted after the game. He of course refused to speculate as to whether Siemian would be healthy enough for Illinois, but he spoke as if Siemian’s season was likely done.

"He’s meant so much to us," Fitzgerald said of his QB. "And he’ll mean a lot to us this week, I’ll guarantee you that."

However, while it could be disastrous for Siemian personally, it wasn’t for Northwestern on Saturday. Junior Zack Oliver filled in adequately for two-plus quarters.

"You’ve got to move on and carry on, and I thought our guys did a terrific job of that," Fitzgerald said. "Especially our offensive line. They knew they had to put it on their shoulders."

Despite only completing 5 of his 11 passes for 85 yards, Oliver managed the game reasonably well, which, with a lead, was all that was required. Matt Alviti also saw some time, and the two combined for 28 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

"I came out strong," Oliver said. "We were running the ball well. It took me a couple of plays just to get my self-confidence back, and then I came out in the second half and had great protection all day, receivers running great routes, and we did pretty well."

But entering a game in which your team is already up by 21 is one thing. Winning what is essentially a playoff game a week later is another. After the game, although he was jokingly reticent to get in front of the cameras to talk to the media, Oliver sounded confident.

"I can do that and I feel like I can probably do a little bit more," he said when asked about his performance Saturday. "There’s never a limit as to what I’m going to settle for. I’m always going to strive for better.

"[Being the starter isn’t] going to change anything I do. Every week I come to practice, and it’s going to be the same next week. On Monday we’re going to show up and prepare."

And if the player who interrupted his postgame press conference with a shout of "Oliver, we love you!" is any indication, his teammates are also confident in the redshirt junior.

Tony Jones, who helped break the game open for Northwestern with a 64-yard punt return, is one of them. Jones pointed out that because Oliver gets a significant amount of first team reps in practice, the receivers feel just as much chemistry with him as they do with Siemian.

At this point though, confidence is Northwestern’s only option. Next week’s rivalry game against Illinois is the last of three must-wins, and the Wildcats will in all likelihood have to rely on the redshirt junior to lead them to bowl eligibility.

Saturday in West Lafayette, it looked like he was capable of doing so. Next weekend, against an awful Illinois pass defense, we’ll get a definitive answer.