During Northwestern football practice, the defense often chants "check down Trevor" when Siemian settles for his short routes. The Western Illinois defense might as well have adopted the chant Saturday at Ryan Field.
Again and again Siemian dropped off passes to his check down against the Leathernecks. Sometimes he took time going through his progression before settling for a receiver out of the backfield. Sometimes it seemed like he was eyeing the check down as his first or second option.
Northwestern only converted three of 14 third downs Saturday, which was a result of the muddled passing game. Jayme Taylor had three receptions in the game. They all came on third down, and they all fell short of the sticks. Taylor's catches accounted for three of the four completions that failed to convert, and Siemian had another three incompletions on third downs.
The 'Cats were not exactly setting Siemian up for third down success, however. Their average distance to convert on third downs Saturday was nearly 7 yards. And when a punt block set NU up with first-and-goal from the four, a false start pushed them back, leading to a Siemian sack and fumble on third down.
This is an offensive issue just as much as it is a Trevor Siemian issue. The O-line has been poor in pass protection, often leaving Siemian under duress. The run game was mediocre against Cal and NIU, allowing linebackers to drift back into the secondary. And Northwestern isn't spreading the field like it used to. The entire offensive unit is out of sync.
Siemian obviously does not want to take chances with the football. He often rushes through his progression or just misses a man open downfield. Even when he finds a deep target, Siemian looks hesitant to air it out in fear of turning the ball over.
While winning the turnover margin is vital, the reward of taking some shots outweighs the risk. The 'Cats are not generating any big plays. Siemian's longest completion in the last two weeks was 25 yards. The offense sputters so often because it's relying on consistent short gains, which NU can't even put together against Western Illinois.
The offense has its fair share of problems. The o-line and running game have underperformed, and the wideouts drop passes here and there. But Trevor Siemian is the leader of this offense, and for Northwestern to win Big Ten games, he has to change his progression and improve his decision-making in the pocket.