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A History of the Two Quarterback System at Northwestern: Part 1

Looking back at the end of an era


For the last two years, Northwestern's offense has been known for its two-quarterback system. While many teams have a specialized package for a running quarterback, most often used in goal line and short yardage situations, NU's "1A/1B" split has distinguished the offense and been a frequent source of argument in the fanbase. With the two-quarterback era apparently over, it's time to take a look at how it came to be.

2010: Necessity is the Mother of Invention

While the Colter/Siemian duo brought the Northwestern quarterback platoon to national prominence, the origins of the system go back two seasons earlier. 2010 saw Dan Persa step into the starting quarterback position, replacing the departed Mike Kafka. Before the season, Persa's lack of passing experience (he had only thrown 34 collegiate passes, most in a lackluster performance against Penn State in 2009) was a question mark. The season opener against Vanderbilt answered those questions: he completed 19 of 21 passes for 222 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions, the start of a season that would see him complete over 70% of his passes for 15 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions.

Persa was a startlingly accurate passer from the pocket, but he also possessed an uncanny knack for getting away from pressure and either hitting receivers on the run or picking up yards with his feet. Furthermore, Persa was effective as a ballcarrier and decision maker on option plays, both picking up yards on his own and making sure that the running backs got the best possible chance when he handed off or pitched. He led the team in rushes and touchdowns, carrying the ball 164 times and finding the endzone 9 times, and came in second to Mike Trumpy in yards, with 519. Impressive as that line is for a quarterback, it understates the impact of Persa's feet, which helped keep passing plays alive and open up space for other runners.

In the tenth game of the season, however, Persa was injured after throwing a game-winning touchdown to Demetrius Fields. Without the do-it-all star of the offense, Northwestern turned to the next man up: Evan Watkins. Starting for the first time at Wrigley Field against Illinois, Watkins showed a strong arm with questionable accuracy, completing only 10 of 20 passes for 135 yards and an interception. With the offense struggling, another quarterback got a few chances to get something going: true freshman Kain Colter rushed 3 times for 10 yards. Neither was able to sustain the offense, though, and with the defense melting down (Illinois totaled 519 rushing yards on 70 carries) Northwestern was crushed, 48-27.

After the Wrigley Field debacle, Northwestern traveled to Camp Randall, where Wisconsin's offense ran up and down the field, putting up 70 points (this was, at least, not as bad as the 83 they put on Indiana two weeks earlier). Watkins again got the bulk of the snaps, this time turning in a line of 13-22 for 123 yards, 1 touchdown, and 3 interceptions. This time, Colter got the chance to throw the ball a bit: 0-3 with an interception; he also had a bigger role as a runner, rushing 8 times for 28 yards. This wasn't garbage time, either; Colter took snaps on the second drive of the game, and he would return several times to look for a spark.

It was in the bowl game against Texas Tech that the 2010 team turned to a full platoon. Watkins threw 21 passes, completing only 10 for 76 yards, a touchdown, and an interception, while tacking on 13 rushing yards and a touchdown. Colter provided a spark for the offense in a larger role: he completed some passes, finishing 3-6 for 38 yards, but more importantly he turned 18 carries into 105 yards and a touchdown, playing a critical role in helping the offense post a season-high 38 points.

The Ticket City Bowl pointed towards Colter's future with the team. While at quarterback, Colter ran frequently, and many of his passes were screens that took advantage of a defense squeezing inside to take away the run. But he also lined up as a running back with Watkins on a few occasions, showing a willingness and ability to contribute from other positions. He even caught a pass, though this came off of a trick play with Colter lined up as the quarterback rather than as a receiver. The result of Colter's breakout game was that Watkins, the more experienced quarterback, who had been first up to replace Persa after the injury, was overshadowed by the athletic freshman.

2011: When Keeping it Persastrong Goes Wrong

In the 2011 offseason, the return of Dan Persa for his senior year was the main storyline around the Wildcats. The athletic department gave an extra push with the Persastrong Heisman campaign, staking the season on Persa's repaired Achilles tendon. But it was always risky to rely on Persa recovering from such a late injury, a recovery that ordinarily takes a full year; an initially optimistic prognosis proved false, as Persa aggravated the injury during the offseason. Even after it became clear that Persa would not be ready for the start of the season, the program kept quiet, not wanting to reduce the hype or unnecessarily give information to opponents.

On September 3, 2011, Kain Colter stepped on to the field as the starting quarterback against Boston College. Colter turned in a solid performance, completing 17 of 24 passes for 197 yards and an interception while rushing for 71 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, as Northwestern won 24-17. The next week, Colter started against FCS Eastern Illinois, racking up 100 rushing yards and three touchdowns before giving way to Watkins and a new face, redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian, to play out garbage time. The story of the game was on the defensive side of the ball, where Eastern Illinois repeatedly broke big plays on the way to 21 points, a worrying sign of things to come. The offense looked solid, if a bit too dependent on Colter's legs.

Then came Army. Colter only completed 12 of 23 passes for 89 yards, though he did complete his first touchdown pass; on the ground, his 10 carries for 57 yards were respectable but not enough to make up for the rest of the team managing only 58 yards on 17 carries. Meanwhile, Army's option offense ground out yards and first downs, including converting three times on fourth down, holding the ball for 40 minutes and scoring three touchdowns. Persa was available as an "emergency quarterback," but as it turned out trailing Army was not enough of an emergency. Instead, with the Wildcats trailing 14-7 in the fourth quarter, Trevor Siemian stepped into the game to spark a rally. Siemian hit Jeremy Ebert on a quick pass, which Ebert turned into a touchdown to tied the game at 14, but Army was able to march down the field for a final touchdown to seal a 21-14 upset.

Up until this point, Colter had been used as a normal starting quarterback, giving way against Eastern Illinois once Northwestern took a decisive lead and being pulled against Army due to ineffectiveness. For the next game, a road trip to Illinois after a bye week, Dan Persa would return to the starting role, putting Colter's role in the offense in questions.

While he was able to return to the lineup, Persa was not the same player he had been before his injury. He had led the team in carries and finished second in rushing yards in 2010, but in 2011 he took his 79 carries only 32 yards, and he only found the endzone one time on the ground instead of nine. He was still an accurate passer, completing over 73% of his passes, but without the threat of his feet the Northwestern run game was missing an element. Worse, injuries to the running backs hurt that part of the offense; Mike Trumpy had a strong start to the year, gaining 182 yards on 35 carries until an injury against Illinois ended his season. Adonis Smith flashed potential, managing 266 yards on 66 carries for the year, but injuries had him in and out of the lineup. The bulk of the load was left on the shoulders of senior Jacob Schmidt, a polished but physically unimpressive back, and true freshman Treyvon Green, who showed talent but needed time to develop.

To help fill the gap created by Persa's limitations, and to keep the talented sophomore involved, Colter served as both a change-of-pace option at quarterback and Persa's backup, replacing the senior when he could not finish games. As a runner, Colter would lead the team in carries, yards, and touchdowns; as a passer, he would be used sparingly. Big Ten play also brought a new wrinkle: Colter lined up as a receiver. Starting with 3 catches for 37 yards against Michigan in game 5, Colter would catch at least one pass in every game for the rest of the season. Colter was very much the second option at quarterback, but between his contributions as a receiver and a quarterback he made a big impact on the offense.

Siemian was not completely lost to the mix with Persa's return; against Iowa, he led a garbage time touchdown drive, and against Penn State he again took the last drive in a losing effort, this time throwing three straight incompletions. He was, however, kept on the backburner, seeing the field only in hopeless situations at the end of games.

The Army game had been the start of a five-game slide: two weeks later, Illinois drove the length of the field in the final minute to squeak out a 38-35 victory. Then Michigan, after trailing 24-14 at halftime, scored 28 unanswered points in the second half for a 42-24 win. The next week, Iowa took an early lead off of a pick-6 that turned a Northwestern redzone opportunity into an Iowa touchdown, then sealed the game with a 24 point fourth quarter. The next week, Penn State held a 27-24 halftime lead before the offenses stalled in the second half; PSU held on for a 34-24 win. At 2-5, with a road trip to Nebraska and a home date against Michigan State remaining, Northwestern's bowl hopes were dead in the water.

A 59-38 win over Indiana broke the losing streak, and Kain Colter's versatility was a key to the game: 5 rushes for 38 yards, 2 of 3 passing for 38 yards and two touchdowns, and 6 catches for a team-leading 115 yards demonstrated the breadth of his skills.

The next week, Northwestern traveled to Lincoln to take on tenth-ranked Nebraska. As a 3-5 team with a shaky defense taking on one of the Big Ten's best offenses, Northwestern was given little chance, kicking off as a 17 point underdog to the Cornhuskers.

The game opened with a Nebraska drive stalling near midfield, leading to a punt; then Northwestern drove into Nebraska territory, highlighted by a 22 yard reception by Kain Colter, before a Colter fumble later in the drive turned the ball back to Nebraska. After a Nebraska three-and-out, Northwestern put together a drive to open scoring, taking a 7-0 lead. Then, the game stalled: Northwestern wouldn't score again before the half, while Nebraska would only manage a field goal off of a short field. While the score was stuck in place, however, the game changed: Dan Persa suffered a shoulder injury before the half, which would keep him out of the second half.

The opening drive of the second half saw Colter and Siemian split time to devastating effect: Siemian hit Jeremy Ebert for a 32 yard gain on third down, then Colter for another 5 on the ensuing first down. A big gain to Jack Konopka on a trick play was called back due to a formation penalty, but Colter took over and hit Drake Dunsmore for a big gain through the air before running in a touchdown from the 3 to put Northwestern up 14-3.

The next Northwestern drive saw more of the same; this time, Siemian hit Colter for a 32 yard gain on third down, followed by Colter's return to the backfield, including hitting Jeremy Ebert for a fourth down conversion. But on the ensuing first down, Siemian threw an interception, ending the drive and his part in the game.

Colter would finish the game with another two touchdowns, hitting Jeremy Ebert for an 80 yard strike after Nebraska closed the lead to one score and capping a clock-killing drive in the fourth quarter with a rushing touchdown. After showing a fluid rotation of quarterbacks, however, Northwestern drew back to a more conventional approach after Siemian's interception; while the idea of playing two players was there, it was an arrangement that could be changed at a moment's notice.

The upset over Nebraska was a turning point for the season, as Northwestern won the next two games against Rice and Minnesota to salvage a bowl bid. It was also a preview of the 2012 and 2013 offense, as Mick McCall tried to take advantage of having Colter and Siemian both available. The quick hook after Siemian's interception foreshadowed an issue that would lurk in the background for the next two years: how to manage mistakes in a two quarterback system. With Persa, the situation had been clear: Persa was the starter, with Colter there to provide an extra dimension. With the 1A/1B approach of later years, the roles would not be so clear.

If Colter's role as a change-up was born of desperation, when Persa went down and Watkins struggled to replace him, in 2011 it became a regular part of the offense. The results were not bad: Northwestern scored more and generated more big plays in 2011 than 2010. Colter provided significant contributions as a runner, leading the team in yards, carries, and touchdowns, and as a receiver, finishing third in catches, yards, and touchdowns. His passing was limited after Persa's return, with 60 of 81 attempts occurring in the first three games of the season, but when given the chance against Nebraska, he came through with in the clutch, and his season line was an efficient 54-81 for 669 yards, 6 touchdowns, and only 1 interception.

Next week, we will take a look at 2012, when the two-quarterback system took its familiar shape.