Dan Persa left Northwestern both as one of the program's all-time great quarterbacks and as the subject of a tantalizing what-if scenario revolving around what he could have done with a health senior year. He left behind Kain Colter, entering his junior year, as a run-first quarterback who had started the first three games of the 2011 season and Trevor Siemian, a redshirt sophomore, who had shown an impressive arm in relief of Colter. In 2012, offensive coordinator Mick McCall would use the two quarterbacks to broaden the offense's capabilities, to mixed success.
NU opened the season with a road game against Syracuse, and for three quarters Kain Colter took the snaps as Northwestern built a 35-13 lead on a combination of defense, special teams, and just enough offense to take advantage of short fields. But on the first drive of the fourth quarter, with NU holding a 35-27 lead, Siemian got his chance, leading a short drive that ended in a punt from the Syracuse 41. On the next drive, after Syracuse had cut the lead to 35-33, Colter would run twice before being knocked out of the game, leaving Siemian to fail to convert on third down. Syracuse quickly marched down the field, taking a 41-35 lead with 2:40 to go.
With Colter able to play but worn down by the Carrier Dome's brutal conditions, the Cats turned to Siemian, and he delivered: after a Syracuse offside penalty and a sack on first and 5, Siemian hit Demetrius Fields for a 19 yard gain. After a short gain on first down, Siemian found Fields again, this time for 25 yards to the Syracuse 34. Another first down, a short pass to Kyle Prater, and a sack on second down set up 3rd and 15 from the Syracuse 27. After a timeout with 58 seconds remaining, Siemian dropped back, took off, and drew a penalty for unnecessary roughness on top of an 8 yard scramble to set up first and goal; on the next play, he hit Demetrius Fields to take back the lead with 44 seconds remaining. Syracuse couldn't get past midfield on their final drive, leaving Northwestern to win a 42-41 shootout.
Siemian's heroics, and the overall ineffectiveness of the offense through three quarters (Northwestern totaled 337 yards on the day, with 75 coming on the final drive), made a strong case for getting the sophomore more involved in the offense. This was especially true after a disappointing outing for the run game, with Venric Mark's 32 yard touchdown the lone bright spot.
Against Vanderbilt, Siemian would get a bit more time, producing the night's best highlight when he hit Rashad Lawrence at the sideline with an unbelievable throw on a rope. The play was a great example of what Siemian brought to the offense; Colter simply lacked the arm strength to even attempt it. On the other hand, Colter's skills were showcased on a 29-yard touchdown run to push a tenuous 16-13 lead to 23-13 in the last two minutes. The difference between the players helped feed a debate over whether the two quarterback system was a good idea at all and, if it wasn't, who should be given the reins, a debate also fueled by a lackluster start to the year, as the offense managed a mere 324 yards against the Commodores.
The next week saw another close game against a non-conference opponent, as Northwestern moved the ball at will against Boston College but settled for 5 field goals before a 27-yard Mike Trumpy touchdown in the last two minutes opened up a 22-13 lead. This time, Colter showed an edge in the statistics, completing two more passes than Siemian for 21 more yards on an equal number of attempts while adding 66 yards with his feet, but repeated breakdowns in the red zone against a weak opponent left Wildcat fans looking for answers. A 38-7 beating of FCS South Dakota the next week gave no answers, as the Cats entered conference play with a defense that had played well outside of the second-half meltdown against Syracuse and an offense that had struggled no matter the quarterback.
By the beginning of conference play, NU had apparently settled on rotating the quarterbacks, but the results were somewhat lackluster; even the 42 point effort against Syracuse had been propped up by the defense and special teams, which scored 14 points on their own and set up short fields for another 14. The quarterbacks generally rotated by drive, unless one was injured. And after finishing third on the team in all major receiving categories the year before, Colter hadn't been seen lining up as a receiver.
The conference opener against Indiana saw a dramatic change: Colter only attempted 3 passes, but he rushed 14 times for 161 yards and 4 touchdowns and caught 9 passes for 131 yards as NU gained a mind-boggling 704 yards on the Hoosier defense.
The next week, on a visit to Penn State, Colter would be pushed further to the side at quarterback; he didn't attempt a single pass, and he only carried the ball 5 times for 24 yards. Siemian, given the chance to shine against a quality defense, sputtered: he managed only 135 yards on 36 throws. Colter, playing a larger role at receiver, also struggled, hauling in only 3 passes for 17 yards and spending much of the game being manhandled by an experienced and athletic Penn State linebacker corps. NU built a 28-17 lead, helped by a Venric Mark punt return for a touchdown and a short field from PSU's lone turnover, but the Nittany Lions put together a 21-point rally in the fourth quarter to come away with a 39-28 win.
After a too-close win against Minnesota, which saw NU score 21 points in the first half and none in the second, Nebraska came to town. Siemian once again drew the lion's share of the snaps, and his line, 15-35 for 116 yards and 2 touchdowns, left something to be desired; then again, Colter only managed 5 yards off 2 passes and 35 yards on 14 rushes. The offense was headlined by an 80-yard Venric Mark touchdown run, with Siemian throwing too many incompletions on fade routes (though one found Tony Jones for a 26 yard touchdown) and most rushes going nowhere. Only three takeaways from the defense gave Northwestern a chance, a chance that disappeared when Nebraska put together back-to-back touchdowns in the waning minutes to squeak out a 29-28 win.
The rest of the season saw Colter and Siemian trade strong performances: against Iowa, Colter ran for 166 yards and 3 touchdowns in a win, while Siemian's 6-7 passing for 87 yards and 2 touchdowns in a loss against Michigan earned him the title "Unstoppable Throw God" from MGoBlog. A narrow win against Michigan State saw both players turn in performances that would have been unimpressive against most other opponents; against a nasty MSU defense, they were quite good. In the 50-14 romp against Illinois to close the regular season, Colter got the most time, but his impressive performance was devalued by the fact it came against Illinois. Neither player had a great day passing in the Gator Bowl, with Colter throwing 2 of his 4 interceptions for the year and Siemian 1 of his 3, and neither player throwing a touchdown, but Colter managed 71 yards on 11 carries while Siemian scored a rushing touchdown off of a zone-read keeper.
Season in Review
The 2012 offense was a dramatic change from recent history: Venric Mark was the first running back to lead the team in rushing yards since Arby Fields led the way in 2009 with 302 yards, the first back to lead the team in carries since Tyrell Sutton in 2008, and the first 1000 yard rusher since Sutton hit exactly 1000 in 2006, as the team's total rushing yardage jumped from 2166 to 2932 and yards per attempt from 3.75 to 4.93. The passing game, meanwhile, suffered, as yardage dropped from 3305 to 2198 and yards per attempt from 8.1 to 6.0.
The easy target for the passing game's dropoff was Kain Colter, who managed a 101-150, 872 yard, 8 TD, 4 INT performance on the year, a measly 5.8 yards per attempt. Colter was clearly the running quarterback; many of those passes came on shovel passes or screens integrated with the running game, and many of his rushes came when he scrambled on passing plays.
Yet Siemian, the passing quarterback, had aerial struggles of his own: his line was 128-217 for 1312 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. His 6.0 yards per attempt was barely better than Colter's, though he did finish with fewer interceptions on more attempts. Siemian's reputation was built on the Syracuse comeback and spectacular plays in other games, but he struggled with consistency, especially when he took over for extended stretches, managing only 135 passing yards on 36 attempts against Penn State, a miserable 1-7 for 4 yards against Minnesota, and a 15-35, 115 yard performance against Nebraska. And whereas Colter supplemented his passing output with 891 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, Siemian managed only 48 yards and 1 TD with his feet.
Though Northwestern's scoring average improved, from 28.9 points per game in 2011 to 31.7, much of the credit has to go to the defense and special teams, which both scored on their own and set up the offense in favorable situations far more consistently than had been the case in 2011. With neither quarterback seizing control of the position, the two-quarterback system allowed Northwestern to benefit from both players' skillsets, but the overall results were disappointing in many ways. Were it not for Mark turning in the strongest running back season at NU since, at the very least, Tyrell Sutton's 2005 campaign, things would have been a lot worse.