Two games into the 2010 season, Northwestern fans were ready to claim quarterback Kain Colter was the next Dan Persa.
The true sophomore commanded the offense well in an impressive road victory against Boston College in the opener and thoroughly demolished Eastern Illinois in week two.
He could run and knew the playbook, causing many fans and experts to ignore the inconsistency in the passing game.
However, Saturday was a reality check for the Wildcats, who lost 21-14 at Army due in large part to an offense that lost all of the progress it has made in the season’s first two weeks.
Colter proved again that he could run—he led Northwestern with 57 yards rushing—but he couldn’t find consistency in the passing game and was eventually benched in favor of redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian.
Siemian picked up 105 yards in only seven attempts, but he couldn’t come up with a big play on the Wildcats’ final fourth down attempt.
So just three weeks into the season, Northwestern has a quarterback question yet again.
Can NU be successful without Dan Persa? Right now, it appears not.
To be successful in Northwestern’s offense, a quarterback needs to have a complete package. The Wildcats’ quarterbacks are known for their ability to run, but they also have to be able to pass the ball—Persa led the nation in completion percentage last season, a stat that has been vastly underrated.
Persa’s ability to pass opened plays up for him in the running game. Defenders had to respect his arm, so they couldn’t throw in a spy and treat him as a running quarterback.
No quarterback in the Big Ten—not even Michigan star Denard Robinson—created that type of dilemma for opposing defenses.
Right now, Colter doesn’t create that mismatch.
He has been nearly as productive as Persa on the ground, and when he’s in a groove he can run the fairly complex, decision-based offense to perfection. But without a passing game, he hasn’t been able to duplicate Persa’s success.
And if Army can exploit that weakness, almost any Big Ten defense will be able to as well.
The one-dimensional issues don’t stop with Colter, either. Siemian is a better passer, but he isn’t nearly as mobile, which is even more of an Achilles’ heel for the Northwestern offense.
The third backup, Evan Watkins, struggled mightily at the end of last season and has had problems both running and passing the ball.
So essentially, Northwestern has two quarterbacks right now—one who can pass and one who can run.
And as Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette so eloquently put it when referring to Penn State’s quarterback situation, if you have two quarterbacks you basically have no quarterbacks.
This is unchartered territory for a Northwestern program that has done a remarkable job of employing the “next man in” strategy with quarterbacks.
From Brett Basanez to C.J. Bacher to Mike Kafka to Dan Persa, the Wildcats have had arguably the best line of quarterbacks in the Big Ten this decade.
Now, quarterback is the weak point on an otherwise stacked offense and uncertainty surrounding the position still looms.
Persa is expected to be back soon, but that was the case in preseason camp as well. He was supposed to be available in “emergency situations” on Saturday, but the final drive sure seemed to be an emergency situation and it was Siemian on the field, not Persa.
With a game at streaking Illinois coming up in two weeks, all Wildcats fans can really do is sit and wait for a straight answer about the quarterback situation—something they haven’t gotten since last November.
What we do know is that right now, neither Colter nor Siemian has the ability to run the Northwestern offense how it needs to be run.
And ironically, the position where Northwestern has been known to thrive may end up keeping it out of Big Ten Championship contention.