On Saturday, the junior appeared a different quarterback than his 2011 self. Remember Army? Gone are the errant throws, the passes lofted over receivers' heads. And Penn State? Gone is the indecision that led to two devastating sacks late in the ballgame.
Both of those games were losses. The performance against Syracuse was nothing to hang their hats on, but the Cats won, and Colter played as large a role as anyone. But equally important was his backup, sophomore Trevor Siemian.
With Colter's shoulder flaring up after a hit earlier in the game, he was left on the sidelines as Siemian helped NU escape potential disaster with a clutch, game-winning touchdown. A minor quarterback controversy ensued.
Though Colter still tops the depth chart, Pat Fitzgerald insisted Siemian was expected to play at some point, regardless of Colter's injury.
Sorry, coach. This team will go as far as Kain takes it. It's time to end the fixation on a two-quarterback system and – barring injury - let Kain Colter carry the Wildcats.
This is not an indictment of Siemian. He excels as a pocket passer and could start for many teams. With Matt Alviti arriving on campus next year, Northwestern may have – dare I say it? – the deepest group of quarterbacks in the nation. On this squad, however, Siemian happens to be second best.
Colter looked terrific on Saturday. The junior demonstrated both his characteristic elusive ability and formerly uncharacteristic throwing accuracy.
Facing an onslaught of pressure bordering on ridiculous, Colter provided what Siemian cannot: mobility. The coaching staff understands that its offensive line is inexperienced, Chuck Porcelli and Jack Konopka in particular. While Siemian can make the occasional play with his feet, Colter is the right choice for a team with a porous line.
On Saturday, Colter's throws were on target. He completed two-thirds of them, including pinpoint touchdown passes to Christian Jones and Venric Mark. Two of the seven incompletions were the result of terrible drops. I counted just one bad miss. If Colter maintains this sort of accuracy, he has all the tools necessary to succeed.
Last season, Dan Persa was the unquestioned number one quarterback. His injury forced Colter to the starting job before he was adequately prepared. When Persa recovered, Fitzgerald discovered an excellent balance.
One of the best quarterbacks in the nation when healthy, Persa flung passes to a talented group of receivers. Without counting his abbreviated outings at Illinois and Nebraska, Persa averaged more than 270 yards per game through the air.
Fitzgerald wisely understood, though, that Colter needed to see action. On he came in a hybrid role, forcing writers to list him as a "quarterback/wide receiver" in their recaps. In the backfield, Colter practically defined the term "change of pace," a stark contrast to the purely pass-oriented attack under Persa. With that speed and that cannon, Colter was poised to break out in 2012.
Only he couldn't wait. After Persa injured his shoulder against then-No. 10 Nebraska, Colter keyed the stunning road victory, rushing for a team-high 57 yards and two touchdowns. The Nebraska media took note: this guy was a true talent. What great potential.
The Colter-Siemian duo is much different than Persa-Colter. Siemian, to deserve playing time, would need a markedly better arm. I don't think Fitzgerald sits over the depth chart and considers Siemian to have far superior throwing ability. And he certainly should not at this point. Against the Orange, Colter held his own and then some.
The two-quarterback system still appeals to Fitzgerald, yet this extremely flawed 2012 team needs to focus its energies elsewhere. Time to give Kain a vote of confidence, and let him take over football games.
Many still opine that the dynamic Colter should fill in at wide receiver on some plays, with Siemian taking over the pivot in these situations. Well, if style points win games, great idea. The problem is, the Cats have the deepest receiving corps in the Big Ten, and there are nowhere near enough targets to go around. The immensely talented Kyle Prater caught just two passes. Kain is the quarterback or he's on the bench. No in-between as the sixth option at receiver.
To give this team a chance of competing in the brutal Legends Division, Fitzgerald would be best off handing the ball to Colter for 60 full minutes, and call plays to highlight his strengths.
Colter thrived in five-receiver sets against Syracuse. Once he got settled, he spread the ball and the Orange had no answer. His weapons: Jones and Jones on the outside, Prater running slants across the middle, his top target Demetrius Fields in the slot and Venric Mark catching passes out of the backfield. That's a mouthful. There's a lot of talent.
Add Colter's trademark running ability, and the offense is nigh impossible to stop. Play in and play out, the five-receiver sets provide the NU offense with an abundance of options. Even with minimal blocking, Colter's skill set will buy him time.
Four- or five-receiver sets, with Colter, should comprise 80 percent of the plays Fitzgerald calls this season. The offense may need 50 points on some Saturdays this year. Why not go for broke, and who else but dual threat Colter to lead the charge? There is an argument to be made that the two-quarterback system will be a momentum killer. The speculation seems unnecessary. Colter, with his versatility and apparent improvement during the offseason, earned the quarterback position.
Siemian will have another chance, but it's time to let Colter run with it.