Football: Trevor Siemian and the most talked-about ankle in Evanston


Nathan Richards/Daily Senior Staffer

Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian’s right ankle, injured Sept. 6, has continued to bother him since. Siemian and coach Pat Fitzgerald have offered different interpretations of how much the injury has affected Siemian’s play.

Alex Putterman, Sports Editor

Trevor Siemian first injured his ankle Sept. 6, late in Northwestern’s 23-15 loss to Northern Illinois.

Since then, the senior quarterback’s health has been the dominant storyline of the season, with coach Pat Fitzgerald repeatedly citing the ankle injury as an explanation for Siemian’s less-than-stellar performance this season.

Here’s what we know about the most-discussed ankle in Evanston:

The injury

NU was down 23-7 at the time of the injury, three minutes away from a second consecutive loss.

On the first play of a must-score Wildcats’ drive, Siemian dropped back to pass and rocked safely in the backfield for several seconds, without threat from the Huskies’ pass rush.

But in an instant, Northern Illinois’ Jason Meehan slipped by NU junior right guard Matt Frazier and dove at the quarterback’s legs (Meehan would be penalized 15 yards for the low hit). The defensive end landed on Siemian’s right ankle, twisting it under him as Siemian released the ball.

Siemian sat calmly on the turf until the Cats’ medical team rushed over to tend to him. About a minute later, the quarterback was helped off the field, his right led swinging above the ground.

After reaching the sideline, Siemian received treatment as backup Zack Oliver entered the game and threw a touchdown pass on his third play.

Siemian did not return to the game.

The testimonials

NU had a bye the following week, allowing time for Siemian’s ankle to recover.

The quarterback’s status for the following week’s game against Western Illinois was never seriously in question. Other than dropping only to one knee during up-down drills, Siemian participated fully in practice.

That Wednesday, Siemian said he would almost certainly play Saturday and joked about Oliver breaking his ankle to gain more playing time.

He also pre-empted all injury excuses.

“I’m not the only one banged up, and nobody’s using that as a crutch around here,” he said. “It’d be pretty easy to go out there and throw six interceptions and say, ‘oh, my foot hurt,’ but that’s not what we do around here.’”

Siemian didn’t throw six interceptions against Western Illinois, but he did complete only 15 of 25 passes for 117 yards against the Football Championship Subdivision Leathernecks.

After the game Siemian said his ankle felt fine, but Fitzgerald played up the injury as a source of his struggles.

“He’s coming off an ankle injury. He didn’t drive off his back foot,” Fitzgerald said. “He didn’t drive the ball. I’m proud of him for being out there.”

Since then, Siemian has insisted the injury is no big deal, but Fitzgerald has several times brought it up as factor in the quarterback’s performance. After NU’s Oct. 18 loss to Nebraska — six weeks after the initial injury — Fitzgerald said Siemian’s ankle isn’t “anywhere close to 100 percent.”

The coach’s public stance on the injury presents a dramatic departure from a season ago, when Fitzgerald revealed only after the season that Siemian had been coping with a heel problem for much of the season. The openness is also an exception to Fitzgerald’s tendency to conceal the specifics of player injuries and avoid speaking about them at all costs.

It’s possible Fitzgerald has volunteered the information to protect his quarterback from criticism. The coach certainly knows of the public heat Siemian has taken for his play this season.

“Keep eating him up,” Fitzgerald said Wednesday. “He enjoys it.”

The stats

Whether or not Siemian’s ankle has limited his play, it’s not as if he was playing great before taking that hit against Northern Illinois.

In those first two games, the senior completed 50 of his 85 pass attempts (59 percent) for 5.8 yards per attempt. He threw two touchdowns against three interceptions.

In the five games since the injury, he’s completed 101 of his 180 passes (56 percent) for 5.55 yards per attempts, with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

Based on those numbers, he has thrown the ball slightly less effectively with the bum ankle. But the difference isn’t huge, and much of it can likely be explained by the increase in competition in Big Ten play.

The drop-off in Siemian’s play is much more dramatic compared to last season, when he completed 60 percent of his passes for 7.2 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

It’s certainly possible some of that decrease in production is related to the ankle injury, which could make it difficult for Siemian to plant with his back foot and fire accurate passes downfield.

But Siemian said this week that at this point his ankle problems primarily affect his ability to move in the backfield and scramble downfield.

“We’re getting there, just as far as moving in the pocket and mixing things up,” Siemian said. “When I first got hurt that’s the one thing I was worried about was you’ve got to be able to protect yourself. If you can’t move you can’t really protect yourself.”

For what it’s worth, Siemian was sacked seven times in his two games pre-injury and only 11 times in the five games since.

On the other hand, he scrambled nine times during the first two games and only 12 times since.

After not running at all against Western Illinois in his first game post-injury, Siemian’s carries have been steady in Big Ten play. Overall, there’s been no uptick in his production as his ankle has theoretically healed.

Which leaves two possible conclusions: 1.) Siemian must still be suffering from ankle problems, Fitzgerald is being honest about the severity of the injury and Siemian is understating it to avoid making excuses; or, 2.) Siemian’s ankle hasn’t been a major issue since the game against Western Illinois, Fitzgerald is making excuses for his struggling quarterback and Siemian is correct in saying every player is banged up and he’s no different.

Regardless, everyone seems to agree the ankle is better after last week’s bye than it was before. Fitzgerald said Monday that Siemian is “healthier than he’s been,” and junior receiver Miles Shuler volunteered Wednesday that Siemian’s ankle is “a lot better.”

The quarterback himself said he feels “as good as I have since I’ve been hurt.”

How good exactly is anyone’s guess.

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Twitter: @AlexPutt02