Football: With offense finally clicking, Siemian injury raises more questions


Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Junior quarterback Zack Oliver attempts a pass against Iowa. Oliver will make his first career start Saturday against Illinois, attempting to keep Northwestern’s offensive momentum going despite losing senior quarterback Trevor Siemian to a season-ending knee injury.

Joseph Diebold, Assistant Gameday Editor


Northwestern’s offense finally looked like it was putting it together.

Two scores in the final two drives against Michigan. Forty-three points in an upset win over Notre Dame. Twenty-one in just more than a quarter against Purdue.

But with the frustration of a difficult season (particularly the prior two weeks, when the Wildcats scored 7 points against Iowa and 9 against the Wolverines) seemingly subsiding, a twist of fate threw everything back into flux. On a forth-and-1 in the second quarter, Trevor Siemian dove for a quarterback sneak and injured his left anterior cruciate ligament, ending the senior’s season. Junior Zack Oliver and redshirt freshman Matt Alviti were left to put the Cats’ blowout win over the Boilermakers on ice.

The pressure will be upped considerably this week when Oliver and Alviti — who were solid but unspectacular in relief of Siemian — lead NU into its regular season finale against Illinois. With both teams at 5-6, the winner will qualify for a bowl game and extend its season.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Oliver, who will make his first career start, won’t be called upon for leadership in the same way Siemian, a team captain, was, and instead must focus on taking what the defense gives him.

“He’s one of the guys,” Fitzgerald said. “We don’t need Zack to do anything other than just be him. … We’ve got enough leadership. He just needs to go play within the framework of the offense.”

Fitzgerald added the timing of Siemian’s injury was fortunate in one way.

“If Trevor’s injury happens in the fourth quarter, we’re probably having a different discussion,” he said. “It happened early enough that Zack and Matt got a lot of meaningful experience in that game on Saturday.”

Junior guard Matt Frazier, one of Oliver’s roommates on the team, said if Oliver is feeling the pressure, he hasn’t shown it.

“There’s a balance (between focusing on an upcoming opponent and staying relaxed). I think he’s handling it really well,” Frazier said. “I don’t seen him too tense, too nervous or anything like that.

Oliver completed five of his 11 passes against Purdue for 85 yards. He also rushed for his first career touchdown.

The two quarterbacks will be throwing to a group of receivers that has struggled at times but progressed as the season has gone along. Senior Kyle Prater, who Fitzgerald said is “playing the best football of his career right now,” has topped 80 yards in three consecutive weeks. Fellow senior Tony Jones shook off several key drops against Notre Dame to return his first career punt for a touchdown.

The offense’s most consistent contributor has been true freshman running back Justin Jackson, who became the second NU freshman to go over 1,000 yards in a season against Purdue.

The freshman should be able to find plenty of room against a porous Illinois run defense. The Fighting Illini have allowed opponents to rush for 258.3 yards per game this season on 5.2 yards per carry.

If Jackson was going to surprise any opponents this season with his ability, it won’t be NU’s in-state rival.

“He’s a good player, and everybody in Illinois knows how good he is, because he had a heck of a career in high school and he’s just continued to step it up,” offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. “He has great vision and he changes direction so well. You don’t just get a straight-up hit on him.”

Jackson said the adjustments to the new quarterbacks have been minor.

“We get a lot of reps with them in practice even when Trevor’s healthy, so it’s not that bad,” the freshman said, “just getting used to the new things like cadences.”

Despite his youth, Jackson’s legs have been reliable all season for the Cats. Whether that season continues beyond Saturday may hinge more on the right arm of a veteran making his first start.

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