Northwestern coaches and players don't sidestep the truth about the 2010 season.
When starting quarterback Dan Persa went down with a ruptured Achilles' tendon in mid November, the Wildcats were finished. They dropped their final three games, two in blowout fashion.
"From a team confidence standpoint," coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "obviously looking back in the rear-view mirror, we got rocked to the core."
Northwestern's offense has dealt with similar personnel fluctuation this season, but the impact hasn't been quite as severe.
Persa missed the first three games and has sat out portions of three others. Northwestern has had multiple quarterbacks attempt passes in eight of its nine games. Persa's health status has been a constant topic around the program, and the Wildcats have had to deal with their best player repeatedly going in and out of the lineup. The Wildcats also have dealt with injuries at the running back position.
But the constant shuffling hasn't slowed down the offense. The Wildcats rank second in the Big Ten in total offense (435.8 ypg) and fifth in scoring (31.2 ppg). They have eclipsed 400 yards of offense in all but two games and racked up 468 yards or more in three of the last four contests. In Big Ten play alone, Northwestern leads the league in passing (284.2 ypg) and ranks second in total offense (458.7 ypg).
Three of Northwestern's four wins have come in games that Persa either didn't play or didn't finish because of injury.
"We preach around here that the next guy's got to be ready to pick up the flag and get in there and do their job," running back Jacob Schmidt told ESPN.com "We have confidence in all of our quarterbacks regardless of who's out there at the time. … We're definitely more used to it this year and we've shown that by the number of points we've put up."
You could argue Northwestern's offense was too Persa-focused in 2010. Persa carried the unit on his back, displaying record-setting accuracy and dual-threat ability.
When he went down, the effect was dramatic.
"He was our leader, and he was an every-down guy and made the plays that we still wondered how he made 'em," Schmidt said. "So when he did go down, it was tough to adjust. It was tough to throw some freshmen in there who didn't have the experience and really weren't leaders of the offense yet."
Redshirt freshman Evan Watkins and true freshman Kain Colter were "thrown in the deep end, so to speak, without being taught how to swim," Fitzgerald said. The results were predictable, although Colter showed some flashes in a TicketCity Bowl loss to Texas Tech.
Colter started the first three games this year, leading Northwestern to two wins, and relieved Persa in several other contests. When Persa injured his left shoulder Saturday against Nebraska, Colter came in and guided the Wildcats to a 28-25 win. Colter, who has played receiver as well as quarterback, is averaging 136.7 yards of total offense against Big Ten opponents and has accounted for nine touchdowns.
"A lot of it might go back to that we’ve used Kain at other places on the field," Schmidt said. "We know what he can do with the ball in his hands, regardless of whether he’s behind center or split out. If Dan does go down for a little bit, we know Kain is plenty capable to come in and get the job done."
The running backs follow a similar philosophy. Schmidt and true freshmen Treyvon Green have been the only healthy backs all season, as Mike Trumpy suffered a season-ending knee injury against Illinois, while Adonis Smith has missed three games with injuries.
Northwestern has had six games where multiple players recorded 10 or more carries.
"If you're No. 1 on the depth chart or No. 4 on the depth chart, you've got to be ready to get in there when you're number's called," Schmidt said. "You've got to know what to expect, you've got to study your butt off all week and prepare like you are the starter and you're going to get 20 carries and 50 plays.
"I’m incredibly confident with whatever 11 we put on the field offensively."