Northwestern used to know exactly what it was on offense.
The Wildcats based their spread attack on accurate, dual-threat passers, a precise short-to-midrange throw game, elite slot receivers and a bit of option sprinkled in. They had their problems, like translating yards to points in the red zone, identifying a featured running back and moving the ball in short-yardage situations. But the offense almost always produced, and three-and-outs were rare. Northwestern ranked in the top 25 nationally in third-down efficiency in each of the past five seasons.
There have been different dynamics this season. Northwestern has its first elite back since Tyrell Sutton in Venric Mark, who ranks 18th nationally in rushing and fifth in all-purpose yards. The Wildcats are much stronger in the red zone, particularly on the ground, ranking sixth nationally in efficiency (94 percent) with 19 touchdowns in 31 chances. But they've also slipped dramatically in passing, ranking last in the Big Ten and 110th nationally (172.7 ypg) despite boasting what coach Pat Fitzgerald called the deepest receiving corps in recent memory. The team completion percentage has slipped to 62.6 -- OK for most teams, but not stellar for Northwestern. The Wildcats have attacked downfield much more, while their midrange game seems to have disappeared. Northwestern has slipped to 45th nationally in third-down efficiency.
The biggest change is a quarterback rotation -- Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian -- that clicked early this season but has seemed disjointed the last three weeks, as Northwestern has gone 1-2. Most troubling is the spike in three-and-outs -- six against Penn State (loss), four against Minnesota (win) and 10 last Saturday in a 29-28 loss to Nebraska.
Northwestern's offense isn't what it used to be. What it is exactly remains a mystery, even to key players.
"That's the problem that we're facing, we don't have an identity," Colter told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We really need to develop that with the play calling and find out what we're going to do. Once we finally establish that identity, I feel like teams are going to have to start game-planning to stop us, rather than us trying to game plan and change things and do that for them."
What should the identity be?
"We've been running the ball really well, especially with the option," Colter said. "Having both Venric and I back there, that's a threat. It's hard for defenses to stop. And at some point in there, there also needs to be Trev in the game and I'm at receiver. I don't know what our identity is, but I feel like we definitely need to establish our running game and our option, and then be able to throw and make plays in the passing game, too."
Offensive coordinator Mick McCall adheres to the philosophy of players, formations, plays. He shapes his plans around the strengths of his players.
But Northwestern's approach against Nebraska was a bit of a head-scratcher. Colter had given the Huskers all sorts of trouble in last year's 28-25 win in Lincoln. But Siemian played most of last Saturday's game, as Nebraska loaded up to take away the run and pressed Northwestern's receivers, resulting in numerous shots down the field. It worked on a 26-yard touchdown strike from Siemian to Tony Jones, but Siemian connected on just 15 of 35 attempts.
Northwestern went 5-for-20 on third down, continuing a troubling trend. Colter had 14 rushes for 35 yards and attempted just two passes, while spending most of the game at slot receiver.
"I don't think that was the game plan, but I'm not the one back there calling the plays," Colter said. "I'm just going where they put me. We did have success last year and obviously got that W. Some things have changed this year, I guess, and I'm going where the coaches tell me [to go]."
Colter noted that Northwestern's improved rushing this season has, at times, taken the place of the high-percentage pass game, which the coaches viewed as runs in the past.
"[Former Northwestern coach Randy Walker] used to say all the time the deep ball, the go route, the fade, is going to be executed 12 to 15 percent of the time, and that's what we were [against Nebraska]," Fitzgerald said. "We've just got to come up with better solutions and better answers in-game when some things aren't working. That's on us as coaches, obviously."
The quarterback rotation has been a different challenge for the Wildcats, who have used multiple quarterbacks in the past but typically because one gets injured. Siemian has attempted more than twice as many passes (162) as Colter (80), while Colter has 88 rushing attempts to Siemian's 17. Colter went 10-for-10 passing in the Minnesota game, but never attacked downfield. Siemian, meanwhile, took the field on several obvious third-and-long passing situations and completed just 1 of 7 attempts against the Gophers.
A potential concern is whether Northwestern tips its hand depending which signal-caller is in the game.
"I believe I can throw the ball," Colter said. "I've proved that throughout my time here. If I get that opportunity, I'm going to try and do it. I definitely have a lot to improve on as far as passing and so on, but I feel like I'm more than capable. I don't feel like we need to be predictable as far as when I'm in the game, we're going to run the ball. I feel like we've got to keep defenses on their toes."
Despite the offensive issues, Northwestern remains 6-2, still alive in the Legends Division race. But the clock is ticking to find an identity, eliminate the three-and-outs and feature its playmakers as much as possible.
Colter and his teammates hope to show Iowa who they really are Saturday at Ryan Field.
"We're definitely working on what works best for us, and sticking to that, having our offensive foundation," he said. "We'll see how it goes this week. Hopefully, we can go out there, get a W and change things around, regain momentum as we head into some crucial weeks of the season."