The term “spring game” did not apply to what took place at Northwestern’s Ryan Field on Saturday.
For one, it was played in parka-and-mittens weather. And the exhibition, as NU officials ended up calling it, featured untimed play packages and a scoring system that awarded points to the defense for accomplishments such as sacks and fumble recoveries.
NU coach Pat Fitzgerald set the day’s tone by going on the Ryan Field public-address system and telling the few hundred fans who braved the cold: “The quarterbacks will not be ‘live’ today, so your ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ will have to wait for (the season opener at ) Boston College … Most important is to stay healthy and improve.”
The Wildcats ran 65 plays with varying success. And they survived the game unscathed. So mission accomplished.
Big man on campus: The quarterbacks wore purple jerseys and were not to be tackled, not even when they scrambled, but Anthony Battle was among those who got in a shot at Kain Colter.
“It seems like they would just tag Evan (Watkins) and unleash on me,” Colter said, smiling. “A couple of guys got me pretty good.”
Fitzgerald didn’t see it that way: “He didn’t get hit; he fell down. The hits you take in this league (the Big Ten) are nothing compared to what happened today.”
Colter ran well and completed 5 of 10 passes, showing decent arm strength. He is 15 months clear of shoulder surgery and estimated his velocity is at 80 percent, with a goal of 100 percent by August.
Watkins went 7-for-11 but missed an open Demetrius Fields on one throw and chucked well behind Charles Brown on another. Trevor Siemian threw two touchdown passes but went just 5-for-14 and looked indecisive at times.
Fitzgerald said that Colter, Watkins and Siemian “all have moved the football, but they’ve all done enough to get us beat. Today, given some of the decisions of Trevor holding onto the ball, Kain pitching it for a turnover, Evan sailing it when we have a guy wide open … none of those guys is ready today to be our starter, but they don’t need to be.
“The good news is we have this guy Dan who’s really good. (Incoming freshman) Zack (Oliver) was here today and he’ll be up in the summer. I have confidence that those guys will improve, especially under the leadership of Mick McCall, who, in my opinion, is the best quarterbacks coach in the country.”
Biggest issue: After getting torn apart by Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas Tech to end the season, NU’s defense needed to return to its roots.
“We wanted to get our attitude back, and I believe we have,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s been a real physical spring.”
Jeravin Matthews has transitioned from running back to cornerback while remaining a special teams ace. He is slated to start alongside Jordan Mabin in the secondary.
“Mabes, in my opinion, is a lockdown corner,” Matthews said, “and I’m ready to take on that challenge.”
Biggest battle: Six players rushed at least 40 times last season, and the 2011 backfield likely will feature a mix of Mike Trumpy, Adonis Smith, Tyris Jones, Tim Hanrahan and Jacob Schmidt.
The Wildcats have been practicing with a pistol formation, a short shotgun snap with a running back directly behind the quarterback that “brings a little diversity to our run game,” Colter said.
Biggest question: Fitzgerald said receivers Brown and Mike Jensen stood out as spring MVPs. Safety Ibraheim (CQ) Campbell, linebackers Chi Chi Ariguzo and Colin Ellis and defensive lineman Tyler Scott made huge strides on defense.
And as to the question of who will back up Persa, the answer is it’s to be determined, likely not until August or five days before the Sept. 3 Boston College game. Even if Colter wins the job, he hopes to supplement his activity by playing other positions.
“First and foremost, he’s a quarterback,” Fitzgerald said. “If you are asking me if we’ll be creative, I think you could look at our past and assume so. We’ll do some different things, but we’re going to develop him as a quarterback.”