Nov. 15, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - It may appear as though Michigan State will face a two-quarterback system for the first time when it entertains Northwestern in Saturday's home finale.
And, the Wildcat duo of Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter has given Spartan defenders something extra to think about this week in practice.
In reality however, MSU has plenty of experience when it comes to dealing with a quarterback who's a threat to run or a de facto tailback who lines up behind center with the option of throwing the ball.
Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska each featured what seemed like two-quarterback systems against MSU. They just did it with one player in the person of Braxton Miller, Denard Robinson and Taylor Martinez, respectively.
Each inflicted damage with his arm, as Siemian will primarily try to do when he's guiding the Northwestern offense, and his legs, as Colter will be likely to attempt when he's running the Wildcat attack.
While Michigan State linebackers coach Mike Tressel said preparing for two quarterbacks is a little more challenging than facing a dual-threat, the Spartans' approach won't be significantly different.
"We don't have two separate game plans, but there needs to be awareness of who's in at quarterback," Tressel said. "You certainly hope the guys on the football field are very aware of who's out there but as coaches you can't have game plan A and game plan B because in the midst of a game it's too hard to flip the switch as a player.
"I would say it's harder going against two. Their advantage is, they know how much they're going to play one or the other, but if they're going to use a two-quarterback system they have to split up their practice reps. We don't split up our practice reps."
And, the Wildcats can't help but tip their hand when they change things up.
Colter is Northwestern's second-leading rusher with 704 yards and 11 touchdowns on 138 carries; Siemian has just 30 yards and no touchdowns on 18 carries.
Siemian has attempted 67 more passes (102 of 170 for 1,018 yards, six touchdowns) than Colter (70-103, 613, four), but Colter is more accurate (68 percent to 60 percent) though they have thrown for just three interceptions combined.
However, even those numbers provide a level of predictability. Colter's throws tend to be of the short-yardage variety (8.8 yards per completion) and Siemian is more of a downfield threat (9.9).
"Certainly, there's a little more option game when Colter's in there and a little more controlled-passing game when Siemian's in there, but you see them both do a little bit of each and that's our challenge," Tressel said.
Middle linebacker Max Bullough has grown accustomed to chasing quarterbacks all over the field.
"It's similar to teams we've already played with a dynamic quarterback," Bullough said. "Colter is obviously a lot like some of the other quarterbacks we've played, and that's just about being physical and playing with effort.
"I keep saying that when you play an option team with power-read plays like that, it's just about making up for mistakes because they're going to be there. If you can limit those, you'll be successful."
It can be as easy as knowing the difference between a No. 2 (Colter) and a No. 13 (Siemian).
"We game-plan them to know what they're going to do when each guy's in there," Bullough said. "You understand that just like you understand a formation. You know they're going to run three plays out of this formation and six plays out of that formation whether this guy's at quarterback or the other guy's at quarterback."
Of course, MSU will have to counter whatever new wrinkle Northwestern will likely introduce to take advantage of something it sees in the Spartan defense.
In last week's 38-31 overtime loss at Michigan, the Wildcats ran a heretofore unseen formation 20-plus times, Tressel said.
"You could see that Northwestern's game plan was to run sideline to sideline to get Michigan's guys worn down," he added. "So I need to have a second group of linebackers ready to play because effort and pursuit is how you stop the option. You need 11 guys running."
Cornerback Johnny Adams likes the defense's chances if it comes down to physical fitness contest.
"They're going to try to out-condition us," he said. "We've just got to stay conditioned and stay mentally engaged in the game."