The biggest challenge for both Northwestern and Ohio State this Saturday night will be the same: to stop the explosive plays of the opposing offense.
The thing is, neither defense is going to be 100 percent sure of which quarterback they're going to be tasked with stopping.
Usually preparing for one of the conference's top QBs is a difficult enough task, but both the Wildcats and the Buckeyes must prepare for two of them. Northwestern runs a two-quarterback system, one of the few if not the only one in college football that actually works, while Ohio State has the blessing of depth and a pair of passers that have combined for 19 touchdown passes this season.
The Wildcats utilize their pair of quarterbacks by design. Pat Fitzgerald's two-quarterback system is a hard one to defend against, as is evidenced by Northwestern's big offensive numbers this season. Senior Kain Colter is technically the "starting" quarterback and tends to be a dual-threat if not more of a designated runner. Junior Trevor Siemian, however, boasts the better arm of the pair, and he is brought in to throw and throw far.
Fitzgerald credits the unselfishness of these two players as the reason this system actually works.
"The only reason why this two-quarterback system works is because of our young men," Fitzgerald said during Tuesday's Big Ten coaches conference call. "The credit goes to Kain and Trevor and Kain in particular because now he's technically a senior. But they both came in the same class, they were freshmen together, they're very good friends, they've got the utmost respect for each other. And they want what I think everyone in our program wants and that's what's best for the team. I'm very thankful for their unselfishness, and we all are very thankful here in our program for the leadership that both guys bring.
"Would Kain like to have the ball every play? Yeah. So would Venric (Mark) and Tony Jones and Christian Jones and Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy. That's why football is the ultimate team game. You've got to suppress your personal wants for the greater good of the cause. You'll see some guys occasionally, when things get bad or hard. When they are selfish, maybe that's when you see their true character shine through. And for our guys, it's been the other way around since I got here, and we're very thankful for that."
The situation has worked quite well for Fitzgerald's team. In four games, the Wildcats have collectively thrown just seven touchdown passes, but Colter and Siemian have combined for 10 total TDs in four games. Siemian has attempted twice as many passes as Colter, completing 67.1 percent of them for 671 yards. Colter has actually been more efficient — he's 27-of-35 on the year — but has thrown for just 264 yards.
But Colter's main attribute is not the passing game. Having the ability to throw the ball is a big weapon, but he's much more focused on running the ball. He's had more carries (39) than passing attempts and picked up nearly as many yards on the ground (237) as through the air.
Perhaps not since the combo of Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida has a dual-quarterback system been as effective as this one. And that's where things start coming full circle. The coach in Gainesville at the time Leak and Tebow were leading the Gators to their first BCS national championship was none other than Urban Meyer, the man who will lead the Buckeyes into Evanston on Saturday.
You'd figure he would know how to prepare for such a thing.
"The problem is, No. 1, that (Colter) is a very good thrower, as well. And (Semien) is an athletic guy who can get out of trouble and also run their base plays," Meyer said on Tuesday's conference call. "So I don't think — we haven't had this final discussion, there's still game-planning — but I don't think they're going to play them much different. Of course the little one's a little more run-heavy, and we'll be aware of that, and the other one's more pass-heavy. But it's not drastically different as far as their abilities."
But Meyer has his own pair of weapons at the quarterback position in Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton. Miller entered the season as the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and one of the favorites to win the Heisman trophy. But he quickly exited in the Buckeyes' second game of the season with an injury. Guiton took over and performed terrifically in Miller's absence. Then Miller came back last week to lead an at times dominant performance in Ohio State's conference-opening win over Wisconsin.
Either guy could be in the running for one of the Big Ten's top offensive players so far this season. In three games, Miller is 34-of-49 for 406 yards and six touchdowns. Guiton, in five games, is 65-of-95 with 664 yards and 13 touchdowns. Plus, each QB has amassed more than 160 yards rushing, with Guiton once finding the end zone on the ground.
Combine those two sets of numbers, and you have the most lethal quarterback in the Big Ten.
"Very similar to us, not just with one quarterback but with two," Fitzgerald said of the Buckeye duo. "And when Braxton went out, Kenny Guiton didn't miss a beat, and that's a testament to those young men and obviously the great coaching from coach Meyer and his staff."
Curiously, Meyer didn't play Guiton at all vs. Wisconsin, but he's said in the past that he'd like to use both whenever possible.
Whether an intricately designed two-QB system or sheer depth at the position, both defenses are going to have their hands full Saturday night — no matter who's under center.