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Unselfish Colter makes winning move for NU

Banged-up quarterback shows he's a true leader by stepping aside in victory

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

8:28 PM EDT, September 4, 2012

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Every instinct that rules the machismo world of football says play through pain.

Ignore injury. Players occasionally lie even if it means the difference between sitting out or staying in. From preps to the pros, we tend to focus on the results of those decisions — but seldom the wisdom.

That brings us to the smartest call Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter will make this season even if he is All-Big Ten.

With Northwestern trailing 41-35 with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left in Saturday's season opener at Syracuse, Kain was unable. A hit late in the first half damaged Colter's left, non-throwing shoulder and his ribs. Colter completed 4 of 5 passes in the third quarter for 31 yards, but every time he threw, he winced. His breathing became labored and the pain intensified to the point Colter said Northwestern trainers managed it with medication.

Desperately, Colter wanted a chance to be the hero. He knew he couldn't.

"It's rare to take yourself out like that, but at the same time you want to give your team the best chance to win,'' Colter said.

Knowing Northwestern needed a quarterback to make all the throws during a two-minute drill, Colter recommended to offensive coordinator Mick McCall that backup Trevor Siemian replace him. In relief, Siemian responded by completing 6 of 7 passes for 62 yards on the game-winning drive that culminated with a precision 9-yard TD pass to Demetrius Fields in a 42-41 victory.

"Guess I'm the closer,'' Siemian kidded Tuesday.

I guess the best leaders know when to delegate.

"The biggest thing is just to not let your pride get in the way,'' Colter said after participating in practice Tuesday. "A lot of guys would be like, 'I don't want to come out of the biggest drive of the game.' Of course you want to (play). But you don't want to go out there if you're not at 100 percent and hurt your team.''

How many college football players show such presence of mind? Most student-athletes talk about putting the team first, but how many actually do facing similar dilemmas? You might find better quarterbacks in the Big Ten than Colter. I doubt you will find a better teammate.

"An unbelievably unselfish act,'' Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I've never heard of a guy doing that.''

This is what usually happens when a player gets banged up: He fears losing respect or his standing on the depth chart and says whatever necessary to stay on the field where he winds up doing more harm than good. Just ask Fitzgerald.

"I'm not going to tell you who, I'm not going to tell you when, but we have lost games the other way,'' Fitzgerald said.

The Wildcats won their first game of the 2012 season only because Colter had the guts to let Siemian finish what he started. On the first play of the final drive, Siemian — a 6-foot-3, 210-pound sophomore whom Fitzgerald called "unflappable'' — pretended all Northwestern needed was a first down.

"In the huddle, I just said, 'Guys, let's do this one play at a time, get the chains moving and get this done,' '' he said.

Success looked in doubt after Siemian made the wrong protection call, which resulted in a sack and set up third-and-15 at the Syracuse 27 with 58 seconds left. But irony collided with good fortune on the next play: The passer who replaced the running quarterback changed the game with his legs. Siemian scrambled for a 9-yard gain that ended with a late hit out of bounds, setting up the clinching TD pass.

Colter beat everybody on the field to congratulate Siemian.

"I just went out and said, 'Trev, I'm proud of you,' '' Colter said. "A lot of people want to make this into a quarterback controversy but as long as the team is winning, I'm going to be happy.''

No such controversy exists. Fitzgerald reiterated that if Northwestern needs a similar drive in the closing minutes Saturday night against Vanderbilt, Colter will play if he is healthy. Fitzgerald faces real issues with a defensive secondary Syracuse torched in rallying from a 22-point deficit.

The Wildcats needing a dramatic comeback after blowing a sizable lead looked too familiar. I asked Fitzgerald if fans referring to the "same old Northwestern'' bugged him.

"If the pattern means winning I don't care,'' Fitzgerald said. "Half of the country right now is out of the national championship game and half of the country's in it. You know what, we're in it. I'm not looking to win Miss America. I'm looking to find a way to win.''

Refreshingly, Northwestern found a way to go 1-0 when its backup quarterback stepped up after its best player had the good sense to step aside.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh