Kenny Bell may be biased, but it’s hard to argue with the favorable scouting report he gives on Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter.
“He’s a playmaker and he’s fun to watch,” said Bell, the Nebraska junior receiver who’s been close friends with Colter since childhood. “I think that’s the No. 1 thing. He’s given them a lot of motivation and a lot of confidence.”
If only Colter could stay out of the training room.
The player who engineered Northwestern’s upset of Nebraska two years ago returns to Lincoln with a gimpy ankle, part of the injury storyline that’s headlined the Wildcats’ offense this season.
Running back Venric Mark has played in only three games because of an ankle injury. He and Colter were supposed to be one of the Big Ten’s more potent backfield tandems, yet only once this season, against Ohio State, did Northwestern have its full allotment of offensive players on the field.
That’s the first time this season that Colter also played receiver, when he caught his only pass of the season, for 9 yards.
“Any time you’re losing studs on your offense, especially like they have,” Bell said, “it’s going to make for a longer year.”
Colter’s injury was significant enough that he missed Northwestern’s 20-17 loss to Minnesota on Oct. 19, when his backup, Trevor Siemian, went 25-of-46 passing for 234 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, including one returned for the game-deciding touchdown.
Colter returned last Saturday against Iowa and played all but seven snaps under center — he left the game momentarily when he aggravated his injured ankle — and rushed for 60 yards while throwing for 104 and one touchdown.
“Obviously, Kain Colter is a vital part of their offense,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “He is a dynamic playmaker, and him coming back into the game against Iowa, you could see that. They looked revitalized a little bit and a little bit more of a big-play threat with him in there.”
By going 11-of-14 passing against the Hawkeyes, Colter improved his season completion percentage to 81.8 percent. He’s misfired on only 12 passes, with nine incompletions and three interceptions.
Most of Colter’s passing attempts are of the quick-and-short variety — he hasn't completed a pass longer than 31 yards — and Northwestern’s protection doesn’t allow its quarterbacks a great deal of time in the pocket. The Wildcats have allowed 28 sacks; only four teams in the nation have allowed more.
That’s not the best situation for a quarterback who’s already fighting through injury and trying to stay healthy enough to lead his team to a sixth straight bowl appearance.
“Nobody’s 100 percent at this point in the season,” Colter told reporters Wednesday. “Everyone’s fighting through some type of injury, bumps and bruises. That’s the game of football. I’ve got to suck it up and go out there and play.”
That’s especially true for a player vying for final bragging rights in the rubber game against his longtime friend.
Colter and Bell, both from Colorado, have been friends since the summer before their kindergarten years, when they played soccer together. They lived in the same neighborhood, went to the same elementary school, but played football against each other when they attended different high schools.
In their first game against each other as collegiate players, in 2011, Colter had 229 yards of total offense and directed a mammoth fourth-quarter drive to lift Northwestern to a 28-25 upset of No. 9 Nebraska in Lincoln.
Bell had five catches for 58 yards in that game, and caught six passes for 77 yards in last year’s game , including a 37-yard touchdown reception, helping Nebraska exact revenge in Evanston, Ill., 29-28.
Bell said he regularly talks to Colter, and knows his buddy is a bit banged up but is expecting a tussle Saturday.
“He’s doing pretty well,” Bell said. “It’s going to be good to see him. I’m looking forward to it.”