Colter’s personal safety has ranked somewhere behind victories, touchdowns and yards during his first two games at starting quarterback, and so far, the renegade approach has paid off.
On Saturday, Colter followed up his respectable debut against Boston College with an even stronger performance against Eastern Illinois, rushing for 109 yards and three touchdowns in Northwestern’s 42-21 win.
Colter made plays happen where it appeared impossible. He slipped through tacklers’ arms, darted left to find other defenders waiting for him, then cut back right and found what he was looking for -- open space. He had runs of 16, 21 and 25 yards and plenty more of the 5- to 7-yard variety.
Northwestern left guard Brian Mulroe and the Wildcats offensive line were trying to block for Colter on those runs, but it couldn’t be certain if they were getting the job done, or just getting in Colter’s way as he improvised.
“It’s awesome because you’ll be blocking one way, and he just makes a play,” Mulroe said. “He’s just a playmaker as you guys saw today. He’s a warrior out there. It’s awesome blocking for him.”
Count Eastern Illinois coach Bob Spoo among those who were impressed.
“He’s got excellent speed,” Spoo said. “He’s got great elusiveness. I thought their whole running game -- he and all the running backs were going north and south. They didn’t hesitate to take you on straight ahead. And, that was impressive in my mind. He is a fine football player.”
But … there’s always a “but” when it comes to quarterbacks who have that careless nature. Everyone from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald to injured quarterback Dan Persa, who took his share of licks last year due to the same approach, to New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi have advised Colter to be less of a stuntman when he runs.
A few days following Northwestern’s win over Boston College, Girardi, an NU alumni, left Fitzgerald a voicemail. Girardi congratulated the Wildcats on their season-opening win, but he also had a message for Colter.
“He said, ‘Tell Kain Colter that he needs to slide,’” Colter said. “He said, ‘My 9-year-old son taught Mark Sanchez how to slide, and he’ll be able to teach you, too.’ It was funny. It was a good, little wake-up call realizing that Girardi’s watching the games, and he’s out there seeing me play.
“It’s not a joking matter. I take it seriously, so I feel like I do need to slide to try to keep myself healthy throughout the season."
Colter says that, but the heat of the moment is what gets to him. When he took off from the pocket for his final touchdown Saturday, he was eyeing the end zone, not Eastern Illinois safety Nick Beard who was running like a train at him. Beard got a good piece of Colter’s right shoulder and spun him nearly 360 degrees, but Colter stayed on his feet and stumbled into the end zone.
“You know what? I realize (the big hits) after the game,” Colter said. “During the game, especially in the red zone, you know you smell blood. You want to score a touchdown. You know you want to get those tough yards.”
Northwestern running back Jacob Schmidt saw a lot of those hits Colter took up close, and he could attest they were just as gruesome as they were on TV. If Schmidt had his way, Colter would pull back on the reins, but Schmidt also realized that recklessness was working for Colter.
“He’s a tough one,” Schmidt said. “I think he showed that last year in the bowl game and so far this season. He’s a tough nut. I’d like for him to slide a little more. But when he’s out there making plays, hey, let the kids make plays and we’ll fix him.”
Colter realizes, though, if one of those 240-pound, muscled linebackers does land a massive blow just precisely it could easily put him on the sideline. Realistically, he’s more like Humpty Dumpty than a quick fixer-upper like Schmidt would suggest. It’s just not that easy to put a 6-foot, 190-pound quarterback back together again.
“In the open field when it’s maybe two defenders on me, I need to maybe just get down,” Colter said. “Get the yards I can and just slide. It’s going to be a long season. I’d like to think that I need to be in there to help the team in any way possible. I’d like to get in there and keep my body healthy throughout the season.”
And just maybe, Girardi’s son won’t be needed after all.