With the graduation of Austin Carr following the 2016 season, Northwestern’s game plan centered around handing the ball off to Justin Jackson, and letting him do his thing. Entering last season, some talented wideouts showcased potential. However, no one had proved to be a standout and Clayton Thorson’s new go-to receiver.
Luckily for the running back, Bennett Skowronek emerged. Jackson may have been practically super-human, breaking Northwestern records left and right, but it was no secret to opponents that the run game was Northwestern’s greatest threat and without reason to worry about pass coverage, all of the defenses’ focus could be on Jackson. However, that wasn’t the case, and Skowronek’s ability to make difficult plays and dodge defensive backs created a much needed dual-threat offense for the Wildcats. With Jackson graduating, keeping the defensive secondary honest is more important than ever. Here’s a look at what Skowronek did well last season.
Skowronek’s performance against Bowling Green deserved its own category. Although Thorson spread his throws around, leaving Skowronek with only three receptions, two of those catches resulted in touchdowns. The sophomore finished with 86 yards and a pair impressive touchdown catches. The comparison illustrates different areas of Skowronek’s ability to separate himself from the defense and make plays.
In this clip, it seems that Skowronek may have had an easy break-away. However, if you look closely in the beginning, you can see a split-second in which he takes advantage of the defensive back glancing up to look at the pass. Skowronek instinctually breaks out wider toward the sidelines, creating just enough space to make the catch look easy and give him a clear path to the end zone.
This time, the defender doesn’t make the same mistake as his teammate and keeps his eyes locked on Skowronek. However, even with his full focus on the receiver and his attempt to directly block the path of Thorson’s pass, Skowronek uses his agility and pulls in the pass in. That alone is no easy feat, not to mention the fact that he was still moving backwards and toeing the sideline, somehow managing to secure the ball and remain inbounds without taking his eyes off the ball.
Speed and separation
Although this may not be his traditional exhibition of speed, Skowronek’s ability to find the open space around the 20-yard-line and make the catch is just the start of the play. He switches the momentum of his body immediately, jumping to grab the pass and instantly changing to a full sprint, challenging the defensive backs and gaining the extra yards necessary to reach the red zone. Skowronek finished the season opener on the top of the receiving charts, with a solid eight receptions for 123 yards.
In this situation, Skowronek takes on two defenders in the defensive backfield, and uses his 6-foot-4 frame to grab the pass above his leaping coverage. He could’ve stopped there, after at least 40 yards, getting the first down and great field position for his team. But instead, Skowronek races toward the sideline aiming to beat his defender to the end zone. Although he doesn’t make the full run, he picks up about 10 extra yards and doesn’t go down until close to the five-yard-line. Although the offense was focused more on the run game, Skowronek still finished with 20 yards more than any other receiver.
Red zone conversions
Time and time again, Thorson was able to look to his biggest target in the red zone for six. Skowronek finished the season with five touchdowns, none of which he simply strolled into the end zone for. This first clip may seem to be his easiest touchdown, but that’s only because of the work he puts in prior to the catch.
Skowronek tricks his defender into thinking he’s in the perfect coverage spot and that it’ll be a 50-50 fight for the ball in the air. However, right before the pass arrives, Skowronek quickly shifts his momentum back towards the ball, causing his defender to lose his balance and completely take himself out of the play. On a bitter cold senior day, Skowronek made sure not to slack on the little things that create big plays.
I said it before and I’ll say it again. The only reason it looks easy to get up and grab a pass while not looking at the field and staying bounds is because Skowronek’s that good at his job. That is not easy. It wasn’t easy in his prior catches by the sideline and it certainly cannot get much harder and closer to boundary than this. Skowronek’s tip-toe performance gave Northwestern a two-touchdown lead heading into halftime and allowed the Wildcats to enter the second half confidently. Northwestern bested Purdue 23-13 behind Skowronek’s 117 yards and seven receptions.
And last but certainly not least, the touchdown that I can only describe as my favorite of the season. A beautifully placed throw courtesy of “quarterback” Jackson certainly helped get this play to the top of my list, but Skowronek’s ability to secure this pass and stay in bounds is just as impressive. Michigan State’s Khari Willis all but attacks Skowronek, making as good a defensive play as any, aside from leaping a second too late. However, even that mistake is a testament to Skowronek’s threat at the wideout position, seeing as Willis was unable to take his eyes off of him to look for the pass.
Skowronek still has room to improve, but he made massive strides last season and I don’t see him slowing down any time soon. The rising junior still has two years of eligibility remaining, not to mention a year of experience being Thorson’s go-to receiver already under his belt. Although his yards may not have been incredibly consistent last season, that is partially due to the offense’s reliance on the run game. Given his large frame and ability to use that size to his advantage, if Skowronek can improve on his route-running and agility, he can become an all-conference performance.