Clayton Thorson graduated and thus, so did Thorson’s Throws. But we’re back with a new edition of the same premise, this time charting every one of Hunter Johnson’s pass attempts across the 2019 season. Now, though, after Aidan Smith usurped Johnson for the matchup with Nebraska, we have tweaked things a little.
Join us for Hunter’s Heaves/Aidan’s Attempts each week to receive an in-depth breakdown of Northwestern’s passing scheme, Johnson/Smith’s success within it, and anything else of interest that we notice.
Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall chose to go in a new direction against Nebraska. Partially due to injury and partially due to knowledge of the offense (according to Fitz), Smith got the nod over HJ in Northwestern’s most recent game. While his completion percentage looked good, the numbers, when broken down fully, tell a bit of a different story. Let’s take a look:
Though the Wildcats managed just 10 points against the Cornhuskers, Smith’s stats look good on the surface. His 20 completions on 32 attempts marked by far the best numbers in that category that NU has gotten from any quarterback this season, and the lone turnover he committed cannot be blamed entirely on him (we will talk more about that later).
When you dive into our fully compiled play-by-play, however, things start to look more bleak. And completely examining Smith’s throws via the full-game passing chart reveals disaster within any pass that traveled downfield even slightly:
Aidan Smith Throw Chart @ Nebraska
|30 - 39||0||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|20 - 29||0||2||0||0||0||0||0|
|10 - 19||1||3||11||3.7||11||0||0|
|0 - 9||18||26||125||4.8||6.9||0||1|
Across their last two games, Northwestern’s starting quarterbacks have failed to complete a single pass that went further than 11 yards in the air despite 53 overall pass attempts. On the season, the Wildcats have earned a completion on a ball that traveled at least 20 yards in the air exactly once: Hunter Johnson’s 50 yard touchdown to JJ Jefferson against UNLV.
Neither of those numbers, nor the general lack of explosiveness this passing game has displayed, come as a surprise to any Northwestern fan. What may shock even some people following the program is just how comparable Johnson and Smith have been so far overall, not just in terms of a lack of big plays.
The five-star transfer’s overall completion rate rests at 48 percent, while his redshirt junior counterpart’s sits at 49 percent. They each have exactly one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown, and four interceptions. Johnson has 40 carries for 89 yards (2.2 per carry), while Smith has 29 for 72 (2.5), with each number being heavily depressed by sacks. It’s sort of ridiculous!
Aidan Smith Full 2019 Passing Chart
|30 - 39||0||2||0||0||0||0||0|
|20 - 29||0||5||0||0||0||0||0|
|10 - 19||6||13||83||6.4||13.83333333||1||2|
|0 - 9||25||43||190||4.4||7.6||0||2|
Hunter Johnson Full 2019 Passing Chart
|30 - 39||1||3||50||16.7||50||1||0|
|20 - 29||0||2||0||0||0||0||1|
|10 - 19||8||18||125||6.9||15.6||0||1|
|0 - 9||34||66||191||2.9||5.6||0||2|
The incredible similarity showcases just how much of a cap this offense puts on quarterback performance. The tape shows that Johnson clearly has more talent than Smith, and his arm is much better, two charges I don’t think either player would deny. The latter does have a definite advantage in terms of comfort, though, looking more decisive on read-options and more willing to make checks at the line.
But for all of the strengths that each member of the pair has, both have struggled equally thus far in 2019. Hey, maybe that means the blame should be pointed elsewhere!
Anyways, let’s get into Smith’s performance against Nebraska. One crucial early note that despite his already incredibly low (but par for the course within this offense) 4.3 yards per attempt and 7.2 yards per completion, his receivers helped him out a good amount on the back end. Nearly half of his total yards through the air (63 of 136) were amassed after the catch, thanks to some nice plays and some missed Husker tackles.
That includes this play from Riley Lees, where the receiver makes a tough third down catch in traffic on a nice throw before spinning for another eight yards, winding up with a 15-yard gain for Northwestern’s second-longest gain on the day. Later, on the first throw of the second half, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman took a pedestrian four yard throw and turned it into a 23-yard gain with a tremendous run after the catch.
But especially down the stretch in the first half, Smith made some very nice plays in the medium passing game. Here, he gets the timing exactly right with Lees on what looks like an out route to set up an end-of-half Hail Mary:
Earlier in the half, he was also able to hit Jefferson for an easy third-down pickup on a well-run, but relatively easy, slant. Between those two throws, however, the opening frame was an adventure.
First, we saw this head-scratching deep shot towards RCB on first down to begin the second quarter:
The ball is overthrown regardless, but with two defenders bracketing Chiaokhiao-Bowman, this is an interesting decision, especially with his underneath options each having a little bit of space (which is not a phenomenon that would recur later in the game).
Regardless, this half-serious attempt was the only non-throwaway deep pass until early in the fourth quarter, which was a play that just ended up resulting in another unfortunate overthrow, this time of Jefferson:
The double-move that the ‘Cats tried to employ here is identified from the jump. Regardless of throwing accuracy, if the only two deep shots you attempt on the day are well-guarded and you still can’t get much at all going in the short/medium game, it’s fair to say that your passing game has a serious problem.
But some of Smith’s misses in that short/medium game, despite his apparent decision-making prowess, put his significant limitations (especially when compared to Johnson) on display. This miss on a short out, though admittedly a long throw from the far hash that McCall has been criticized for frequently in recent years, is not ideal:
And these back-to-back mistakes, a horribly overthrown 12-yard comeback route and an inexcusably high throw on a slant that left his receiver open to a massive hit, marked arguably his worst sequence of the game:
Mistakes like those on display in the last three videos are ones that Big Ten quarterbacks, regardless of how bad the scheme around them is, cannot consistently make.
In fairness, Smith finally started to respond late in the fourth quarter. After a rough third, when Northwestern had a chance to drive for the win, he got things going with impressive throws on back-to-back plays, quickly moving the offense across midfield.
The comeback route to Berkeley Holman in the middle of the field (above) and the toe-dragging out route with the ball finding Lees through a very fine window marked Smith’s two longest completions by air yards of the day.
Of course, they were immediately followed up with this.
Let’s get this out of the way: if not for the blatant pass interference here, RCB has a chance to make a catch in a tight spot. But he is going to get leveled regardless, even if the DB makes a legal play.
Meanwhile, as Smith discussed in the postgame presser, Lees was breaking wide open on yet another out route thanks to a miscommunication on the part of the Nebraska defense. The quarterback certainly didn’t deserve a pick here, but regardless, he missed a wide-open opportunity in a crucial moment.
Debating between the two current options at quarterback almost feels like a fool’s errand given how much both appear to be limited by the scheme surrounding them. But to me, despite Smith’s mistake reduction, Johnson’s much higher ceiling makes continuing to play him a must.
Even if he continues to make two or three bad decisions per game and if he still does not truly have a great grasp of the playbook (which is probably an indictment of others higher up on the ladder, but I digress), the Clemson transfer’s arm strength and ability to make pretty much any throw in the book means that he has the talent to break out of the monotony of this offense.
Smith has proven himself to be a solid game-manager thus far, but based on his first full game performance thus far, it’s hard to see him doing more than just that even in a competent system. Meanwhile, despite practically identical 2019 stats, based on some of the plays he has already made, the sky continues to be the limit for Johnson.