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Aidan’s Attempts, Week 8: Ennui

Northwestern’s horrific third down passing against Ohio State defined their season-long difficulties.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 18 Ohio State at Northwestern Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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 in the starting role, starting with the matchup against 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.

Obviously, Northwestern’s passing offense continued to look historically bad on Friday night. But despite Smith’s inconsistency and inability to throw it down the field and myriad drops by experienced receivers, all of which we have seen before, they went above and beyond their typical 2019 struggles in one important respect.

The Wildcats were 0-9 when attempting to throw the ball on third down. Their yards to gain on each attempt in chronological order were 11, 13, 6, 7, 6, 9, 4, 11, and 4. Mick McCall drew up plays that ended up resulting in throws short of the necessary yardage six out of nine times. Still, Northwestern was unable to complete a single attempt.

Before we delve into the grisly tape, take a look at the full play-by-play and statistical breakdown of Aidan Smith’s performance last Friday.

Aidan Smith Passing Chart v OSU

40+ 0 0 0 0.0 0 0 0
30 - 39 0 0 0 0.0 0 0 0
20 - 29 0 2 0 0.0 0 0 0
10 - 19 0 3 0 0.0 0 0 0
0 - 9 6 15 42 2.8 7.0 0 1
Totals: 6 20 42 2.1 7.0 0 1

Not pretty, but arguably not too much worse than the full season chart:

Aidan Smith Full 2019 Passing Chart

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30 - 39 0 2 0 0 0 0 0
20 - 29 0 7 0 0 0 0 0
10 - 19 6 16 83 5.2 13.83333333 1 2
0 - 9 31 58 232 4.0 7.5 0 3
Totals: 37 83 315 3.8 8.5 1 5

Hunter Johnson’s season numbers, for reference:

Hunter Johnson Full 2019 Passing Chart

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
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
Totals: 43 89 366 4.1 8.5 1 4

Overall, it has now been 75 pass attempts since a Northwestern starting quarterback completed a pass that travelled more than 11 yards in the air. That, and the Wildcats’ worst in the nation 4.1 yards per attempt (and all of the other atrocious numbers that we discussed earlier this week) about sum this passing attack up.

But the important angle to take into account from Friday in particular was Northwestern’s inability to extend drives through the air on third downs of any length. In fact, in all other situations, Aidan Smith was a solidly average 6-11 for 42 yards. So let’s start our film review with those early-down positives.

Once again, when called upon, Smith made a few solid throws in the possession passing game. This perfectly-timed flat route even came when the game was still in doubt:

As did this impressive, though later overturned, throw and catch on a comeback route to the sideline:

Smith’s receivers also didn’t help his cause, contributing in part to his ghastly stat line. This third-and-medium slant, one of the only potential conversions the Wildcats had in these situations, resulted in a perfect throw and an unfortunate drop by typically sure-handed Riley Lees.

Here, in a much lower stakes situation, we see the same concept executed well on both ends.

These simple, quick completions, though, weren’t enough to create situations in which the Wildcats could consistently keep the punt team off the field.

As mentioned above, despite some limited success in other situations, the Wildcats had just about as poor of a performance as possible on third down. This is a problem that can’t be attributed to Ohio State’s defensive dominance alone.

Smith faced pressure which at least partially contributed to his struggles on three of nine third-down drop-backs. Both he and his receivers also made a mechanical mistake or two. But mainly, poor route concepts and head-scratching play calls in both crucial and anti-climactic third down situations were the undoing of the Wildcat offense.

This 3rd and 13 is an obvious offender: Smith sprints left, and Northwestern runs three separate routes exactly to the sticks on that half of the field, which isn’t exactly ideal. This allows the OSU defense to concentrate things, forcing Smith to try to (nearly successfully) force an ill-advised throw into a tiny window.

All in all, given the degree of difficulty, this might have actually been his best pass of the night! I just don’t understand the route concepts.

The issues cropped up on manageable third downs as well. Here, Smith makes a check at the line, and looks exclusively for Malik Washington on a deep out route out of the slot, never moving his eyes despite an unconvincing pump fake. The Ohio State corner ends up practically running the route for him, never fooled by the underneath crosser from the outside.

On a 3rd and 9 early in the second half, we’ve got a combination of great coverage and a bad throw. There is space for Smith to fit in this pass to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who is running a route close to the sticks, but he sails it over the tight coverage and his big-bodied receiver.

But it’s the following two plays, a pair of third and 11s that stem from vastly different game situations, that fully display Northwestern’s passing ineptitude both on third down and in general.

First, early in the first quarter, the Wildcats face a crucial chance at around midfield, trying to extend their opening offensive possession and match the Buckeyes, who had just scored a touchdown.

On, again, a third and 11 just six minutes into the game, Mick McCall and co. drew up a play-action sprint-out to the left side of the field (again!) with their right-handed quarterback.

But that might not even be the worst part of the play: Riley Lees and JJ Jefferson, crossing over each other to presumably try to create some sort of rub action, end up within five yards of each other, essentially Smith’s only options unless he were to turn and throw back away from where his momentum was taking him. So the junior just throws it directly between them, narrowly avoiding a back-breaking interception.

A similarly awful play occurred with the game fully in hand, this time with Northwestern deep in their own territory on third and long. This time, Charlie Mangieri and Kyric McGowan run routes within five yards of each other, adding a new twist by both doing so well short of the sticks.

Ohio State, having not seen Mangieri run a route of longer than ten yards all night, jumps the passing lane, forcing Smith’s throw behind his super back and resulting in an easy tipped pick.

For as much as Smith struggled on Friday (it would be overkill at this point to show his deep-ball overthrows), Northwestern’s unique and extreme third down ineptitude just shows a complete letdown from the coaching staff.

These are receivers who have all been in the program for multiple years running routes close enough to each other to high-five in relatively important situations. It happened three times! Honestly, at this point, I’m not sure whether it would be worse if they were drawn up that way or if each was truly a mistake.

All of these mistakes, from the uninspired play calls to the missed throws, drops, and shockingly bad route running and route concepts, are happening in week eight of the season. I know its hard for Northwestern fans to get too freshly worked up about these things at this point (hence the title of the post), but even taking the opposing defense into account, this may well be a new low for a passing offense that still can’t seem to find rock bottom.