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Hunter’s Heaves: Not great, Bob!

Faced with pressure after pressure and dumping it off short of the sticks repeatedly, the passing game left plenty to be desired.

Northwestern v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/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. Join us for Hunter’s Heaves each week to receive an in-depth breakdown of Northwestern’s passing scheme, Johnson’s success within it, and anything else of interest that we notice.

Once again, the Wildcats had their starting QB forced from the game against Wisconsin. Blitzed relentlessly, especially on the near-constant third and longs he faced, Johnson was eventually hit too hard to continue. But before he exited, how much did the Badger defense get inside his (and offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s) head? Let’s break it down:

On Saturday, Hunter Johnson’s feet scarcely stopped moving in the pocket. Typically, when that is said about a quarterback, it means that he was too nervous, getting “happy feet” early on and negatively affecting both his confidence and throwing mechanics. While that may have been true for Johnson, the bigger problem against the Badgers was that he virtually never had a clean pocket.

When you take a look at our play-by-play breakdown of how Johnson fared against a swarming Wisconsin defense, you’ll find that he was pressured on a whopping 8 of 21 throws. That’s in addition to three UW sacks while he was in the game and two screen passes (designed to draw pressure), meaning HJ had somebody coming for him in the backfield on more than half of his 24 dropbacks.

Unsurprisingly, this relentless presence of the Badger pass rushers did not exactly help Johnson’s stats, either for the week or across the entire season:

Hunter Johnson Passing Chart @ Wisconsin

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30 - 39 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
20 - 29 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
10 - 19 1 4 10 0.0 10 0 0
0 - 9 9 17 49 2.9 5.4 0 0
Totals: 10 21 59 2.8 5.9 0 0

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

But Johnson actually held up pretty well on third down, all in all. While he was in the game, Northwestern faced a whopping 13 3rd-and-five or longer situations, dropping him back to throw on ten of them. Including the two screens, he saw pressure on eight of those ten opportunities, being sacked twice but also completing five of eight passes for 26 yards, thrice picking up the first.

This impressive ability to withstand pressure relatively frequently by getting the ball out quickly when his offense needed him to was one of the few bright spots in the passing game. That includes the play on which HJ injured his chest, definitively his best throw of the afternoon:

Riley Lees does well to get separation against an outmanned secondary, and Johnson stares down the blitz and delivers. Impressive.

Here, on his first third-down conversion of the game, the offensive line has him covered, giving him plenty of time to read the defense and see that the back shoulder throw to JJ Jefferson on what looks like a broken-off in route was available:

And finally, on the team’s only other third down conversion with Johnson playing, the line is able to pick up enough of the blitz to allow him a strong throw in the pocket to Berkeley Holman, who did well to get free of his coverage:

These three throws show us that Johnson has the distinct ability to make plays under pressure. Each time, his team was trailing, the Badgers’ defense was everywhere, and he was behind the sticks, with the Wildcats having failed to succeed in the early downs. Each time, however, he came through.

Unfortunately, those were the three longest completions of the day for HJ by air yards.

In the first three quarters of the game (when they were still hanging with UW) Northwestern very rarely threw the ball in early-down situations. When they did, though they faced less overall pressure in those spots, Mick McCall refused to dial up a deep shot.

Though Johnson has had some success in limited attempts down the field in 2019, 3/4ths of his overall passes have been thrown within ten yards of the line of scrimmage. On Saturday, that fraction rose to 17/21, with the other four throws all traveling 14 yards or less. I understand not trusting a transfer quarterback in his first year of starting, especially when he has struggled at times with decision-making, but this conservative mindset ate Northwestern alive.

This second-down play at the end of the first half shows the worst of all worlds for the Wildcat offense.

First, despite bringing just four, Wisconsin gets an immediate push up the gut. We did not classify this as a pressure, but it certainly could have been. But the three linebackers who do drop back are also immediately ready to jump underneath routes. None of them ever give credence to any kind of route developing behind them.

Sure enough, Johnson quickly checks down to Bowser without even checking his downfield options, and is nearly intercepted. Undoubtedly, this is a ball Johnson should not have thrown, but the route being jumped so quickly is a product of conservative play calling throughout the half.

An example of that comes on the first drive of the gamef. Wisconsin gets pressure with a stunt on what is essentially a four-man rush with a double QB spy, as the linebackers were going to pick up Bowser out of the backfield if necessary but ended up just hanging around the line of scrimmage and engaging linemen because he stays in the backfield to help protect.

But Johnson still potentially had time to find somebody in the middle of the field or deeper for what would have been a crucial third-down pickup in response to Jonathan Taylor’s opening drive touchdown. Instead, the Wildcats run a mesh concept at the sticks, which the Badgers are clearly prepared for. The secondary crashes down, HJ has nowhere to throw, and only good defense from Lees saves a near-interception:

Finally, here is the deepest throw Johnson made all game. Late in the second quarter, Northwestern tried to put together a drive in the two-minute drill. Kyric McGowan, running what looks like a deep curl, slips on his cut (though you can’t see this from the broadcast angle). As a result, Johnson’s throw, slightly rushed from backside pressure, looks to be a bit behind him, and they can’t quite connect.

Now, that didn’t seem like too egregious of a miss to me, but Northwestern never had Johnson throw the ball “down the field” (read: more than ten yards) again across the rest of his day, even as the game slipped away.

Did Johnson have his best performance? Absolutely not. But he moved the ball with his legs once again, and made a couple of good throws in big spots despite a couple of accompanying mistakes. What hamstrung the passing game in this one was an unwillingness to be creative in terms of play-calling.

The Wildcats rarely threw the ball on early downs, and when they did, it was almost always underneath. That just isn’t a formula to beat a good Big Ten defense. A shaky line and potential mental mistakes notwithstanding, if McCall and Johnson don’t start developing the playbook more, there’s a good chance that nothing else will matter offensively.