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Aidan’s Attempts, Week 9: Some improvement, but not enough

Last week was a better week for the passing game stats-wise, but the same problems shot them in the foot.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

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 took over for 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.

Northwestern may have gotten shut out on Saturday, but at least they were able to put together a positive completion percentage and gained more than 100 yards through the air!

In all seriousness, though, Aidan Smith had a good day when it came to throwing short/medium passes down the middle of the field. But when you can’t throw down the field or outside the numbers, that predictability catches up to you pretty quickly.

The Wildcats still did not officially attempt anything more than 18 yards in the air (with Smith’s slight overthrow of Lees in the first half wiped out by a penalty), and while playing to your quarterback’s strengths makes sense, teams will eventually pick up on obvious trends like that. And Iowa did, much to Northwestern’s detriment.

Anyways, before we dive into the tape, take a look at our full play-by-play and the charts below.

Aidan Smith Passing Chart vs. Iowa

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 3 6 51 8.5 17 0 0
0 - 9 15 26 87 3.3 5.8 0 1
Totals: 18 32 138 4.3 7.7 0 1

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 9 22 134 6.1 14.88888889 1 2
0 - 9 46 84 319 3.8 6.9 0 4
Totals: 55 115 453 3.9 8.2 1 6

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

After a disastrous first drive, featuring a near-interception and then an actual interception that helped put the ‘Cats in a hole they wouldn’t climb out of, Smith shook it off and got to work. But those first two throws certainly didn’t help confidence in him from either fans or the coaching staff, and provided a back-breaking momentum swing from which Northwestern ultimately did not recover.

The first pass really should have been intercepted, and can be blamed equally on a bad throw/decision from Smith and consistently bad play-calling from the coaching staff.

Smith should have seen the defenders lurking over the top of this curl route and not thrown it, especially to the outside shoulder. But the reason they are there and ready to intercept the ball in the first place is because of Northwestern’s predictability: by never taking a single deep shot down the middle of the field, this team has left itself vulnerable on non-slant/crossing route patterns.

In this set, the Wildcats simply wouldn’t throw it on a post or seam route up the middle, which Kyric McGowan is trying to sell them on before breaking his route off. The fact that Iowa wasn’t even biting on the first pass play of the game isn't a good sign.

On the interception immediately following, Smith makes a good decision. The crossing route over the middle is open for a split second, and he throws it at the right time. But here, the fourth-year player makes a rookie mistake, probably due in part to a lack of in-game action: he locks his eyes over the middle, as he blamed himself for postgame, allowing the lineman to time up his jump and bat the ball down.

These two plays combine to showcase a big part of Northwestern’s passing struggles: predictable play-calling, and an inexperienced, not fully ready quarterback. But as the game progressed, there were at least parts of the offense through the air that made each issue look at least temporarily fixed.

All season long, Smith has thrown the ball the most successfully over the middle. This week, we finally saw some rarely-used routes tailored to that ability.

It started on the second drive, with what looked like a deep ‘in’ from Jefferson quickly marking Northwestern’s longest pass play by air yards via a starting quarterback in nearly a month.

It isn’t the sharpest or most well-run route from the sophomore receiver, but Smith delivers on time and on the money and the Iowa defender clearly is not expecting Jefferson to do what he does.

The rest of the first half, though, especially after Jefferson got injured, was slower and less impressive from Smith, who finished the first 30 minutes 1-7 for four yards and an interception on passes that were neither screens nor targeted Jefferson. That’s not what you want.

However, the Wildcats quickly picked it up after the break, starting with an impressive completion here on what I’m going to call a deep slant to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman.

This play was just perfectly executed by all parties. Nice to see.

That drive quickly, fizzled, though, and it wasn’t until the middle of the fourth quarter, with the game already seemingly out of hand, that we got another successful iteration of that in route we saw earlier, with Holman beating zone coverage out of the slot this time.

Again, Smith looks poised and confident delivering the ball down the middle of the field, and throws a strike for a nice gain. It’s just too bad that we didn’t see more of these successful combinations, especially given how much he struggled with throws of any other variety.

Throws to the outside, though, were an entirely different matter. Iowa didn’t cover them particularly well, but they just didn’t have to.

In the middle of the first quarter, Smith was handed a first down on a silver platter. On 2nd and 4, McGowan was being given a massive cushion on the outside, allowing the Wildcat quarterback to hit him on an easy comeback route for a solid gain. Instead, with a clean pocket and an open man, Smith overthrew him.

Then, late in the game, McGowan had some space between his man and the safety on the outside. But Smith, who would have had to put the ball in an admittedly tight window, wasn’t even close.

Here, he actually turns things around, hitting Charlie Mangieri on his back shoulder after he got free on a nice little wheel route....but the superback drops it.

As it has been all year under Smith, Northwestern’s passing game was non-existent both outside the numbers and down the field. Even though they racked up some decent numbers with a bit of innovation up the middle, this one-dimensionality allows them to be picked apart the way they were on the very first drive of the game.

If the play-calling and actual mechanical passing don’t pick up all over the field, defenses will continue to key on the only section of the field the Wildcats can consistently complete passes to, and things are not going to get better any time soon.