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Aidan’s Attempts, Week 11: Strides in some areas, but really more of the same

While they finally managed to get the ball in the end zone, the offense once again lacked the consistency to finish things off.

Purdue v Northwestern Photo by Justin Casterline/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 took over for Johnson in the starting role, starting with the matchup against Nebraska, we have tweaked things a little.

Join us for Aidan’s Attempts each week to receive an in-depth breakdown of Northwestern’s passing scheme, Smith’s success within it, and anything else of interest that we notice.

Well, after three straight games without scoring a touchdown and four without a passing score, Northwestern’s offense finally showed signs of life.

In his fifth start of the season, Aidan Smith put together his best performance to date, notching his second and third passing touchdowns of the season and leading the offense to its second highest point total of the year. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, that 22-point effort wouldn’t be enough.

Smith completed 61 percent of his passes for 184 yards and an interception, pushing the ball down field a little more than usual yet still plagued by inconsistency as the game progressed. At times he looked confident, completing several medium/deep throws for key first downs and delivering short and medium passes on time, on target, and even under pressure. Receivers were open more often than usual - most likely the product of a subpar Purdue defense - and Smith mostly hit them.

But the good certainly came with the bad, as Smith missed his fair share of open receivers and was the beneficiary of multiple dropped interceptions.

Despite looking its best overall since Week 3 against UNLV, the offense went dormant for large portions of the game and ultimately failed to keep pace with Purdue and its backup quarterback.

Before we look at the throws, take a look at our full play-by-play and the charts below:

Aidan Smith Passing Chart vs. Purdue

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30 - 39 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
20 - 29 1 3 33 11 33 0 0
10 - 19 6 10 92 9.2 15.3 1 1
0 - 9 12 18 59 3.3 4.9 1 0
Totals: 19 31 184 5.9 9.7 2 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 1 10 33 3.3 33 0 0
10 - 19 16 36 247 6.9 15.4 2 3
0 - 9 62 110 404 3.7 6.5 1 4
Totals: 79 158 684 4.3 8.7 3 7

Smith and the offense started off hot, scoring on each of their first two drives and looking surprisingly capable for the first time in awhile. Whether rolling out, standing in a clean pocket or under pressure, the quarterback was sharp early and instilled confidence in an offense that desperately needed it. The coaching staff certainly deserves its fair share of credit for a game script that allowed Smith to get into a rhythm early by giving him time and open receivers.

Smith got things going with NU backed up inside its own 10, finding Riley Lees on a designed rollout that went for 13 yards.

A play fake to the right gets pretty much the entire defense moving in that direction, allowing Smith to get out to the left with plenty of time (enough to make moving away from his throwing arm irrelevant) to find a wide-open Lees up the left sideline.

After Kyric McGowan took the next play 79 yards to the house, Smith showcased perhaps his best drive of the season, stringing together a series of throws to all parts of the field.

First, facing a third and medium from his own 31, Smith dropped back and delivered a strike to Lees for a first down.

Anyone that has evaluated Northwestern’s offense this season knows its quarterbacks (and Smith in particular) have struggled to complete passes outside the numbers. Here, Smith makes a difficult throw from the left hash into a tight window on the right sideline. Sure, Lees has a step, but the window closes quickly on the out-route he is running, so Smith has to display quality arm strength - the best we’ve seen from him in a while - to get it there.

Smith continued to show off some real zip on his balls for the remainder of the drive, homing in on Jace James for three consecutive completions - all of which traveled 11 or more yards through the air - with the final play resulting in a touchdown.

Another designed pocket movement, this time a sprint-out, gave Smith plenty of time to fire one in on a comeback route.

The throw comes in low and hard, allowing James to secure the catch before the defender can make contact.

A play later, Smith ended the drive with probably his most impressive throw of the season. He stood in the pocket and took a hit in order to deliver a 16-yard dime to James as he crossed the goal line.

Smith deserves plenty of credit for this throw. There’s a defender right in his face, he knows he’s going to get clobbered, and he stands in there and puts it where only his guy can get it.

The passing success looked like it was going to continue into at least the third drive after he came through with a 20-yard completion to Berkeley Holman on third and long from his own six yard line.

Mick McCall trusted his quarterback to continue to drive the ball down the middle of the field, and Smith delivered, hitting Holman in stride on a nice skinny post concept that found a soft spot in the Boilermakers’ zone defense that the Wildcats exploited early and often.

After 13 straight quarters of miserably incompetent offense, the Wildcats finally put together a solid frame. Receivers were running open, the protection was there for the most part, and the play caller refreshingly seemed intent on trying to push the ball more than 10-yards down the field, even taking advantage of some of the tendencies created by his hesitant play-calling throughout the rest of the season.

Smith completed seven of his first eight passes for 89 yards, with 78 of those coming while the ball was in the air. Things were looking good, and Northwestern was up two scores.

And then it got ugly. Or, that is to say, things went back to normal.

After a promising start, Smith had a really poor end to the half. He missed open receivers on two third downs and threw two balls that could and should have been intercepted.

He has Holman open deep across the field, plenty of time, and the ability to step into his throw, but he sails it. With the safety playing over the top of Holman and the corner on his back hip, the QB doesn’t have much room for error. He gets bailed out, as his errant throw slips between the Boilermaker DB’s hands.

Smith got very lucky again just a drive later, when another Boilermaker failed to haul in a pass pretty much thrown directly to him.

This time, Smith’s mistake is not the result of inaccuracy but rather a poor read. He thinks he has James open on a similar deep slant/skinny post concept that he had connected on a few times earlier in the game, but Purdue’s Simeon Smiley is really just baiting him into it.

Smiley sits underneath the throw, far enough away to trick the quarterback into thinking there is enough room to make the play but close enough to pounce as soon as the ball is released. While a good play from the Purdue DB, Smith simply can’t afford to misread coverage like this — he’s lucky his stat line didn’t show the number three in the interception column.

Between these two almost-interceptions and multiple errant throws on third down, the redshirt junior had a pretty brutal end to the half. After starting out so well, Smith completed just three of his last seven passes for five yards.

The misses continued in the second half. We’ll start off with the interception:

Then a high throw on another third down attempt:

Finally, a screen pass thrown into the dirt unexplainably:

Together, these clips highlight most of Smith’s collective shortcomings. Whether failing to identify coverage correctly (the first and second clips have a bit of that) or missing throws that he simply can’t afford to, the fourth-year player has just been too inconsistent under center.

After scoring touchdowns on the opening two drives, the offense failed to put points on the board again until the fourth quarter. How does the same quarterback who was delivering passes in rhythm and on the money in the first quarter start spraying balls high, into coverage and into the ground just drives later?

And then how does he turn around and make plays like these?

The answer, of course, is rhetorical. Smith is not a former five-star recruit (not that that always makes a difference) nor is he a future pro, and there’s probably a reason for that. It’s not that he’s a bad quarterback, but rather just that he isn’t a good one often enough.

Sequences like the one shown in the two clips above remind one of how well Smith can play at times. In the first clip, he does a great job of extending the play, something that we have almost never seen him do, and keeping his eyes downfield before launching an accurate ball to an open Holman. Two plays later, Smith throws another touchdown with a defender bearing down on him and knowing he’s going to take a hit.

But when those moments are mixed in with throws like the one below, it’s hard to walk away really feeling positive about anything.

While this game was a step in the right direction offensively (and specifically for Smith at quarterback), it marks a clear case of too little too late. Purdue gave Northwestern more open looks than it has seen in awhile (the Boilermakers took forever to adjust to that skinny post concept), and NU still couldn’t fully take advantage.

The ‘Cats are 1-8. That makes it hard to get excited about any perceived improvement, especially when that improvement is not displayed consistently enough to make the necessary difference.