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Aidan’s Attempts, Week 12: Poor quarterback play doesn’t mean poor team play

Despite the win, Northwestern’s passing game didn’t see much improvement.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Northwestern Quinn Harris-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 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.

Plenty of things went right for Northwestern in its 45-6 win over UMass, but moving the ball through the air wasn’t one of them.

Smith attempted just 13 passes in the lopsided victory, with game flow dictating a ground-and-pound approach from the Wildcats. Despite facing arguably the worst defense in college football, Smith completed just seven of his 13 attempts for 79 yards and two interceptions.

The quarterback, of course, wasn’t really afforded the opportunity to get into a rhythm - Pat Fitzgerald used a variety of quarterbacks in the game leaving Smith on the sidelines for drives at a time - and the success of the run game (334 yards on 6.4 yards per carry) functioned well enough to make the air attack unnecessary and its struggles inconsequential.

Still, out of all games, this one seemed a good opportunity to build confidence in all facets of the offense. The Wildcats certainly tried to at the start, attempting a majority of their passes within the first three drives of the game. It just didn’t work very well.

Two of those drives resulted in an interception, and Smith would end up completing just one pass that traveled 10 or more yards in the air. Riley Lees was open a lot, and Smith delivered at times, but it’s hard to be too inspired when a good number of his completions came within a few yards of the line of scrimmage or behind it.

Overall, a 13-attempt sample size isn’t enough to go on, and Smith’s performance wasn’t as bad as it appears in the box score; one of his interceptions was the unfortunate result of a batted ball at the line and one of those incompletions was a drop. Regardless, Smith is now averaging just 4.4 yards per attempt with three touchdown passes compared to nine interceptions, and this matchup with the Minutemen served as the latest indictment on the redshirt junior’s ability (or lack thereof) as a Division One passer.

With Smith not airing it out much, this week’s edition will be a little shorter. We’ll still cover his good and bad throws, but first take a look at our play-by-play and the charts below:

Aidan Smith Passing Chart vs. UMass

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30 - 39 0 1 0 0 0 0 0
20 - 29 0 1 0 0 0 0 1
10 - 19 1 2 18 9.0 18.0 0 0
0 - 9 6 9 58 6.4 9.7 0 1
Totals: 7 13 76 5.8 10.9 0 2

Aidan Smith Full 2019 Passing Chart

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30 - 39 0 3 0 0 0 0 0
20 - 29 1 11 33 3 33 0 1
10 - 19 17 38 265 7.0 15.6 2 3
0 - 9 68 119 462 3.9 6.8 1 5
Totals: 86 171 760 4.4 8.8 3 9

The Good

Out of his seven completions, Smith really had just one throw worthy of being included in this section. His other six completions traveled a combined seven yards through the air, so I won’t bore you by including a bunch of bubble screens or throws out into the flat.

His one good throw, though, was a dime thrown 17 yards downfield to Lees that showcased some quality arm strength.

Lees runs a great deep out/corner route to the left side of the field that gains him a step or two on the man responsible for guarding that zone. Smith drives the ball in there, putting it out in front of Lees and on his hands before the defender could break on the ball.

It wasn’t the tightest of windows, but the ball did need to get there on time and on target, and Smith made sure of just that to pick up a nice gain through the air.

Unfortunately for Smith, that was really wasn’t much else that deserved to be shown in this section.

The Bad

Well, even when facing a defense that gives up 553.3 yards per game - the most in the country - Smith couldn’t really take advantage.

He made a variety of mistakes, at times missing open receivers and making a bad read or two. Even on passes he completed, the ball sometimes came in a little too far in front or a little too far behind his target, limiting potential big gains.

On the first drive of the game, Smith had an opportunity to keep the chains moving facing an early 3rd and 5. He had Lees open but misfired, effectively ending the drive.

Here, Smith has plenty of time in the pocket and Lees gets open almost right away past the first down marker. Smith is looking at him the whole way, but he fails to deliver an accurate throw.

There has been near unanimous blame placed on the Northwestern offensive coaching staff for the unit’s struggles this year and for good reason, but this is a case of the opposite. Everything goes right, the quarterback just can’t deliver an accurate throw.

Next, let’s get to the two interceptions.

This first pick is more unfortunate than it is anything else. The clip arguably shouldn’t be included in “The Bad” section, as I’m not entirely confident Smith does anything wrong.

It’s an RPO, and Smith appears to make the correct read, with the outside blitzer crashing down on the running back and Lees wide open in the flat, and Smith makes the right decision to keep and throw the ball. Somehow, the defender is able to quickly come off the running back and get his arms in the way of what would be an easy completion. This truly is an example of a tremendous defensive play that really isn’t the quarterback’s fault.

The second interception, however, comes as the direct result of a poor throw and read. By no means is Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman ‘open’ on this play, but Smith tries to fit one in back-shoulder for a big gain. The problem is twofold: the defensive back is sitting on the throw and, more importantly, Smith doesn’t exactly put it on Chiaokhiao-Bowman’s back shoulder.

Instead, Smith leaves the ball too far inside, allowing the corner to just turn around and catch the ball. Smith probably shouldn’t have even thought about making this throw in the first place, but if he’s going to, he has to put the ball closer to the sideline where only his receiver can get it.

Next is a throw to Malik Washington in the end zone:

Smith actually makes a quality read here, as he anticipates Washington will be open if he breaks out to the left side of the end zone. He just doesn’t make an accurate throw.

Washington ends up getting quite a bit of separation, and Smith had the right idea, trying to throw his receiver open. Still, he has plenty of room in the left side of the end zone to make this throw and give Washington an opportunity to make a play, but he throws it out of bounds.

Smith had the time and the space to make the throw, but he delivers an inaccurate ball. Sure, he releases the pass before Washington makes his break, so its tough to anticipate where the ball needs to be, but at the very least, Smith needs to put it in the field of play.

Even when Smith did complete passes, however, he wasn’t always hitting his receivers in stride.

Including this clip may seem nit-picky or unfair given the end result was decidedly positive for Northwestern and Smith, but it still is an example of an inaccurate throw within five yards of the line of scrimmage.

Lees is wide open with just a linebacker in his vicinity, probably two or three steps behind. If Smith delivers an accurate ball, Lees is probably off to the races for a big gain. Instead, Smith places the ball too far in front of Lees, causing his receiver to have to go to the ground to make the catch. A possible explosive play turns into a five-yard gain, and it is almost entirely Smith’s fault.

The Northwestern passing offense remains one of the worst in the country, and each week that seems to be the result of a multitude of things: sometimes it’s a lack of desire and commitment to pushing the ball down field through the air on behalf of the coaching staff; sometimes it’s because receivers are blanketed by the defense; and sometimes it’s because of incompetence from the quarterback position.

Last week’s game against the Minutemen seemed to be a case of the latter.

To be fair, the Wildcats were never trying put up gaudy passing stats against UMass, but it’s more a question of whether they could if they wanted to.

NU may have come away with its second win of the season, but the passing game is still in a state of emergency.