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Everybody’s Efforts, Week 10: A tale of two QBs (sort of)

Johnson and Smith differentiated themselves a bit on Saturday, but NU’s overarching passing problems remain.

Northwestern v Indiana Photo by Andy Lyons/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. After Aidan Smith took over for Johnson in the starting role, beginning with the matchup against Nebraska, we tweaked things a little.

But now, with Johnson having come back, and both quarterbacks seeing time, we were forced to change up our alliteration once more.

Join us for Hunter’s Heaves/Aidan’s Attempts/Everybody’s Efforts 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.

Though we saw a healthy dose of each quarterback on Saturday, neither was really able to stick out (at least in a positive way) as the Hoosiers demolished the Wildcats. Johnson did manage to outperform Smith slightly after entering for him off the bench and before leaving due to another injury, with the latter having virtually no impressive plays aside from one nice early completion to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman.

Regardless of who is calling the signals under center, though (warning: the following take may shock you), the Northwestern passing game is not good. Some might argue even that it is broken beyond repair for reasons beyond the control of the players on the field.

Anyways, let’s compare the quarterbacks! Below, as always, is the fully descriptive passing play-by-play from Indiana’s Saturday beatdown, along with each player’s updated numbers.

Aidan Smith Full Season 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 10 26 155 6.0 15.5 1 2
0 - 9 50 92 345 3.8 6.9 0 4
Totals: 60 127 500 3.9 8.3 1 6

Hunter Johnson Full Season Passing Chart

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30 - 39 1 4 50 12.5 50 1 0
20 - 29 0 3 0 0 0 0 1
10 - 19 11 24 164 6.8 14.9 0 1
0 - 9 38 75 217 2.9 5.7 0 2
Totals: 50 106 431 4.1 8.6 1 4

Aidan Smith Passing Chart @ Indiana

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 21 5.3 21 0 0
0 - 9 4 8 26 3.3 6.5 0 0
Totals: 5 12 47 3.9 9.4 0 0

Hunter Johnson Passing Chart @ Indiana

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 0
10 - 19 3 6 39 6.5 13 0 0
0 - 9 4 9 26 2.9 6.5 0 0
Totals: 7 17 65 3.8 9.3 0 0

Neither group of numbers is especially good, to say the least. It remains pretty ridiculous how similar they are to each other in the season-long column, though.

Anyways, Smith started the game, and though his first-play fumble was bad, the limited passing attempts he got before being initially replaced worked out just fine. Early on, Northwestern’s offensive plays were generally limited by both their turnovers and Indiana’s general ball control, but the redshirt junior managed to start 3-3, including probably the best throw he’s made all season:

Just dropped it in the bucket. Beautiful route, perfect throw, and reminiscent of what Indiana was doing to the ‘Cats all game long: finding and exploiting a soft spot in downfield coverage.

However, Smith’s other two completions during that time frame traveled a combined three air yards, and after he got back into the game late in the third due to Johnson’s injury, five straight incompletions immediately followed.

With Northwestern trying to work the ball down the field and start some semblance of a comeback, their quarterback just couldn’t stop airmailing receivers with at least a half-step of separation.

In fairness, the first one is certainly not an easy throw (that out route to the far side hasn’t worked all year, especially with Smith throwing it, so why it is still being called and run so consistently is beyond me), and significant pressure forced the vital third miss. But that second play is indicative of Smith’s season-long issues under center.

Deep outs are tough to complete, especially given that Northwestern runs them on just about every third-and-long. But Malik Washington ran his route crisply enough to get at least some separation. Instead of zipping the throw in so it was on him as he was out of his break, though, Smith tries to lob it into the exact right space on the field. For timing routes like this, a touch pass just isn’t the answer, and that led to the crucial third down miss.

Finally, though Smith was forced to step up in the pocket here, at least, this was another throw that I’m sure he’d like back.

All in all, of the five passes Smith completed on the night, two were screens, one was the gorgeous ball to RCB, and the other two traveled three and two yards in the air. Not his best performance.

Meanwhile, in his return to action, Hunter Johnson came out of the gates in the middle of the second quarter with some momentum. After a pop pass on a jet sweep picked up five, his first real throw of the game came on a well-executed naked sprint-out, hitting Riley Lees for an easy first down.

Then, on a 2nd and 18 of his own, he makes a solid throw to the far sideline for a nice gain, though it was slightly underthrown and forced Lees to make a sliding catch.

But after hitting his slot receiver for a third straight time to pick up a crucial third and long, the rust started to show.

On an out route at the sticks that, while not an easy throw, was certainly convertible, Johnson just overshoots Berkeley Holman, failing to pick up a crucial third down.

Similarly to Smith, Johnson wound up completing just three of his final 14 passes, with one coming on the slightly absurd play (calling it a “play” is generous) that Northwestern attempted to end the first half.

One of the other two was another nice gainer to Lees on an out route, though this one was more than just slightly underthrown. Still, the timing was on point, and his junior target made an impressive sliding catch (perhaps thanks in part to replay not being able to take a look at it), giving the Wildcats life near the end of the half.

From there, it was mostly downhill. This second half-opening third down miss, in which an open Holman (again) is overthrown on a nice deep crossing route concept, does not bode well. Johnson is fading back from the snap, looking jittery and never really finding his footing in the pocket,= despite his offensive line picking up the blitz, which doesn’t allow him to get as much as he wants on the throw and forces his ensuing lob high and wide.

It’s tough to blame him for the happy feet, given the severity of some of the hits he has taken this year. But this throw was a clear indication that Johnson needs some time to get his feet under him.

Unfortunately, though, this well-worked slant was the last we would see of the former five-star.

Johnson was injured on the ensuing play, seemingly re-aggravating a right knee injury. As of now, his status for this weekend remains unknown, but even if he does come back, the redshirt sophomore still has a ways to go to reclaim top form. His decision-making in particular looked much improved on Saturday, and showed flashes of the big arm we saw earlier in the year, but the consistency was lacking.

Still, though, Johnson consistently outperformed Smith. Each quarterback started relatively strong and finished less so, but the former, coming off a month-long absence, had a solid excuse for his struggles and out-executed his counterpart overall. Meanwhile, the redshirt junior, though he was still able to pick up big plays with his feet, continues to limit an already very limited offense.

The play-calling is another issue entirely. Regardless of opponent, Northwestern has run out the same, repetitive base pass plays and schemes all year, with the only real wrinkles (aside from a scattered route combination here or there) coming in the run game via Kyric McGowan or the quarterbacks. That’s not getting better any time soon.

But for Northwestern to have a chance of getting something going through the air against a shaky Purdue defense, in spite of those problems, they had better hope that either Johnson returns and finishes shaking off the rust, or Smith takes a massive step forward out of nowhere. Let’s just say that at this point, I’m not holding my breath on either.