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Film Room: How will Northwestern try to stop Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello?

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The bend-but-don’t-break defense will need to be in full effect on Saturday.

Oregon State v Stanford Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Inside NU film room is back! Every game week, one of our writers will clip past highlight reels and use old game footage to help us breakdown a key component of Northwestern’s opponent.

As the Wildcats prepare for a tough road matchup in Palo Alto to start the season, our first installment of film room for the 2019 season will take a closer look at star Stanford QB K.J. Costello.


After the loss of Montre Hartage from the 2018 secondary to the NFL, the 2019 unit will get an immediate test as to how well they will be able to make up for his absence.

In Saturday’s season-opener against Stanford, the group will have to take on one of the country’s best and most experienced quarterbacks in K.J. Costello. The redshirt senior had a quiet, yet strong season in 2018. Despite all the preseason hype surrounding Cardinal running back Bryce Love, Costello and the passing attack ended up stealing the show.

The former four-star recruit led the Pac-12 with a 155.0 passing efficiency rating, which, to the unfamiliar, is essentially college football’s substitute for passer rating, last year (16th overall in the nation). In the process, he nearly broke the Stanford record for total passing yards in a season with 3,540. His 29 passing touchdowns ranked 13th among all FBS quarterbacks, although he also allowed 11 INTs.

The days of Stanford football winning games by wearing teams out on the ground with power backs like Toby Gerhart are over. This team earned most of their 2018 victories by throwing the ball down the field. Costello finished 16th in the country in total attempts, as well as 12th overall in yards per attempt at 8.57.

Although the Cardinal graduated their top three receivers from 2018, including superstar JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who headed to the NFL after a season in which he served as the team’s main deep threat while racking up over 1,000 yards, the NU defense is going to have their work cut out for them on Saturday.

What follows is a full breakdown of Costello’s abilities and the work that will necessarily go into containing him.

Strengths

Arm Strength

Costello is a traditional pro-style quarterback, who has made a name for himself as one of the Pac-12’s best thanks to his ability to avoid sacks and the cannon attached to his right shoulder. At 6-foot-4, the California native thrives off his ability to step up in the pocket when pressured and deliver strikes down the field with impressive accuracy.

The film doesn’t lie: he throws the deep ball pretty darn well.

But aside from going over-the-top, Costello is simply able to make a lot of tough throws that most college quarterbacks can’t thanks to his arm talent. Watch here against USC as he completes a tough third down conversion with a Trojan blitzer coming straight at him. Costello shows a tremendous ability to throw accurately and strongly off his back foot, hitting his receiver in the numbers while absorbing a solid hit from an unblocked defender.

Pocket Awareness

Costello has demonstrated solid command of his surroundings when he drops back, and particularly when he’s under pressure. The most important part of this aspect of his game is the difficulty even elite teams have with consistently bringing him down before he gets the ball out. At the same time, however, though he may not blow anyone away with his speed, he’s also not a terrible runner.

Check out this clip as an example. Costello wastes no time lingering in the pocket and searching for a receiver as the blocking breaks down around him. He quickly decides to tuck it and run after no more than a 1.5 second drop back and finds a running lane that leads him directly into the end zone. It’s this type of ability that makes the Stanford QB a deceptive dual-threat option despite the lack of flash in his run game.

We’ll see his pocket awareness again on display in a clip from last season where Costello demonstrates phenomenal footwork in the pocket on 3rd-and-long to complete an 80-yard touchdown.

Watch number 3 as he shuffles his feet throughout the pocket, casually avoiding ay kind of pressure all while stepping up and delivering a bomb. He does make the receiver come back for the ball, but the way the QB maneuvers the pocket as he keeps his eyes scanning his options all across the field shows a great deal of football IQ and in-game maturity. There’s a reason Costello’s drawing a ton of NFL Draft buzz for next season.

Seriously, this guy is no joke. He has shown the consistent ability to step up in the pocket and deliver some really tough throws in pressure situations.

With what could perhaps be a shakier group of Northwestern cornerbacks this season, expect David Shaw to allow his quarterback to unleash his arm strength and take a decent amount of shots down the field. Costello is a playmaker, and the Stanford of the past two years is suddenly a team that will be looking to beat the ‘Cats with the big play in this weekend’s season opener.

Weaknesses

Decision-Making

Like most strong-armed quarterbacks, there are times when Costello trusts his abilities a little too much. As mentioned before, he threw 11 total INTs last season, including 3 multi-INT games. In other words, he is far from invincible. With a navigable pocket, Costello is one of the best in the country when it comes to taking deep shots and fitting tough balls into tight spaces, but he still showed some lapses in judgment and overconfidence in his arm at times during his junior season.

Here, against Washington, Costello makes a horrendous decision, throwing off his back foot, as he tries to complete his screen with Stanford in FG position on third-and-long. There’s just no good explanation for this kind of mistake.

Here is another instance of an inexplicable throw with Stanford inside the red zone. It’s hard to put too much blame on him in this instance given he literally has no time to throw, but Costello has to take this sack. Instead, he tries to do much and ends up costing the Cardinal dearly in a game they would go on to lose to the familiar Utes by 19 points.

Northwestern Defensive Approach

Inside Pressure/Blitzes

The Northwestern front-seven cannot let Costello step up in the pocket. It’s not rocket science. He’s at his best when he feels the pressure coming from the outside and takes a few steps forward to get his momentum moving in the right direction before delivering a dart down the field.

The secondary will get torched if the front seven gives him the chance to get that much mustard behind his throws. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will have to bring pressure inside on plenty of passing downs in order to force Costello outside the tackles and make him throw on the run. He can’t and won’t beat them if he’s forced to consistently scramble, as his speed will become an issue. However, if the Wildcats can’t get consistent pressure, especially up the middle, he could have a field day.

Avoid the big play in the secondary

It can come from Greg Newsome II, one of the only Wildcat corners to consistently play press coverage, stifling a young Stanford receiving corps at the line and trusting on his safety help. Other more inexperienced defensive backs playing off to ensure they don’t get burned over the top will accomplish the same goal. Regardless of how the Wildcats go about it, the most important thing for any secondary to focus on against Costello is keeping the play in front of them.

Thanks to a talented and veteran safety tandem in JR Pace and Travis Whillock, Northwestern can be confident that at least in this area they have a slight advantage, thanks to the Cardinal’s lack of an apparent standout big-play receiver. NU will need to press that advantage to succeed against Costello.

The bottom line? Bend but don’t break, baby. That’s the Mike Hankwitz/Pat Fitzgerald defense we all know and love.