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Hunter’s Heaves: One step forward, two steps back

Johnson made some nice throws against the Spartans...but there’s a reason he averaged 3.4 yards per attempt.

Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/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. Turn in to Hunter’s Heaves each week for an in-depth breakdown of Northwestern’s passing scheme, Johnson’s success within it, and anything else of interest that we notice.

Against Michigan State, the box score certainly didn’t look very good for Northwestern’s quarterback and the passing game as a whole, as we will delve into below. Was the film as bad as the numbers? Our investigation:

The most telling set of stats, in my opinion, from Northwestern’s thoroughly discussed offensive meltdown against an admittedly strong Spartans defense on Saturday is only fully available from our pass-by-pass breakdown.

Hunter Johnson, who completed 15 of 26 passes on the day, not only worked at lowly clips of 3.4 yards per attempt and a perhaps even worse 5.9 yards per completion, but the transfer quarterback only had a total of 164 air yards across the entire contest. While those numbers look bad even divorced of context, throw in the fact that the Wildcats were playing from behind offensively in every single drive and that number looks downright abysmal.

Without further ado, allow us to present Johnson’s full throw chart against Michigan State (accompanied by his season-long numbers). Be forewarned: the images you are about to look at should be viewed directly only with extreme caution.

Hunter Johnson Throw Chart vs. Michigan State

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30 - 39 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
20 - 29 0 1 0 0 0 0 0
10 - 19 1 4 18 4.5 18 0 1
0 - 9 14 21 70 3.3 5.0 0 0
Totals: 15 26 88 3.4 5.9 0 1

Hunter Johnson Throw Chart 2019

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 7 14 115 8.2 16.4 0 1
0 - 9 25 49 142 2.9 5.7 0 2
Totals: 33 68 307 4.5 9.3 1 4

Northwestern just could not get the ball down the field in the passing game whatsoever last Saturday. The one official attempt of longer than 16 air yards, an attempt to connect with Berkeley Holman directly after a holding penalty, actually resulted in a wide-open throw. Johnson, unfortunately, missed his man:

But this play was indicative of a much deeper issue than just a single missed throw. The reason the ball was off target, of course, has plenty to do with the presence of Mike Panasiuk directly in Johnson’s lap, along with a player who appears to be Noah Harvey coming quickly around the edge.

The entire Northwestern offensive line certainly had their ups and downs in pass protection. Michigan State was credited with four QB hurries along with two sacks on 39 total Wildcat drop backs, but their pass rush often forced Johnson to vacate the pocket early even when they weren’t credited for it. Not only does that level of pressure make it difficult to throw the ball down the field, but it also highlights a weakness that is quickly becoming evident in Johnson’s game: throwing the ball on the move.

The inexcusable late first half interception that ended up costing the Wildcats’ points was a mixture of a shockingly bad decision and an awful throw. The decision, at least in part, can be chalked up to a young quarterback, frustrated with operating at a persistent deficit early in his Northwestern career, trying to make a play. Though it remains inexcusable, the explanation is relatively straightforward.

The reason behind the actual mechanical throwing mistake is relatively clear too, though it doesn't have the same easy fix. Despite MSU bringing just three, comfortable to sit back on third and very long, Naquan Jones slips free of Sam Gerak and heads for Johnson. This problem, manageable on its own, is exacerbated when the quarterback begins to leave the pocket before the pressure is really even near him.

This happens because Johnson has been hit multiple times already this half. His happy feet are easily explained given the punishment he took to deliver this beautiful ball to Bennett Skowronek:

Or the shot to the face he withstood on this perfect third down conversion to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, probably his best throw of the day:

Johnson’s happy feet created a throwing situation he already struggles with, allowing for the interception. Despite all of the bad decision-making he displayed in this one play alone, if his offensive line had held up more successfully over the course of the first half, catastrophe likely would not have struck.

Counterintuitively, though, the answer to Northwestern’s apparent pass-blocking woes may have actually been taking more deep shots. As the latter completion and the first clip in this article both show, MSU was not afraid to bring extra pressure, sending a variety of complicated blitz packages and stunts against the beleaguered Wildcat front. Largely, they were able to do this so consistently because they were not afraid of the back end of their secondary potentially being forced into tricky situations.

To combat this comfort, Mick McCall and the Northwestern offense had options at their disposal. As shown below, the blitzes force MSU into single-high or Cover Zero sets in which talented deep-ball receivers like Bennett Skowronek can get favorable one-on-one matchups.

Here, the scheme I just laid out works to perfection: the Spartans blitz six, leaving NU unable to fully pick it up, but Johnson remains cool with pressure coming from his blind side to deliver a nice ball to Skowronek, allowing him to draw a crucial drive-extending pass interference penalty.

Of course, even when a receiver beats his man conclusively, the isolated set up isn’t a guarantee for success.

Johnson misses a wide-open McGowan on a well-run comeback route for an easy first down pickup simply because he heard footsteps. He quickened his release to try and make sure he didn’t have to absorb a hit, and the ball sailed.

These downfield tries against the blitz may not have had a perfect hit rate, but their eventual abandonment had drastic consequences. Even in the first half, the ‘Cats overwhelmingly ran simpler routes, like their typical variety of mesh/crossing patterns, some designed swing passes, and the occasional flood concept. But on third down, at least, Mick McCall and his staff mixed it up at least somewhat, mixing some corner routes and even the occasional go patterns with their typical deep outs.

After being spooked by the interception on a deeper concept, though, they abandoned that gambit entirely. Not a single one of Johnson’s six second half throws, including two on third-and-long, traveled double-digit yards in the air. Most of the time, there weren’t even deep options for the talented transfer to take a chance on. Unsurprisingly, Michigan State continued to press receivers, bring heat on the quarterback, and wrested full control of the game away from the ‘Cats and their hapless offense.

Over the first three games of the 2019 season, Hunter Johnson has made plenty of tough-to-swallow mistakes, both mentally and physically. But at the same time, the youngster has shown flashes of greatness. When he is on, Johnson has shown the capability to make great throws all over the field regardless of pressure and how tight the window he’s throwing into is. Even against the Spartans, he had a few standout moments.

But for any measure of consistency to appear within the Northwestern passing game, two things have to happen. First, the Wildcats either need to drastically improve up front or Johnson needs to learn how to handle the blitzes and stunts that will continue to come his way. More importantly, though, Mick McCall and co. cannot bail on a diversified game plan and revert to old habits instead.

As Pat Fitzgerald is so fond of telling us, Johnson just doesn’t have that much game experience under his belt. But if the Wildcats overreact to miscues created by that lack of experience and take the game out of his hands, this offense doesn’t have enough talent around him to succeed.

If they want to turn things around, McCall and co. will have to ride Johnson through the ups and downs. That process can truly start tomorrow. If it doesn’t begin soon, the offense and passing game will remain rudderless.