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Peyton’s Passes, Week One: Who needs to throw deep?

Not Peyton Ramsey, apparently.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve seen Thorson’s Throws, Hunter’s Heaves and even Aidan’s Attempts over the past few years on Inside NU, and we’re back again this year to provide you with weekly breakdowns of the play of Wildcat quarterbacks. Without further ado, enjoy the first edition of Peyton’s Passes!

Last season, this column served as an experiment in the depths of human depravity and a breaking point for the collective will of our staff. Writing about the 2019 NU passing attack on a weekly basis was the equivalent of stabbing yourself with a fork every Saturday just for the heck of it.

Thus, Peyton Ramsey’s performance in week one of the 2020 season served as an exorcism of years past. So much competence, so much fun.

Here’s the full statistical breakdown of Ramsey’s debut as a Wildcat:

Peyton Ramsey vs Maryland

Range Completions Attempts Yards Yds/Attempt Yds/Completion TDS INTS
Range Completions Attempts Yards Yds/Attempt Yds/Completion TDS INTS
40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30-39 0 1 0 0 0 0 0
20-29 1 2 23 11.5 23 0 0
10-19 5 8 77 9.6 15.4 0 0
0-9 17 19 112 5.9 6.6 1 0
Totals: 23 30 212 7.1 9.2 1 0

As you might have gathered from the above stats, Northwestern wasn’t exactly airing it out on Saturday night. Rather, NU sliced and diced the porous Maryland defense with 19 passes that traveled fewer than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.

That’s not to say they didn’t open things up at all. Usually following a series of short dump offs underneath and power runs via Isaiah Bowser or Drake Anderson, the ‘Cats then went for an intermediate chunk play once the Terrapin defenders stepped up a few feet too far to prevent what they were being attacked with. The underneath, underneath, underneath then big counter over thee top style is a trademark of Bajakian’s that I wrote about this offseason.

This dot to Malik Washington was a good example of how the floating ball Ramsey typically throws can work, as he dropped it with ease over the two lured-in Maryland defenders, who maybe get a pick opportunity if a bullet pass is thrown. It’s also a good job by him to hang in just long enough to deliver the throw before taking a hit.

Ramsey isn’t a gunslinger who rips defenses to shreds even when there aren't any holes. We haven’t yet seen him create something out of nothing. But you give him some kind of hole in the defense, and you can bet he’s going to make the right decision and deliver the football both on time and in the right spot.

This accuracy was best displayed on the first completion of his Northwestern career, a play Pat Fitzgerald said was very important immediately following Maryland’s opening scoring drive. On third-and-10, feeling a tiny bit of pressure as the new offense trotted out for the first time, Ramsey stepped up and found Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman for 12 yards despite needing to fit the ball in a window surrounded by three Terrapin defenders.

It sounds like such a basic thing — anticipating the route and throwing before the receiver is truly open — but given that such a concept was completely absent in the 2019 Wildcat offense, it’s worth praising.

It’s hard to see in the picture below due to the Big Ten Network’s inconveniently placed watermark, but RCB’s back is still completely facing the line of scrimmage and yet to break inside, yet Ramsey begins his throwing motion and ends up making a great play. He trusts his receiver, and he trusts what he’s seeing on the field despite it not being totally wide open. That’s what a well-prepared quarterback does.

(Also of note, that patented Ramsey arc here nearly gave me a heart attack on Saturday, as it spent so much time in the air while bypassing all those defenders. A tiny stylistic nitpick, but a little scary none the less.)

Usually when a new quarterback enters a program and is expected to immediately start, there is a worry he won’t feel comfortable in the offense. That he might be behind on some reads. In the crazy pandemic-laden year of 2020 that eliminated normal preseason training, it’s natural to think this concern could’ve been exacerbated for Ramsey.

Well, turns out that wasn’t the case at all. The graduate student knew exactly what he was looking at every time against Maryland, and it was absolutely refreshing to see.

He’s looking at one read right here — will the Maryland defender step up to take Riley Lees on the swing pass, or will he fall back to stay with John Raine streaking up the sideline. As soon as Raine simply gets his shoulder past the defender, Ramsey knows he’s about to be open and begins his throwing motion, floating the ball right into the gap for a satisfying chunk play.

For as steady as Ramsey was in his Wildcat debut, it must be recognized that this Maryland defense is truly atrocious. Like flaming pile of garbage, 2020 Dallas Cowboys’ bad.

Defensive coordinator John Hoke consistently played most of his back seven in a conservative drop, wanting to prevent big plays. As a core concept that’s fine. Northwestern’s defense under Mike Hankwitz follows a similar philosophy. But where Hankwitz’s units still manage to be disruptive and confrontational in the short game, Maryland basically gave the ‘Cats free yards.

This 13-yard gain from Riley Lees was played in hysterically poor fashion by the defense.

No route is truly run, no scheme is truly optimized. Lees simply jogs four yards, turns and catches an easy pitch from Ramsey, then runs unimpeded for ten more yards. A Big Ten team came out of halftime and on its second play from scrimmage simply forgot to cover the opponent’s leading receiver from last year. Hilarious.

But give credit where credit’s due. Bajakian and the Northwestern offensive staff developed a gameplay meant to expose the we’ll-give-you-that style of Maryland’s defense and picked them apart ruthlessly.

At times it almost felt mean as Bajakian continually called a play where two receivers positioned near opposite ends of the offensive line simply crossed underneath and then sat in the open wholes of the defense.

People don’t like it when someone spams the same play in Madden, but the correct response to that complaint is, “Find a way to stop it.” Maryland couldn’t, so Bajakian kept dialing it up.

The few times Ramsey did test the Terps deep rather than picking them apart in the short field didn’t go great. This one heave to the goal line was somewhat dangerous, as he attempts to fit it in between four defenders and was fortunate that the deflection went harmlessly out the back of end zone.

Chiaokhiao-Bowman emerged as his favorite target alongside Raine on Saturday, and the two of them were able to burn Maryland on those intermediate routes that break in several times, which is probably why Ramsey went to him right here. The correct read is likely to No. 14 Washington also running down the middle of the field but with fewer defenders surrounding.

Io_a, despite falling 24-20 to Purdue in its opener, is a much better defensive team than Maryland. Spamming underneath dump offs might work on the first two drives, but defensive coordinator Phil Parker will force NU to adjust should they fall behind. That makes next week’s matchup a far more important game in evaluating Ramsey.

Yet still, what he’s already brought to this team deserves acclamation. It’s such a difference from the catastrophic quarterback play of 2019 that it needs to be reinforced how much of an upgrade this is.

Per former Inside NU Editor-In-Chief Noah Coffman, in 182 passing attempts last year, Aidan Smith only completed one single pass that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. Likewise, Hunter Johnson also only completed one pass with greater than 20 air yards, albeit in a slightly more understandable 108 attempts. Only 2 out of 290 times did the 2019 ‘Cats truly air it out without it resulting in failure, i.e. less than one percent of the time.

Ramsey’s one deep completion in 30 tries suddenly shines in a much better light.

The first game of the grad transfer’s season was an unmitigated success, even if it was made easy by a lackluster opponent. Next week’s contest in Io_a City will show just how high the ceiling is not only for Ramsey, but for Northwestern this fall.