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Peyton’s Passes, Week Four: Execution lends optimism

The Northwestern passing attack still isn’t firing on all cylinders, but Ramsey and co. impressed nonetheless.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Purdue Trevor Ruszkowski-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 fourth edition of Peyton’s Passes!

Coming off of his most volatile week of the season against Nebraska, which coincided with an unintentional week off from this column (it’s a lot of work on a weekly basis, ok?), the combination of consistently successful high percentage throws and big time red zone execution helped Peyton Ramsey to an impressive performance against Purdue, despite daunting weather conditions.

The Boilermaker defense is not exactly wowing anyone this year, but even alongside a languishing run game Ramsey and co. impressed through the air for just about all of the first three quarters. There is plenty to work on heading into the stiffest test of the season this weekend against Wisconsin, but the passing game built a solid base against Purdue, creating a variety of easy completions out of all sorts of sets in the first half and getting the protection Ramsey needed when he tried to set up the occasional longer-developing throw.

Before we dive headfirst into tape analysis, let’s take a quick look at the stats, which display the short-yardage mastery I mentioned. 19-of-23 for 154 yards and two touchdowns on throws that traveled no further than nine yards past the line of scrimmage is more than impressive, but what also stands out is the willingness to take deep shots despite the conditions, though most of them didn’t quite hit:

Peyton Ramsey @ Purdue

Range Completions Attempts Comp % Yards Yds/Attempt Yds/Completion TD INT
Range Completions Attempts Comp % Yards Yds/Attempt Yds/Completion TD INT
40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30-39 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0
20-29 1 4 25 18 4.5 18 1 0
10-19 3 7 42.9 40 5.7 13.3 0 1
0-9 19 23 82.6 154 6.7 8.1 2 0
Totals 23 36 63.9 212 5.9 9.2 3 1

Peyton Ramsey Full 2020 Passing Chart

Range Completions Attempts Comp % Yards Yds/Attempt Yds/Completion TD INT
Range Completions Attempts Comp % Yards Yds/Attempt Yds/Completion TD INT
40+ 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0
30-39 0 3 0 0 0 0 0 0
20-29 2 8 25 41 5.1 20.5 1 1
10-19 18 28 64.3 262 9.4 14.6 0 2
0-9 53 71 74.6 422 5.9 8 5 1
Totals 73 111 65.8 725 6.5 9.9 6 4

From the get go, Ramsey and Mike Bajakian were completely unafraid. On his third pass of the game, the veteran QB laid one out deep down the sideline for Kyric McGowan, who had a step on his man.

The pass was ever-so-slightly under-thrown and forced McGowan to twist in the air as he attempted to catch it, but Ramsey absolutely gave his receiver a chance to make a play. It was his prettiest deep ball of the year so far and proved that he does in fact have the ability to take the top off the defense, something that could be crucial against the attacking, blitz-happy Wisconsin back eight.

Next, facing a third and extremely long and seeing early pressure for really one of the only times all day, Ramsey did what he has proven he does best, making something out of nothing and keeping things alive long enough to find Riley Lees in open space at the very end of his late-release flat route.

Lees is pretty evidently Ramsey’s fourth option on the play, and the way that he takes time in going through his progressions even as he has to climb the pocket and escape pressure is a clear indicator of his veteran savvy. The Indiana grad transfer has later moments that don’t look quite as clean as this one with regards to cycling through reads, but this highlight in that area couldn’t have come at a better time.

The touchdown that ends this drive is a pure RPO. It’s a one-man route: if Ramsey sees the corner get inside leverage on RCB or underneath help from a linebacker, the ball is going in McGowan’s belly. Instead, he suckers the second level in, and from there it’s an easy pitch-and-catch.

The first drive was scripted nicely, but Ramsey also executed the heck out of it. From there, though, the sledding got a bit tougher.

After a couple of three-and-outs in which nothing got going whatsoever, the ‘Cats began the fourth drive with this absolute bullet through an extremely tight window in Purdue’s zone look.

Ramsey backed that up with an absolute dime on third-and-long to Bryce Kirtz, who made an impressive contested catch to continue what is becoming an extremely long streak of tough third down plays by Northwestern receivers. Then, he immediately nailed Chiaokhiao-Bowman off play-action on a deep route for what has become a patented sliding catch for the senior.

At this point, Ramsey was seeing the field incredibly well, and his offensive line was holding up against Purdue’s blitzing. So after an unfortunate loss of four on first down set up a third and long, the Wildcats took a big shot to the end zone. And once again, McGowan got a step on his man. But with the right side of his line folding against a stunt and Branson Deen in his face, Ramsey just overthrew his speedy wideout.

McGowan didn’t get a ton of separation on either of the deep balls Northwestern went for early on, but both plays were there to potentially be made, though not too much blame should be placed on Ramsey. Most importantly, Northwestern saw advantageous matchups on the outside and went after them, regardless of down and distance. Bajakian’s run and screen-heavy scheme combined with Peyton’s mobility set these opportunities up, just like it did against Nebraska, by forcing both press coverage against McGowan and numbers near the line of scrimmage/in the box.

With a slight uptick in execution in the downfield passing game, the Wildcats’ offense could be dangerous for even defenses who are elite at stopping explosive plays (read: Wisconsin) thanks to their willingness to commit to runs and screens even against heavy boxes and in typical passing situations, particularly second and long. But this also gives Ramsey and co. less room for error. They got away with missing their deep looks against a mediocre Purdue secondary thanks to a short passing game that was absolutely on point, as we’ll get to in a second. That backup plan won’t be as straightforward against the Badgers.

On the next drive, Ramsey threw his worst pass of the game. Despite having all day to throw and a receiver with a step, the grad transfer fired high to Riley Lees on third down, with the ball potentially slipping out of his hand a bit. Ramsey did get a bit unlucky that the ball was picked off the tip, but this is a mistake he can’t afford to make.

Luckily, he followed it up with an absolutely excellent drive, arguably Northwestern’s best of the season. For an in-depth look at this game-changing touchdown and what led up to it, check out Eli’s excellent piece from earlier in the week.

This is where Northwestern began to unveil their arsenal of short passing plays in earnest. Ramsey took advantage of Purdue’s linebackers left, right and center with easy looks to running backs and tight ends that continued throughout the rest of the game and really highlighted Bajakian’s scheme and the inability of the Boilermakers to meaningfully counter it.

Also, he uncorked this absolute beauty to RCB to cap things off, with the senior receiver’s stutter-and-go route playing directly off his slant from earlier in the game and the variety of short throws used throughout the drive. Excellent play-calling and execution, and the kind of thing that really elevates this offense from what we saw last year.

After an unfortunate sack on a well-executed blitz by Purdue (and a head-scratching fumble from Ramsey that he was lucky to get back) essentially ended the half, the Wildcats were much more possession-oriented working against the wind in the third quarter, including the eventual third Chiaokhiao-Bowman touchdown on a gorgeous play call that involved a legal block of his man while the ball was in the air thanks to the throw remaining behind the line.

One notable exception to this trend was this ugly throw on an early third down to end a promising drive, in which Ramsey ran through his progressions a bit too slowly and threw late over the middle, which is rarely a good idea and almost gets his most reliable receiver injured here.

This was a rare mistake in this particular vein from Ramsey, who is consistently great at late-play reads, though he is usually outside the pocket for them. Hopefully it doesn’t spark a trend.

Later in the quarter, Bajakian really got to show off his consistently impressive post-halftime play calling (the Wildcats are winning third quarters 28-3 for a reason). First, he cleared out underneath space for John Raine on third-and-long with double wheel routes in a mesh variation that even noted mesh-lover Mick McCall didn’t go to very often, with Ramsey taking the first down after initially looking for a home-run ball to Jesse Brown that was covered up.

A few plays later, he delivered back-to-back sprint-outs with enough variation in the route concepts (and a well-executed rub) to convert the second time, on fourth down, even after Ramsey missed the first.

But despite parlaying that sequence into a field goal and a two touchdown lead, the Northwestern passing offense completely stagnated in the fourth quarter. Ramsey did not complete a pass in the frame, finding himself unable to connect with Raine on a well-conceived first down play-action shot that Purdue nonetheless read like a book before having his potential game-winning third-down bullet to a wide-open Malik Washington batted down by Lorenzo Neal two drives later.

The late-fourth quarter offensive malaise that has followed this team over the past three weeks, though reminiscent of many a McCall offense, is more reflective of some bad luck (just watch that Washington play again) and particularly, an overall conservative mindset than any specific play calls.

Regardless, though, it is becoming a bit of a problem. Going into heavy sets as soon as the fourth quarter passes the halfway mark, no matter if you are running good plays out of them, practically guarantees that every series will reach third down. That should not be the goal of any offense in any situation, because if anything goes wrong on third down, even a perfect play call can’t save you. Pat Fitzgerald is going to have to be willing to green light a play-action pass or two on early downs in late-game situations if he wants to close out games as effectively as possible, and that (hopefully!) starts if he finds himself with a late lead this week.

In less than ideal conditions last Saturday, Mike Bajakian tailored his passing attack to his quarterback’s strengths, and it worked like a charm despite a few tough missed opportunities. Needless to say, that bodes extremely well for the near future.

Executing won’t be nearly as easy against Wisconsin and their fearsome linebackers, but if Peyton Ramsey and his receiving threats can take this game and both learn from it and improve on it, Northwestern’s passing attack should be good enough to give the ‘Cats a chance to pull the upset. With the way the other side of the ball is playing right now, you can’t ask for much more than that.