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 fifth edition of Peyton’s Passes!
The most important thing that occurred last Saturday was No. 8 Northwestern’s most significant victory in at least two decades. But in the process of coming up with the 17 points they used to fend off 16th-ranked Wisconsin, Peyton Ramsey and the offense, and the passing game in particular, went on a journey.
Under Mike Bajakian’s leadership and facing the stiffest interior defense they will see over the course of the 2020 season, undefeated NU relied on the pass in a complete departure from the way the Wildcats have handled these grind-it-out wins over the Badgers in the past. And after a first half in which Wisconsin was lucky to not concede 21 points, things completely shut down in the third quarter before coming alive just enough in the final frame.
From each section of the game, there are significant lessons to be learned for Northwestern’s passing attack. Before we get to those, let’s take a look at the stats, which include not only the largest single-game passing attempts number of the year, but within that a near double-up on overall passes traveling 10 air yards or farther.
Peyton Ramsey vs. Wisconsin
|Range (Air Yds)||Completions||Attempts||Comp %||Yards||Yds/Attempt||Yds/Completion||TD||INT|
|Range (Air Yds)||Completions||Attempts||Comp %||Yards||Yds/Attempt||Yds/Completion||TD||INT|
Peyton Ramsey Full Season Stats
As Northwestern drove right down the field to score on its first possession of the game, a pattern quickly became apparent. The Wildcats threw almost exclusively, and they got their quarterback on the move in order to do so. Each of the first three plays were drawn up as either rollouts or sprint-outs for Ramsey, starting with these two completions:
After two pass interference calls, one relatively clear and one pretty shaky, extended the drive, the pattern continued with a play-action rollout design that has been favored by offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian thus far in his NU tenure and that resulted in the first career touchdown for tight end Charlie Mangieri.
On all three plays above, the Badgers (and particularly unsung star nose tackle Keeanu Benton) got near immediate pressure up the middle. But by moving Ramsey, the Wildcats were able to render that part of the field relatively irrelevant. So despite essentially cutting the field in half with regards to potential targets, the designed movement, especially when the pocket didn’t necessarily move to accompany Ramsey, got the job done and allowed Northwestern to move the sticks.
But even on that last play, Wisconsin and standout defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard were beginning to solve for this by bringing pressure off the edge. The possibility of this strategy made it difficult for Ramsey and Northwestern to continue answering for the fearsome Wisconsin pass rush via the method they used on the opening drive, though I would’ve preferred to see more designed movement than was called over the final three quarters.
On their next trip down the field, razzle-dazzle was the solution at hand, and it sure was an effective one.
But with Isaiah Bowser’s unfortunate fumble on the play immediately afterwards, the trickery’s impact quickly fizzled. Immediately, Northwestern’s passing attack was back to the drawing board, and for much of the remainder of the first half struggled for answers.
Northwestern’s third drive started out promising, but Ramsey’s first real miss of the game stalled it. It’s difficult to tell exactly how good the coverage on John Raine was here given the camera movement and lack of replay, but the tight end had at least a little space and his quarterback, despite not being under significant duress, failed to give him a chance to make a play on third down.
From there, things didn’t get better. After conservative play-calling and decision-making led to a missed field goal off of Blake Gallagher’s strip sack, Ramsey made his worst pass of the game on Northwestern’s fifth drive.
The rationale for the play call here makes sense: second-and-6 is not a traditional shot down, but the Wildcats have been good at converting third-and-medium all season land Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman has an advantageous one-on-one matchup alone on the field side of the formation. Unfortunately, Ramsey commits the cardinal sin of throwing a jump ball to the inside of his receiver.
Lay the ball out in front of him here, and RCB has a decent chance to go make a play without much risk of a pick. Throw the jump ball or back-shoulder to his outside shoulder, and he likely uses his strength to successfully wall off the defender and/or out-jump them and make the catch, as he does later in the game. But what he cannot do is give the defensive back this good of a chance at a pick.
The interception was called back on an iffy DPI, but this was a potentially tide-turning mistake by Ramsey. Luckily, the veteran quarterback went the rest of the game without really approaching another one.
Still, that drive petered out, and so did the next. Suddenly, after another forced turnover set up the Wildcats with one last chance to take the lead before halftime, the offense was spinning its wheels. But recognizing the importance of scoring going into the break and getting the ball coming out of it, Bajakian reached into his bag of tricks and found a virtually guaranteed big gainer to get the offense going....
Or, at least, he called a play that should have kickstarted things. Wisconsin’s pass rushers had been pinning their ears back all half, and this first down in a clear passing situation was no exception. As Drake Anderson leaks out of the backfield, all four lineman completely bite, and the linebackers are caught in the wash of blockers coming forward. Literally the only player who can stop this from being, at minimum, a ten-yard gain, is cornerback Caesar Williams. And he does.
Seriously, go back and watch that again: if Williams is blocked a bit longer by Chiakohiao-Bowman, or if Anderson finds a way to make him miss in the open field, there is nobody within 20 yards of the back who is not either behind him or completely occupied by a blocker. This was a fantastic call that was almost perfectly executed, but one alert defender managed to swing the entire play.
Northwestern carved the Badger defense anyways, using a great combination of Ramsey’s mobility and pocket presence to hit Kyric McGowan, who ran some very solid routes, repeatedly to gain chunk after chunk, starting with this impressive improvisation from both QB and WR:
As the tempo picked up, the Wildcats saw a perfect chance to shoot their shot and took it. This time, going after RCB in another one-on-one, Ramsey placed the ball absolutely perfectly for the most beautiful touchdown thus far this season.
With that gorgeous throw-and-catch, the Wildcats sailed into halftime with a seven-point lead and all the momentum anyone could ask for. But things were about to change.
If you read any tweets or game breakdowns from a national writer that didn’t center on the turnover dominance of Northwestern’s defense, I can virtually guarantee that this was the part of the game you heard about. After all, just look at that drive chart! So B1G. So Northwestern-Wisconsin.
As always, things were not nearly that simple. On each of those three-and-outs save one, the Wildcats were a single person’s execution away from likely busting out a sustained drive. Instead, a series of unforced errors kept things close for much longer than they needed to be.
The first drive’s mistakes are among the easiest to spot, though they are also the most forgivable. On both second and third down, RCB creates space well past the first down marker, but both times, the protection breaks down just before Ramsey could get him the ball. It’s difficult to place the blame squarely on either the quarterback or the offensive line, who were both doing their best to hold their own against one of the best pass rushes in the country, but both of these route concepts worked like a charm, and at least one of them should’ve been completed.
Things never really got going on drive two. Bajakian on third down tried to go back to a variation on the screen that nearly worked at the end of the first half, but Leonhard and his defense had it snuffed out.
Embarking on the third drive of the second half, the Wildcats really started to catch some bad breaks. On third-and-4, Riley Lees’ out-and-up pattern sent him right past his man from the slot, but a grab of his back arm kept him from making the play and went uncalled. The no-call can be viewed as justice for the shakiness the other way in the first half, but regardless, Northwestern both schemed and executed this play extremely well.
NU’s fourth drive began from the shadow of its end zone. Still, on third down, RCB found plenty of space in a soft spot of the Wisconsin zone deep down the sideline, and Ramsey had more than enough protection to deliver him the ball. This isn’t a straightforward catch, but with plenty of time and nobody touching you, RCB would be the first to tell you it’s one he should have made.
Finally, after a near-miss of RCB on second down, the fifth drive culminated in an inexcusable drop from McGowan in a spot in which he probably would have had enough to pick up the first down after the catch. These two drops were the first by each receiver all season long.
Okay, you may be thinking, so Northwestern should’ve picked up a few first downs. How exactly does translate that into “likely busting out on a sustained drive?” Well, look at what happened when they finally converted one of these third-and-medium-to-longs to begin the final frame.
After John Raine earned NU’s third pass interference penalty of the night when a Wisconsin defensive back wrapped him up with the ball in mid-air, the Wildcats immediately brought the tempo. This was something they had clearly planned out at halftime and, despite not getting a chance to use it for 17+ minutes, executed to perfection.
First, Ramsey hit RCB on another well-thrown jump ball to take advantage of both one-on-one coverage and the slowing of the Wisconsin pass rush thanks to the combination of tempo and the time left in the game.
Northwestern continued to use both advantages, matriculating the ball inside the 15 on short, quick passes before being forced to settle for a field goal. But the drive was a clear success and ended up playing a key role in salting the game away, largely because of the tempo that Bajakian had waited to pull out of his back pocket.
There wasn’t much of note in the passing game over the remainder of the contest, aside from the impressive dedication to intermediate throws and this remarkable catch by McGowan, which made up completely for his earlier drop.
Ramsey had a miss or two, including a head scratcher on a curl to RCB that was there for the taking, if a bit of a tight window.
The most notable remaining throw was Ramsey’s last: the potential game-sealer on fourth down. The decision to go for it was ballsy and correct (in my opinion), and the play call was there, but Ramsey likely waited a bit too long to throw, which resulted in a miscommunication between Lees and Raine as the latter tried to extend his route up the field, resulting in an unfortunate (if inconsequential in the end) turnover on downs.
Among all the other potential takeaways, I see the third quarter from this game as providing the most insight moving forward. Northwestern had the play calls and the game plan to get itself going the way it wanted to, but little individual mistakes (and crucially, largely not the Wisconsin defense) stopped them from doing so.
As they head into games against more manageable defenses (read: every team they play the rest of the year and possibly whoever they face in the postseason), that allows for plenty of hope. At the same time, in an abbreviated season, time is running short. We have certainly seen enough to know that this offense and its veteran personnel is capable of putting all the pieces together down the stretch, but in order to continue to compete on the national stage, they’ll have to do so quickly.