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 sixth edition of Peyton’s Passes.
Then-No. 8 Northwestern (5-1) suffered a bad loss to Michigan State (2-4) after one of the Wildcats’ biggest wins in years, killing any hopes of making the College Football Playoff and ending NU’s undefeated season. And while it was the defense that struggled early, giving up 17 points in the first 15:05 of the game, the offense never really kicked it into gear outside of a couple of drives.
Against a Spartan defense that allowed 242 yards passing per game and 6.5 yards per attempt coming into the contest, graduate quarterback Peyton Ramsey never settled in and hardly established a rhythm on a late afternoon in which he was under pressure, inaccurate and got little help from his wide receivers. He went 21-of-43 for 210 yards passing, zero passing touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Wildcat offense actually looked good on its first two drives before turning the ball over twice on fourth down in MSU territory. After that, it was a slog against a Spartan unit that had no trouble stopping the run and then got after Ramsey all fourth quarter long.
What was most striking in looking at the signal caller’s game passing chart was his inefficiency on passes of 10-to-19 air yards. He completed just three of 17 such attempts, and that range has been an area in which he’d excelled. Coming into the game, he was completing 54% of those passes for 7.57 yards per attempt.
Northwestern’s offense struggled as a whole, and the poor performance can’t be put squarely on Ramsey. I’ve divided this analysis into three sections: the good, the unfortunate and the misses. Before we get into the tape, though, let’s take a look at the stats, which include the second straight game of 40+ passing attempts. Over NU’s last three games, Ramsey has aired it out an average of 41 times compared to an average of 25 times over the first three games.
Peyton Ramsey vs Michigan State
Peyton Ramsey Full Season Stats
It was not Ramsey’s night, and I doubt he’d argue with that, but the signal caller was working under some tough circumstances and did a handful of good things. Here on a patented Ramsey rollout to the right, he throws a dart to RCB along the sideline for a first down pickup. On those throws, he’s generally really good with keeping them to the outside so only the receiver can make a play on the ball.
Later on in the half, needing points and to keep the drive alive, Ramsey lofts and likely underthrows one to Kyric McGowan. He got it out of his hands super quick, and it was a good effort on both sides, especially that of McGowan on his back, to complete the pass and convert on third down to preserve a drive that yielded another field goal.
If there was one area Ramsey had his way with it was the middle. He found Lees a couple of times up the seam and the below pass to Holman. According to this passing direction chart, Ramsey’s sweet spot this season has been that middle-of-the-field, 10-to-19-yard pass. Michigan State kept giving them room to operate between the hashes, and looking back through the tape, I’m surprised Mike Bajakian didn’t call more plays with an emphasis on the middle of the field. Maybe Ramsey just missed them.
In any case, he hits Lees on what was NU’s best offense drive of the night. Ramsey came out clean and firing, and Bajakian didn’t play around. The ‘Cats went 75 yards in 10 plays over 4:21 to get right back in it, and the drive was capped off by this bootleg fake on 4th-and-goal that fooled not only me in the press box but the entire Spartan defense. Ramsey went 3-of-3 for 55 yards on the series, and Riley Lees completed a pass to Andrew Marty for a first down.
Again with the between the hashes throws. This was arguably Ramsey’s most important completion of the day, as NU faced third-and-12 from the MSU 25. They didn’t want to have to settle for another field goal but wanted to take their first lead. Ramsey, cool as ever and with time and a fairly clean pocket to throw, knows he’s going to Lees the entire time and hits him as he finds some green in between two defenders. The connection set up a first-and-goal that the Wildcats punched in with Cam Porter.
I feel like this is an apt category for this game/performance because Ramsey did not get much support from the rest of his offense. In fact, his wide receivers dropped four key passes, all of which we will get to, and the lack of execution cost NU dearly. We’ll start with the near misses.
Bajakian had Ramsey take six shots of 20+ yards in East Lansing, hitting on three of them, which is not a bad clip. Here he looks for one of his favorite targets, RCB, who gains a step on cornerback Kalon Gervin. The quarterback throws a nice ball, but Gervin recovers nicely to get a hand in there to break up the pass. If there’s a little more air on it and he leads RCB just a hair more maybe RCB comes down with it, but good coverage won on this play.
This end zone try was oh so close to six points. McGowan was just out of bounds. On his second straight shot at the end zone, it’s a really nice throw but just a hair late. McGowan had his man beat from at least the 7-yard line (what we can see in the camera shot), and if the ball gets there any earlier or it leads him toward the back pylon, it’s a touchdown. The play looks awfully similar to Aidan O’Connell to Milton Wright for a TD at Purdue. Those perfectly executed plays we saw in the first five weeks just weren’t there against MSU.
Late in the fourth quarter, trying to mount a comeback, the protection breaks down and Ramsey is forced to improvise. He ends up buying himself the most time by sprinting to the far side of the field and then waiting to launch one (right before he gets walloped) back across the field for Riley Lees on a deep crossing route. Throwing back across the field is generally not a play any coach will advise a quarterback to make, but Ramsey needed to do something, AND he gave Lees a great chance to catch this ball. He actually puts it right on Lees, but junior corner Xavier Henderson just out-muscles the senior receiver to force an incompletion. It’s a tough break on a play Ramsey did everything he could to make something happen.
Now for the drops. Avert your eyes. These were routine and significant at once, and I’ll explain why. The first drop came from McGowan on what would’ve been a 17-yard gain, you guessed it, down the middle. NU had moved the ball well to this point in the drive but stalled after this. Ramsey threw a controversial interception on fourth down after the refs picked up a penalty flag, but if McGowan hauls in this pass we aren’t talking about another fourth down try in no man’s land.
Here, the ball is on time and in the right spot for Holman, he just drops it. It was that kind of night for the NU offense.
This drop was a silent killer. After McGowan fumbled and Michigan State tied the game with a field goal, the ‘Cats had a chance to put together a go-ahead scoring drive. We have seen this route so many times from Ramsey and RCB/Kyric this season: the sliding catch on the intermediate out. Yet RCB, who dropped two balls on the night, couldn’t hold on to it. In the un-trimmed clip, the color commentator even says: “wow.” The incompletion set up a third-and-7, in which Ramsey, under pressure, threw back across his body into traffic and was intercepted with Holman taking a hit
Now that we’ve shown samples of Ramsey’s positive and unlucky play, it’s time for when things just didn’t work. With a combination of being under plenty of pressure and NU not being able to run the ball with any sense of consistency, Ramsey was uncharacteristically inaccurate.
Take this incompletion to Riley Lees on third down. He’s under pressure but escapes to the right, and we’ve seen this movie before. After beating the blitzer around the edge, Ramsey fires to the right sideline for an open Lees, except he throws it just out of his reach. It’s surprising, given we’ve seen him make similar plays so often.
Here he goes rolling out to the right again as the ‘Cats tried to fight their way back after spotting MSU 17 early points. Ramsey is looking for Lees again but doesn’t seem to notice that there’s a DB coming in to jump the route and nearly throws a pick.
When Ramsey has made mistakes and missed throws, it’s often when the ball sails on him, and that was again the case in East Lansing. Holman’s great catch earlier bailed out a high throw, and RCB couldn’t bring this one in. Ramsey has great a clean pocket and makes the right read since RCB finds another opening in the middle of the field. He’s also right to make sure it gets over the linebacker in coverage, but this throw is one Ramsey’s probably going to want back. Could RCB have made the catch? Maybe. But his QB can put the ball in a better place. Instead of marching into field goal range to at least try for points to close the half, the offensive line blew up and Ramsey was sacked to keep the score 17-6 heading into the locker room.
Here’s the play during which Holman gets hurt. This is your warning in case you don’t want to watch a scary play. Late in the fourth, Ramsey, under pressure again (you might be sensing a theme here), spins out to his left and fires on the run, which is harder to do for right-throwing QBs than moving to their right. It certainly looks like he wanted to throw to the other side of the field before the Spartan rushes were in his face, but this play is just risky. There are two MSU defensive backs in the vicinity, and it would’ve taken an absolutely perfect toss to complete the low-percentage throw.
In reviewing the tape, it seemed like Ramsey locked in on one receiving option the whole night. He’s normally so patient and will survey all his options, but he just didn’t look his comfortable self, whether it was staring down targets or stepping up into the rush instead of scrambling away from it. It didn’t help that his receivers dropped some key balls, the ground game averaged 1.7 yards per carry and MSU pressured him on 25 of his 43 dropbacks (15 hurries, six hits and four sacks), but Ramsey couldn’t win his team the game.