Depending on how you feel about the 2002 Northwestern football team, the 2019 version was either the worst or second-worst squad the program has produced during the 21st century.
But truth be told, they weren’t that bad of an overall team. The defense finished 27th nationally in SP+, marking a fairly above average unit. And while the offense was admittedly putrid, finishing 123rd in SP+, the Wildcats left three winnable games on the table. They were only trailing Stanford 10-7 with a minute to go in that brutal opener, let Nebraska escape on a walk-off field goal in a 13-10 loss in Lincoln and suffered a similar fate in their 24-22 loss to Purdue in Evanston.
Poor quarterback play ground the offense to a halt and was likely the deciding factor that swung those three contests against Northwestern. Put in a decent signal caller, say someone like Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey, and you get a .500 team that struggled offensively but still knew what it was doing.
That’s why all of us, both writers and readers here at Inside NU, got excited when Ramsey announced he’d take his talents to the shores of Lake Michigan. It’s not crazy to think this team just needs to patch up the QB spot in order to restore things to how they were before 2019 (though to be fair, with what’s going on with now, it’s hard to see how anything in this world will ever be back to the way it was pre-2019).
It feels like we’ve skipped a step, in some respects: we’ve assumed Ramsey is a known commodity capable of solving the problem, when really we don’t know much about him as a player.
So here is a film breakdown of the man Wildcats fans expect to be taking snaps for NU the next time college football is deemed playable.
Let’s get started.
Ramsey’s three seasons of experience scream bland yet reliable. He took over starting duties for the Hoosiers midway through his freshman year, held the gig full-time as a sophomore and, after losing his job to Michael Penix Jr., ended up seeing most of the run last year as Penix was sidelined with injuries. His total Indiana numbers are as follows: 633-for-952 (66.5% completion) for 6,581 yards, 42 passing touchdowns and 23 interceptions, while adding 14 additional scores with his legs.
Those stats may bring some concern, as his 6.9 yards per attempt paints him as a dreaded check down artist and game manager. But taking those stats at face value is misleading. Ramsey averaged 6.0 yards per attempt in his first two years at the helm before boosting it up to a more than acceptable 8.3 in this last season. Though he’s been reluctant to let it loose, he has the arm strength to stretch the field.
Never mind Ramsey missing his receiver by a thin margin on that previous play. By my observation, that ball flew 57 yards in the air without being completely off target, something I don’t ever remember observing from the committee of quarterbacks NU rolled onto the field in the past season besides Hunter Johnson’s touchdown to JJ Jefferson against mighty UNLV.
And lest you think that is just an isolated example of a D-I athlete launching a prayer straight down the field, feast your eyes on these two dimes Ramsey tosses as his receiver streaks up the sideline.
Another thing that sticks out in those clips above is the height Ramsey puts on his ball. Not only does it allow him to drop it over outstretched arms of defenders with accuracy, but more importantly, it gives his receivers a chance. Aidan Smith and Hunter Johnson often failed to give the receiving corps a chance in 2019 by either missing the intended target or by firing the ball so low and hard that the pass-catcher isn’t given a chance to use their athletic capabilities. Ramsey, in contrast, does a great job giving his guys opportunities to make plays on the ball.
The floating, smooth throw of Ramsey affects the intermediate passing game, as again in these next plays he punishes the defense for losing contact with the Indiana receivers.
In addition to his promising arm, Ramsey also brings some dual-threat ability to the offense. While 832 career rushing yards and a 2.8 yards per carry average is nothing to write home about, his 14 rushing touchdowns are. He doesn’t possess explosive north-south speed but has quick, active feet that he uses to create short 10-yard gallops both on designed runs and reads and when plays break down.
But of course, scrambles and read options do not a good mobile quarterback make. The very best ones are able to merge all of their best attributes at the appropriate time to deliver pinpoint passes while on the move and escaping pressure from the D-line.
Fortunately, Ramsey excels in this area as well, as even though I’ve identified his tendency to shuffle backward with some awkward footwork against pressure, he is usually able to put the ball in his receiver’s hands, as he does in this play below, securing the first down.
More impressively, he fires this Mahomes-ian deep ball that should have been a touchdown while he rolls away from the pressure.
At this point you might be thinking Ramsey is the best thing since sliced Kafka, but sadly, we must take a look at the undesirable parts of the IU transfer’s game.
The floating nature of his passes would be great if it were something for which he could flip the switch, but this is not the case. Ramsey just does not throw a hard ball, as even his short dump offs hover in the air like paper airplanes, giving his receivers a great chance to make a play, but also leaving an opportunity to the defender.
On this next play, he completes the pass to his receiver, but the ball takes so long in getting to the catch point any potential for a run after the catch is ruined.
On a curl route like this, you cannot float the throw. The whole point is to lure the corner into thinking the pass is going deep before the wideout slams on the brakes and turns around for a quick pitch. Had this Tennessee defender played just average defense, that’s an incompletion and maybe even an interception going the other way if he breaks on it hard.
It’s somewhat remarkable that Ramsey threw only 23 interceptions in 31 career appearances, as this tendency of his to leave the ball hanging in the air for too long rears its head over and over again.
It’s weird. He has the arm strength to launch balls deep down the field with ease, but can’t put enough oomph on sideline-to-sideline tosses to convert in tough situations.
While Ramsey is certainly capable of dishing out accurate passes while fumbling backward, too often does he panic and lose his composure at the soonest sight of trouble. He lacks a calm sense of pocket awareness, which can lead to dangerous off-balance throws or being outright sacked as he indecisively stutters his feet.
Ramsey is not the tallest quarterback at 6-foot-2, but he still needs to learn how to stand tall in the pocket, as the Big Ten is notorious for its tenacious defensive fronts that bear down on opposing signal-callers from start to finish.
All in all, Ramsey is not an electrifying presence that can lift those around him to greater achievement on the basis of his talent alone. However, he is fully capable of giving any competent team a chance. Northwestern’s train wreck 2019 season was a blip, not a trend.
The most important position in the sport as an indefatigable tire fire they could not overcome. Shore that up and they would have had the chance to put together a respectable year and play in a bowl game. Enter Peyton Ramsey, and they have a chance to get back on track.