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Hunter’s Heaves, Week Two: A solid, albeit limited, showing against Indiana State

Northwestern’s quarterback didn’t dazzle in the stat sheet, but he was still instrumental in the Wildcats’ first win

Indiana State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After Northwestern’s miscue-laden opening performance against the Michigan State Spartans, things could only improve, effectively. The good news: that was the case against Indiana State this past Saturday, as the Wildcats upstaged the Sycamores 24-6.

Though NU emerged victorious, the matchup was certainly an odd one. Pat Fitzgerald’s team jumped out to a 14-0 lead before the first quarter had even concluded, yet didn’t score again until the third quarter.

Without a doubt, Fitzgerald’s and Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian’s gameplan was simply to outwill the FBS talent of the Sycamores and implement a ground-and-pound attack. Sure enough, the ‘Cats rushed to the tune of a gaudy 209 yards and two touchdowns on 46 carries.

Alas, unlike in his first game at the helm this season, quarterback Hunter Johnson was relied upon significantly less in Week 2. In fact, Johnson threw just 16 times, posting nine completions for 66 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

As we do subsequent to every Northwestern game, we at Inside NU love going beyond the box score to examine how well the ‘Cats’ signal-caller truly played. In spite of Johnson’s lighter-than-usual workload, his performance certainly indicated some elements of his game.

Similar to last week, let’s begin with a breakdown of Johnson’s passes in terms of air yards. For context, “air yards” refers to the distance between the line of scrimmage and the line at which the ball travels. In simpler equation terms, it’s Passing Yards – Yards After Catch.

When looking at Johnson’s air yards metrics, it’s clear that he enjoyed success throwing much shorter passes, as eight of his nine completions went for 10 yards or fewer. At the same time, Johnson did air it out a bit — much as we saw against MSU — but he completed just one pass that traveled over 10 air yards.

Transitioning to the tape largely bolsters the idea that Johnson executed what he was asked to do.

On his first throw in the ball game, Johnson hangs in the pocket and throws a pass with adequate zip to Trey Pugh, who is on a flat route after blocking. This play initially appears fairly simple, but it’s important to consider a) the pressure that Johnson withstood and b) that, unlike what was discussed in week one of Hunter’s Heaves, Johnson appeared to scan the field for different reads.

Further, these two throws to Stephon Robinson, Jr. reinforce the idea that Johnson was, holistically, a quick and accurate decision-maker.

In the first, Johnson employs more of a kick-back dropback as opposed to a traditional three-step one. From there, he promptly flips his hips and puts the ball right on the money outside the numbers to Robinson, who runs a curl.

Here, Johnson utilizes the play fake to Evan Hull nicely before rotating his shoulders and throwing a strike on a bubble screen to the Kansas transfer.

Both of the aforementioned plays could be viewed as simple and throws that a collegiate quarterback should make — and rightly so. Nevertheless, I think they reflect that Johnson tends to process what’s in front of him rather quickly (more on that in just a bit).

Another area in which Johnson excelled was throwing when on the run, as his arm strength was on full display.

Take his lone touchdown pass on the day to Malik Washington. After running play action, Johnson scrambles to the right and throws a pass with the optimal amount of touch to Washington. What’s most impressive is that Johnson doesn’t even have time to set his feet and still places this ball perfectly.

Johnson really seems to thrive when throwing off-platform and rolling to his strong (right) side. He does so here once again, escaping the pitfalls of a dangerous punting situation by firing a strike to Robinson near the sideline.

Johnson is credited for having seven incompletions, but one such pass that hit the ground truly should have been caught. This ball simply could not have been launched much better, yet it slips through Washington’s hands.

Johnson wasn’t totally flawless on Saturday, though almost nobody is. Even Patrick Mahomes misses open receivers during a few plays every game.

One of the strangest snaps from this matchup was Johnson’s interception, a seemingly lollipop throw with its target set for Indiana State’s Ty Hambright. It does appear that the edge rusher engaging Anthony Clair forced Clair into Johnson. Even then, this throw would have a very low probability of being successful considering the tight coverage and the two white jerseys in the area.

Occasionally, Johnson puts a little too much oomph onto throws, as he does here by missing Robinson — running a pinpoint sluggo — for a surefire six.

Other times, some throws were a little out of sync. Take this incompletion in which Johnson rushes a tad bit, causing the ball to be yanked down and away.

On this 4th and 23 — at best, a curious decision to go for it by Fitzgerald — I like how Johnson hangs in the pocket despite the rush crashing down from the left side. However, the ball is simply off the mark, even if the defensive back doesn’t get his hands on it.

Another tendency of Johnson is to throw off his back foot, often when he doesn’t need to. The former five-star can throw accurately while leaning back at times, as he does to Kirtz in the following play.

But during other instances, his imbalanced throwing motion isn’t so harmless.

Because Johnson throws with so much leverage being generated from his right cleat, the ball isn’t placed well enough for Kirtz, running an outside fade, to high-point it. Consequently, Kirtz does his best Randy Moss impression but winds up unsuccessful.

One additional facet of Johnson’s game is that he is a willing and able runner, however, he is sometimes a little overeager to start moving and/or reach full stride.

During this pivotal 3rd and 14, Johnson starts to sense pressure when, in reality, he likely had more time to throw than expected. What exacerbates things is that Johnson had not just one, but probably two, receivers open over the middle. If he had stepped up into the pocket rather than bailing, NU could have gained a first down.

For as fast as Johnson processes the game, I feel that his mind might be racing a bit too much. In this example, the Clemson transfer should realize that he doesn’t need to hit the jets and risk a hit considering he could have just dumped the ball off to Anthony Tyus III.

All in all, Johnson played solidly against Indiana State. While he appeared to be more of a gunslinger when facing the Spartans, Johnson assumed the role of a game manager against the Sycamores.

That term “game manager” has a bit of a stigma, but it’s not necessarily a condescending identifier. Johnson did what the coaches wanted him to do: hand the ball off, make smooth reads and place the ball where it needs to be.

For the rest of Northwestern’s season, I expect Johnson to look much more like he did against MSU as opposed to Indiana State, without being handcuffed by a conservative gameplay. Johnson was far from perfect on Saturday, but in the end, he was plenty good enough to help the Wildcats obtain their first win of the season.