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Hunter’s Heaves, Week One: A memorable performance in a forgettable game

A look at the film reveals some technical caveats to an otherwise stellar showing.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

The moment that you all have been waiting for: Hunter’s Heaves returns after a year-long hiatus after ceding the floor the Peyton’s Passes for a year. If you want a deeper look at how exactly Northwestern’s QB1 put up the numbers he did on a game-by-game basis, we’ll be here each week to break down the film.

Unquestionably, Hunter Johnson’s first start of 2021 went far better from an individual player standpoint than any NU fan could have hoped.

Pat Fitzgerald summarized Johnson’s performance perfectly during his Monday presser, telling the media, “he’s worked his tail off to put himself in position to be our starter and gave us in a lot of ways an opportunity to win [on Friday]. We had more explosive pass plays on Friday night than we did all of last year, so that’s incredibly encouraging... Hopefully, Friday night was just a small indication of where we’re going to be able to go offensively.”

Peyton Ramsey did not complete a single pass in 2020 over 35 yards, so Fitz was not wrong when stating that the 2020 offense generated fewer explosive plays across the entire season than the 2021 team did on Friday night alone.

However, the more apples-to-apples comparison here is to look at Hunter Johnson’s season-long statistics from 2019. As you can see from the chart below, Hunter Johnson failed to complete a single pass beyond 40 yards in 2019. On Northwestern’s very first possession of the game, HJ dotted a 41-yard pass to Bryce Kirtz.

Here is the full statistical breakdown (by air yards and completion rate), along with our play-by-play:

Hunter Johnson Passing Chart vs MSU

Hunter Johnson Passing Chart in 2019

Via Noah Coffman and Brett Haensel

Johnson pushed the ball vertically with more consistency and efficiency on Friday night than we saw from him at any point during the 2019 season. His willingness to throw the ball downfield was encouraging, as you can see his timidness in 2019 resulted in just 7 attempted passes beyond 20 yards. We are already halfway there, just one game into 2021!

While both Johnson’s accuracy and fearlessness to throw the ball deep were commendable, he did display a characteristic that plagued his 2019 campaign. Below is Johnson’s aforementioned first deep completion to Kirtz:

Again, Johnson throws a gorgeous ball. While I’m not sure we all saw that sort of play at all during the 2019 season, it is something we have consistently heard Johnson is capable of doing from NU’s coaching staff and receivers. There is a reason he was a five-star prospect that competed for the starting QB job at Clemson against Trevor Lawrence, and throws like this one are deeply reflective of that reason.

The concerning part here, though, is that Johnson’s eyes never move off of Kirtz. Here is Johnson’s second gorgeous deep ball of the first quarter. NU is in a similar position to the last drive with third and long, yet MSU still ran tight single coverage against NU’s fastest receiver, Stephon Robinson Jr.:

Johnson recognized one of his primary playmakers was being pressed in single coverage on an island. HJ trusted Robinson and was rewarded; I am not sure that HJ trusted himself or any of his receivers enough in 2019 to replicate that play.

As I previously alluded to, the concern with HJ is his tendency to throw to his first read. Johnson clearly predetermines that he wants to get the ball to Robinson on the play above. We can see that by looking at Johnson’s eyes at the start of the play. He closely watches MSU safety Anthony Grose (#15) to ensure that Robinson stays in one-on-one coverage. Johnson’s progression there, rather than chucking it up to Robinson from the outset of the play, is encouraging.

However, how Johnson would have responded if a) Grose took a straight pursuit angle to double up Robinson or b) MSU’s cornerback blanketed Robinson on the deep route?

While I cannot predict the results of an alternative universe, we can look at some of Johnson’s other throws to see how he goes through his reads. Let’s start with Johnson’s very first pass of the day:

Here, we see what happens when what looks to be Johnson’s first read, Kirtz, is taken away at the start of the play. HJ panned to Anthony Tyus III in the flat and may have briefly given NU’s tight end (looks like Trey Pugh to me, but may be Charlie Mangieri) a look at the top of the screen. Despite having a relatively clean pocket, HJ’s self-timer understandably went off, as he felt that he had held onto the ball for too long. Still, HJ displayed happy feet in the pocket and was indecisive with the ball. He also neglected the right side of the field, specifically ignoring Malik Washington on a crosser in the middle of the field, before delivering a duck back to Kirtz.

Again, Johnson is an incredibly talented passer, so if he is able to identify mismatches in coverage and deliver strikes to Stephon Robinson Jr. on a consistent basis like the ones displayed in the two plays below, it will be hard to complain.

But once NU moves deeper into the season, teams will likely not play single coverage on NU’s primary receivers, Kirtz and Robinson. Johnson will face zone defenses and will need to fully process his opponent’s coverage.

Here is Northwestern’s red zone trip on the team’s second touchdown drive. All four plays occurred consecutively and each show Johnson keying in on his first option.

Above, MSU presented Johnson with single coverage. HJ found his favorite target, Kirtz, and delivered a dime on fourth and five.

On the next play, MSU sits back in zone on first and goal. Johnson sticks to his first read, despite having a clean pocket, and picks up two yards on a dump off to Mangieri. Ideally, Johnson would sit in the pocket, scan the field and be a bit more aggressive in threading the needle closer to the end zone.

Johnson follows the same process on the next play and completes a throw that could’ve been intercepted to Evan Hull in the flat.

Fortunately, on third and goal, needing six points, Johnson remains with his first read, but, as I alluded to above, is more aggressive and threads a perfect pass for six.

This drive perfectly encapsulates Hunter Johnson. He threw a few passes that few other college quarterbacks are capable of making (like the ones to Kirtz and Pugh). He had the conviction to trust both of his receivers to come down with the ball. But, in the two plays between the first down and touchdown, you can see the downsides of Johnson’s reliance on his first read.

It is worth noting the matchup against MSU marked Johnson’s first game since 2019 and he deserves the benefit of time to become acclimated to game speed. It is also worth noting, though, that these issues plagued HJ in 2019.

Northwestern struggled mightily in the red zone against the Spartans. NU failed to pass in the red zone after Kirtz’s long reception and on the first possession after halftime when Evan Hull had a long run into MSU territory. On its second possession of the game, NU ran a couple of designed screen plays after Stephon Robinson Jr’s 47-yard grab. All three of these red zone possessions occurred when NU was still within reach of the game.

Could that be an indication of NU’s coaching staff not trusting Johnson to process the defense when the field shortens? I’m not sure, but it will undoubtedly be an interesting storyline for us to watch as the season unfolds.

Regardless, Johnson did put together a strong overall showing in his first week. Hopefully, his confidence will build on itself going forward and, as he gains more playing experience, his ability to read a defense will develop a so that he can make more plays like the one below.