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Sullivan’s Slings: A new hope?

Sophomore Brendan Sullivan has taken the reigns of the Northwestern offense. Let’s take a look at how the Michigan native fared in College Park.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 22 Northwestern at Maryland Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome back to the film room. The Wildcats had last week off on a bye week, and they decided to shake things up to try and jumpstart an offense that had not scored double digits in the month of October. Junior Ryan Hilinski, who had started all six games so far for Northwestern, was benched for sophomore Brendan Sullivan, a three-star, pro-style quarterback from Davidson, Mich. While Sullivan played against Wisconsin, he made his first official start against the Maryland Terrapins. Let’s take a look at Sullivan’s good, and some of his rookie moments.

The Numbers

Sullivan finished his first game 18-for-24 for 143 yards, one touchdowns, and two interceptions. He also had 13 carries for 53 yards and one TD. Sullivan averaged 6.0 yards per attempt. Sullivan's PFF passing grade was 39.7, lower than any grade Hilinski received in any games he started this year. Sullivan's overall grade for the game was 48.6, supported by a strong rushing grade; he had one PFF big-time throw (a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window) and had a Big Time Throw % of 3.7%, higher than all but one of Hilinski’s starts. Sullivan’s adjusted completion percentage (completions + drops/aimed) was 78.3 %. As Sullivan has only started one game, comparing him to other Big Ten Quarterbacks who have started most of the year is rather moot.

Sullivan had a decently clean pocket, being pressured on about a third of his dropbacks. The gunslinger was efficient on short passes, as he went 16-for-16 on passes less than 10 yards. Here is the breakdown of Sullivan’s throws from College Park.

With the numbers out of the way, it is time to turn on the projector and watch the tape.

The Good

We’re going to start with the good today. The rookie definitely had his bright spots.

Sullivan’s mobility

This is one of the more obvious differences in Sullivan’s and Hilinski’s game. While Hilinski can move, Sullivan is a threat in the run game and his ability to scramble.

There is no coaching that goes into a play like this. On a boot concept, the interior defensive lineman did not fall for the down block and pressured Sullivan instantly. Sullivan sees the rusher, puts his foot in the ground, and works all the way back to the far side of the field and scrambles for a first down. Instead of a presumable third-and-long if he throws the ball away, Sullivan was able to find a way to move the chains A few plays later, Sullivan found Evan Hull for a walk-in touchdown to put the ‘Cats up 17-7, their largest lead so far of the 2022 season.

Another good play by Sullivan to use his legs. In an empty set, the Terps brought five and played man coverage behind it. With all five rushers picked up by the O-Line and everyone running with their man, Sullivan sees a clear gap in the pocket and steps up and takes off, easily picking up the first down and keeping the drive alive.

The skill to extend drives with his legs gives offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian the ability to run different concepts, knowing his quarterback is able to extend plays and drives running the ball.

Deep Passing

One of the most underutilized parts of this Northwestern offense has been pushing the ball down the field through the air. Hilinski only aired it out on about 10% of the time, leaving many opportunities on the board. If the Wildcats want to put up more points, they need to have more chunk plays.

The play design is good, but more than anything, this is a great decision by Sullivan. It is first down at midfield and the defense has just forced a punt: this is the perfect time to take a shot. Maryland was playing man coverage, and the ‘Cats ran a post-cross concept, a perfectly designed man-beater. Malik Washington ran a great route, and Sullivan, with a clean pocket, rifled a 40+ yard ball to Washington. He hit Washington in stride, setting up first-and-goal. Northwestern would punch it in later on the drive to go up 7-0. A great call to take a shot on first down ended up in a massive gain. Even if Sullivan had missed, Maryland would have had to respect the deep ball, opening up other facets of the offense.

Another good shot on first down by Sullivan. Washington was matched up one-on-one with the corner and runs a beautiful stop and go route. Sullivan set his feet and fired one to the end zone to a wide open Washington, who was tackled by the corner to prevent him from making the catch. Pass interference was called, and the ‘Cats picked up a free 15 yards. By pressing teams down the field, it is likely that penalties will be called, giving free yards and fresh sets of downs to work with for the offense. If Sullivan continues to push the ball down the field, Northwestern will create chunk plays or, at the very least, open up the underneath plays to Evan Hull — secondaries will need to stay over the top of the Wildcats’ receivers.

Rookie Mistakes (The Bad)

Like every player in their first start, from Pop Warner to the NFL, Sullivan did not play mistake-free football.


As every football coach would say, it is imperative to win the turnover battle in order to win football games. There were only two turnovers in the game, both of which were crucial interceptions from Sullivan.

Northwestern came out of the locker room and started quickly, driving the ball into Maryland territory. On first down, the Terps were playing a version of Cover Four. The ‘Cats come out and run a fake bubble screen with verticals by the normal blockers. Sullivan gave a small pump but kept his eyes downfield on his tight end the entire time. The Terrapin safety read Sullivan and undercut the route to pick it. Sullivan never saw the safety break on the route, held the ball for a second to long and put the ball just far enough down the field that the safety could beat the tight end to the ball and take it away. A promising Wildcat drive on the edge of field goal range abruptly ended. Maryland’s ensuing possession would result in a touchdown, tying the game at 17. The turnover was likely at least a 10-point swing toward UMD.

This is not a bad throw by Sullivan. and not even a terrible decision. However, in the situation where he is trying to lead his team down the field for a game-tying drive, situational awareness on second down says that yards are more important, as third-and-short is better than third-and-long. This was a clean pocket, and Sullivan launched the ball. If he puts it more on the hash, Washington has a better chance to get to that ball. The safety makes a great play ranging all the way over to make that play. With all that being said, Evan Hull has outflanked a linebacker in the flat. Even if the linebacker makes the tackle right away, Hull picks up six or seven yards, setting up a manageable third-and-short. If Hulls gets up the sideline, it is a massive chunk that moves the Wildcats closer to tying the game. Sullivan has to, and will, learn to understand the situation and when is it appropriate to take a chance. That interception was the last offensive play the ‘Cats ran for the day, ending any chance of a comeback.

Settle down

Watching the tape, it is clear that Sullivan felt some jitters standing back there as a starter for the first time.

As Aaron Rodgers once said, “R-E-L-A-X”. Sullivan needs to trust himself, his pocket presence and his internal clock. Here on first down trying to lead a comeback, Maryland only rushes three, with the defensive end acting more as a spy. There is not a single red jersey near Sullivan in the pocket, yet he bails and rolls right before throwing it away. There is no reason for Sullivan to bail. He has all the time in the world to sit in the pocket, go through his progression and wait for someone to get open. His internal clock went off too quickly and he reverted to his pure athleticism instead. By throwing the ball away, he has now set the Wildcats behind the chains, making it second-and-long. He needs to trust himself more in the pocket and as a pure passer, because there was a play to be made if he had stood strong.

Overall, Sullivan showed flashes of what he brings to the table as QB1. His big arm and ability to stretch the field opens up the Wildcats to create chunk plays, but also forces the defense to respect the pass game, opening the box for Evan Hull and the run game to get going. Sullivan’s dual-threat ability will continue to extend plays and drives, opening chances for points to be scored. While he made rookie mistakes and his internal clock needs to be better, Sullivan gives this team the best chance to win right now.