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Sullivan’s Slings: Have the ‘Cats found their QB of the future?

In the midst of high winds and sheets of rain, the sophomore put together another efficient day at the helm of Mike Bajakian’s offense.

Ohio State v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Welcome back to the film room, everybody.

Following a week where there was nothing positive leaving Iowa City, Northwestern was able to play competitive football against the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes. In a game that was dictated by mother nature, the swirling winds and pouring rain made it nearly impossible to throw the football: both teams combined for 155 yards passing. The ‘Cats fell short 21-7, but the game had more positives than negatives for the Wildcats.

In his third career start, Northwestern sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan was again efficient with the football. As Pat Fitzgerald said at Monday's press conference, the Michigan native has shown great promise. While he has yet to light up the stat sheet, Sullivan has shown ability in a season that has been filled with negatives. Let’s take a look at what the sophomore gunslinger did well, and not so well, against the Buckeyes.

The Numbers

Once again, Sullivan’s numbers would not be promising to an outside viewer of the ‘Cats. He finished the game 10-for-14 for 79 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. He added 35 rushing yards on 12 carries. For the second week in a row, Sullivan’s yards-per-attempt was under six yards but did increase from last week at Iowa.

The dual-threat quarterback's PFF passing grade was 75.4, but his overall grade was dragged down to 64.6 with a low run grade (not sure the tape agrees with that). The sophomore did not make a single 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 his adjusted completion percentage (completions + drops/aimed) was 91.7%. As the former three-star recruit has only made three starts, it would be unfair to compare him to the rest of the Big Ten quarterbacks.

Sullivan faced the most pressure in any game he has seen the field, being pressured on 38.9% of his dropbacks; however, he was able to still make plays while feeling the heat, completing two-thirds of his passes. As the weather made it difficult to push the ball down the field, the Davison, Mich. native only attempted three throws more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage and had zero attempts of more than 20 yards. Sullivan was again effective in the short game, completing all but one throw under 10 yards. Here is a breakdown of all of the sophomore’s throws from Ryan Field on Saturday.

The numbers, especially this week, do not accurately represent what No. 10 did for the Wildcats, so let's get into the tape.

The Good

There were a lot of positives in this game for Sullivan, as some may say it was his best game so far. Although he did not air it out, he consistently helped the Wildcats move the football. Here is what stood out from the rookie.

A true running threat

As Fitz said postgame, the weather made it very difficult to throw the football. The game became a battle of the trenches, and Sullivan’s legs and his ability to run the football became advantageous for the ‘Cats.

Since the Michigander took over the job, there has been a significant increase in designed zone reads and quarterback keepers. On this third down, the Buckeyes brought eight into the box to sell out against the inside zone, as the ‘Cats running backs had been effectively running the ball in the first quarter. The defensive end closed and played the running back; Sullivan noticed and made the right read pulling the ball. He picked up the first down and made two defenders whiff for extra yards. His ability move the chains is a distinct part of his game that will only continue to grow.

This play showed how special Sullivan’s athleticism is. After OSU drove right down the field to take the lead, NU needed to find a way to keep itself in the game. On another third down, the Buckeyes brought six to sell out against the inside zone, and the defensive end folded inside before making a late attempt to close on the Wildcats’ gunslinger. The sophomore beat the DE and the safety to the edge before he flipped the ball to Malik Washington for the first down. While the toss was risky, Sullivan’s athleticism not only made two men miss, but was able to make a play and get a first down. This type of play was not possible in the ‘Cats’ offense earlier this year, but Sullivan’s ability has constantly help extend drives and move the football.

Every week, Northwestern runs a QB Draw, and every week, it is run to perfection. When Andrew Clair went in motion, both the safety and the middle linebacker flowed out of the box to follow him. It created a six-on-five advantage for the ‘Cats, with one more blocker in the box than the Buckeyes have defenders. Sullivan gave a good fake before he put his foot in the ground and got downhill. In a move that makes any coach nervous, the rookie put his shoulder down and lunged for a first down, getting it by mere inches.

Should Sullivan not take as many hits? Probably. However, he has shown his willingness to put his body on the line to win — what more can you ask for from your QB? On multiple third downs in the game, Bajakian turned to Sullivan’s legs to get it done, and the sophomore produced every single time.

Extending the drive

In a game dominated by the running game, Sullivan kept multiple drives alive third down with his arm.

I say it every week, but this may have been the rookie’s best throw of his young career. On a third-and-long, wind at the Wildcats’ back, Ohio State dropped seven into coverage, in a two-high shell, and rushed four. Sullivan, with a clean pocket, worked through his progression and fired a seed to Malik Washington in a tight window. He put the ball right in between the safety and the linebacker for a massive first down and continued the drive. The throwing lane here was tiny, yet the NU signal-caller found a way to fit the ball into Washington. A coach can not ask for a better throw, and Sullivan has shown he can make throws in all sorts of tight coverage.

This play made my jaw drop in the press box on Saturday. There is no other way to describe this play except Houdini-esque. On another third-and-long, Sullivan had nowhere to go with the football, as the Buckeyes dropped seven and brought four. He did a good job stepping up in the pocket, but a QB spy prevented him from scrambling for a first down. Sullivan retreated in the pocket and had to juke out two Ohio State defenders to avoid a sack. Four Buckeye defenders whiffed at bringing the sophomore down, as he rolled all the way to the far side of the field and fired to Cam Porter right at the first down marker. Porter tumbled his way for a first down.

What Sullivan showed on this play was nothing short of incredible. He should have been taken down for a loss, yet his improvisation and playmaking skills created a magical play that kept the ‘Cats alive. There are not many quarterbacks in the nation that can make that play, and the sophomore has constantly shown that he has special traits. Nothing in this play can be taught by coaching, and that is the mark of a good quarterback.

The Bad

In a pretty good game for the sophomore, it is time to nitpick where things went wrong in the Wildcats’ attempt to pull off the upset.

Missed opportunities

Northwestern had a number of chances to pull off one of the biggest wins in program history, yet shot itself in the foot when the moments presented themselves.

This whole drive is going to frustrate both coaches and players as they re-watch it. Up 7-0, the Wildcat defense turned the Buckeyes over on downs inside OSU territory, but the offense came up empty. While the play-calling, more specifically the Wildcat, hurt the ‘Cats mightily, Sullivan’s decision with the ball on this fourth down was suspect.

On a fourth-and-long on the OSU 25, the wind prevented a field goal attempt, so NU ran a rollout against man coverage. The Wildcats ran a flood concept, with Malik Washington running the flat route. The safety was late to Washington, and Sullivan fired a strike two yards past the line of scrimmage to Washington, who was unable to shed the Buckeye tackles and fell short of picking up the first down.

The rookie got the ball out quickly, not allowing the routes downfield to develop, and hoped that Washington’s speed would be able to get the first. There was no pressure in the sophomore’s face, and he had time to wait and get the ball past the sticks for a first down; instead, Northwestern failed to pick up the first and expand its lead.

Against great teams like Ohio State, zero opportunities for points can be wasted to pull off the upset. The Wildcats squandered the chance to push the lead to double digits, which would have been difficult for a struggling Buckeye offense to make up.

In a need-to-have-it situation, Sullivan has to make this throw.

On another fourth-and-long, Ohio State played man coverage and only rushed four. Sullivan had a clean pocket and took a good three-step drop. As he hitched and threw, Donny Navarro III was wide open on a dig route between the corner and the safety, but the rookie just missed him. This is a miss that can not happen, as Navarro would easily have picked up the first down with room to run and maybe even have tied the game.

Instead, the ‘Cats turned the ball over on downs, and a long run by C.J. Stroud and a TD by Miyan Williams would put OSU up 21-7 and ice the game. The difference between tying the game and it being over was missing an open receiver. If Northwestern wants to get back to winning, it is individual plays, in key situations, that the ‘Cats need to execute. Sullivan has to get the ball to Navarro and probably is wishing he could get this one back. The rookie was very good on Saturday, but this one bad ball cost NU a chance to win the game.

As Sullivan gains more experience, he continues to improve and show Fitz and the staff that he should have been the starter all season long. He has made this offense multi-dimensional with his legs and has shown the skill to make plays with his arm. Does he have a lot to improve on? Absolutely. However, he has reflected that he deserves the opportunity to not only compete for the starting quarterback job, but even to be the front-runner going into the 2023 season. The sophomore has three more games to display his talent, and if he keeps playing as he has, Fitzgerald and Co. may have found their QB of the future.