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Sullivan’s Slings: Continued promise

Before being knocked out of the game, the sophomore continued to show why he deserved to be the QB of the future

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 Northwestern at Minnesota Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome back to the film room, everyone. Once again, it is time to bury the tape, with Northwestern getting dominated by the Golden Gophers in frigid Minneapolis on Saturday.

On a more fun note, we saw four Northwestern quarterbacks get into the game. Brendan Sullivan, Ryan Hilinski, Carl Richardson and Cole Freeman all saw the field in the ‘Cats’ 31-3 blowout loss. That’s right, four quarterbacks and zero touchdowns.

Injuries played a major role, though. Sullivan was drilled late in the first half on a deep ball and left the game for the second week in a row. Hilinski replaced Sullivan and looked like himself on American Soil before having to be carted off. It was the Richardson show for most of the fourth until Freeman replaced him for the final drive, the first of his collegiate career.

There was not much on the bright side for Northwestern, as the offense never clicked to finish drives, but No. 10 for the purple and white has continued to flash since taking over as the starter. The sophomore was unable to finish the game, and the lack of his presence was felt throughout the entire offense. While his status for Saturday in West Lafayette is unknown, NU better hope Sullivan is able to lead the team against Purdue. Let’s take a look at what the gunslinger was able to do before he exited.

The Numbers

The Michigander was 9-for-11 for 94 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions before leaving the game. He had the lowest rushing total of his career with only eight yards on three scrambles, the first game he did not have a designed QB run. In a turnaround from the last two weeks, Sullivan’s yards-per-attempt skyrocketed to 8.5 YPA, much higher than under six-yard numbers he had.

The dual-threat quarterback received the highest PFF grade of any Northwestern QB for the year. PFF gave him an 86.7 passing grade, but a lower running grade dropped him to an overall 76.2. The sophomore did make two PFF big-time throws (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 90.9%. As the former three-star recruit only played a half, it would be unfair to compare him to the other Big Ten quarterbacks.

While it was a relatively small sample size, Sullivan was under heavy duress the entire time he played. He was pressured on 43.8% of his dropbacks; however, the Davison native’s pocket poise has developed. When he was able to get the ball out, the Wildcats’ signal-caller completed all of his passes under pressure, going 2-for-2 for 30 yards.

In another reversal from the past two weeks, the rookie pushed the ball down the field. Sullivan had four passes of 10+ yards, completing three. The ‘Cats’ starter continued to be efficient in the short game, completing all but one throw under 10 yards. Here is a breakdown of the sophomore's throws from Saturday.

For once, the numbers properly reflect what the tape has shown. Sullivan had played good, sound football before he left the game. So, let’s get into the tape.

The Good

In a game where there was very little positive for Northwestern, No. 10 was a bright spot. His development has shown, and he continues to flash.

Slinging it deep

For as much as Sullivan’s legs get talked about, there is a reason that I refer to him as a gunslinger. The sophomore’s arm talent is obvious, even as he has not taken shots down the field in prior weeks. This week in Minneapolis, he let it fly, and it was the only way the ‘Cats moved the ball.

On NU’s second-longest play of the game, the Sullivan could not have put this ball in a better place. In what looked to be combo coverage, the NU QB carried out an excellent ball fake to Evan Hull that sucked the linebackers toward the line of scrimmage and made them late to their zone responsibilities. Sullivan took a good three-step drop — noticeably improved from when he took over the job — hitched and unleashed a beauty to Marshall Lang. Lang got behind the safety on a post route, and the rookie fired a 40-yard, over-the-shoulder ball to the junior tight end. Northwestern’s starter put this ball where only Lang could have gotten it, a ball a coach could only ask for.

I know stat sheet warriors are going to be mad, but this incompletion was Sullivan’s best throw of his short afternoon. Minnesota played man coverage, and Donny Navarro III beat his defender off the line of scrimmage and streaked down the middle of the field. The Davison native took another good drop, in a clean pocket, before he stepped up and flung a 45-yard bomb that was just out of reach of Navarro’s arms. If the rookie let go of this ball a millisecond earlier, he probably would have hit the transfer in stride for a touchdown; nonetheless. this ball is crazily good. Sullivan throws this ball 45 yards with ease, and even though this was a miss, this throw had to inspire Pat Fitzgerald and Co. that the sophomore has the talent to be their long-term answer at quarterback.

On Sullivan’s last throw of the afternoon, he fit another ball into a tight window. The Golden Gophers played Cover Two, and Malik Washington did a very good job of finding the soft spot of the coverage. Sullivan had a clean pocket, but a delayed twist stunt confused the Northwestern O-line and allowed the DT to loop around and get a free shot on the QB.

To the rookie's credit, he did not bail out of the pocket as he did earlier in the season; instead, he stood strong and threw a laser to Washington. The sophomore took a massive shot to the ribs as he threw, and in cold weather, that hit probably hurt 10 times more than it normally does. Even though he got drilled, Sullivan put the ball 20 yards downfield and in between a converging safety and corner to an open Washington. The hit knocked the ‘Cats’ starter out of the game, but time and time again, he showed that he could make the big play when they needed it.

The Bad

As Sullivan did not play the entire game and was sharp when asked to throw the ball, there is not that much bad from his game this week. It is nitpicking, but it was not all perfect for No. 10.

Trust yourself

Even as Sullivan has gotten more reps and starts for the Wildcats, it is clear that he still is not fully comfortable at the helm. He turns to his natural athleticism early and often, maybe too early and too often.

This play was a prime example of this. The Gophers put seven in the box, which is equal to the seven Wildcats between the tackles. Northwestern ran a zone read with an RPO tagged on the play side. Because it is seven against seven, Sullivan made the right read to throw the RPO. Based on what can be seen from the broadcast version, the outside receiver ran the corner off, and Malik Washington did a good job of finding open grass and settling. This ball should be out earlier to Washington for at least a five-yard gain, although it looks like the receiver had room to run after the catch. Instead, Sullivan did not pull the trigger and hitched twice before he pulled it down and scrambled for a few yards.

If the sophomore wants to take the next step, it is these basic reads that he needs to execute; mostly, he needs to trust himself and what he sees and let the ball rip. As talked about in the good, the rookie has immense arm talent and can make any throw on the field — he just needs to have confidence and air the ball out.

If anything was abundantly clear from Saturday’s loss, it was that Northwestern needs Brendan Sullivan to have a competent offense. Sullivan had moved the football for the ‘Cats all day but had not been able to punch it in yet; however, when he went down and his backups went in, Northwestern made numerous mistakes that took any chance of a comeback away. The Wildcat offense has had its struggles with the sophomore at the helm, but it looks much worse without him.

Right now, the biggest question mark around Sullivan is his durability. He has left two games in a row with injuries after taking big hits, which is concerning for how much he runs with the ball. A player’s best quality is his availability, and Sullivan right now could make both Northwestern fans and coaches wonder if he could handle a complete season.

With the season lost and now looking to the future, Fitz will have to make a decision whether to go get a QB from the transfer portal or stick with No. 10. If he continues to play as he has so far this season, Sullivan deserves the nod to open up the 2023 season.