Welcome back to the film room and Happy Thanksgiving everybody. I am super thankful to all of you who have joined me every Thursday to talk about the fun that is Northwestern’s quarterback play. While this season has not been remotely good for the ‘Cats, I am appreciative to everyone who takes time to read my ramblings about reading coverages. Hopefully the final installment of this series for the 2022 season will be in victory, but if not, I appreciate everyone for trudging along with me for the season. And now, for your regularly scheduled programming.
You have read Hilinski’s Heaves and Sullivan’s Slings, but now, get ready for Freeman’s Flings. That’s right, the walk-on from Summit, N.J. stepped into the Wildcat huddle Saturday after Brendan Sullivan and Ryan Hilinski were both sidelined with injuries. On a frigid afternoon in West Lafayette, Ind., the sophomore played about as expected for a fourth-stringer who hadn’t started a game since the New Jersey state playoffs in 2020. The Wildcats relied on Evan Hull and their run game to make the game easier for Freeman, but in the story of NU’s season, the offense was unable to score points. Northwestern had its third straight week of scoring in the single digits, falling 17-9 to Purdue behind another abysmal offensive performance by Mike Bajakian’s offense. With all of that being said, let’s talk about the Jersey native's first start for the Purple and White.
Freeman’s numbers are nothing to write home about, as the walk-on finished 9-for-20 for 78 yards, zero touchdowns, one interception, and three fumbles with two lost. He also added 31 yards on three rushing attempts. The Summit native threw a lowly 3.9 yards per attempt, which was 147th in the nation for Week 12.
PFF gave Freeman a 27.4 passing grade, and a slightly higher running performance bumped his grade to a measly 27.9 overall. That is the lowest grade by any Northwestern quarterback this whole season and the second-lowest single-game grade for a Northwestern starting quarterback since PFF began grading NCAA players in 2014. Out of every QB who threw a pass in Week 12, Freeman ranked dead last in PFF passing grades. Are PFF grades the end-all-be-all? No, but it is still a searing indictment of the walk-on’s play.
The sophomore didn’t 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 50%. As the former walk-on just played his first full game, it would be unfair to compare him to the other Big Ten quarterbacks.
Freeman was kept upright better than his fellow sophomore, Brendan Sullivan, was in Minnesota. He was pressured on 30.8% of his dropbacks, but did not complete a single pass when he was under duress. The walk-on did complete two balls over 10 yards and was able to find his receivers in the short game, completing seven out of eleven passes that were under ten yards. Here is a breakdown of Freeman’s throws.
While the numbers aren’t good, numbers do not always tell the complete story. Numbers lie, but the tape does not, so let's look at the tape for No. 7’s first start for the Wildcats.
Protecting the football
From Pop Warner to the Pros, coaches love to say whoever wins the turnover battle is going to win the game. In his first start, Freeman struggled to protect the football for NU.
There is nothing to say about this play except yikes. The Boilermakers appeared to play Cover Two to counter the Wildcats’ empty set. The middle linebacker dropped to the middle hole, and Freeman doesn’t do anything to move the linebacker off his spot. Freeman, in his three-step drop, stared down Andrew Clair, who was already covered, on a hitch concept. The linebacker read the walk-on's eyes and stepped in front of the pass for an easy interception that should have been pick six.
Freeman made it painfully obvious where he was going with the football, and it should have cost the ‘Cats seven points, but the NCAA decided to become the new no-fun league and wiped the TD off the board. The Northwestern defense held and Freeman’s mistake did not end up costing NU. While he got away scot-free, it was Freeman’s worst decision of the day.
If there was a ‘welcome to Power 5 football’ moment, this was it. The ‘Cats run a true zone read with a swing route against what appears to be Cover One. I am of the opinion that if the numbers are even, throw the swing and take the running back against a linebacker in the open field. Freeman decided to not throw it and instead run the zone read. The defensive end slow played the read but crept inside enough that this should be a pull read to the C-gap. The sophomore did neither; instead, he tried to run the ball inside and ran right into a defensive tackle.
While the walk-on is 6-foot tall and 205 pounds, trying to lower the shoulder and drive against an interior defensive lineman is a bold strategy. Freeman got outmuscled and had the ball ripped away, killing a promising NU drive. His toughness is admirable, but there is no reason to try to pick up extra yards by barreling through a much larger human being on first down.
There is so much to dissect in this one clip and none of it is good. Northwestern came out in empty, and the Boilermakers played a variety of Cover Four. After Freeman’s initial three-step drop, he had more than enough room to step up in the pocket and deliver a good ball, but instead, bailed backward and tried to improvise. In trying to do too much, the sophomore threw multiple pump fakes, which no defender bought, and didn’t notice the rush from the blind side and fumbled as he was hit, but Northwestern fell on it. While Freeman is lucky that his team got the ball back, holding the ball with one hand breaks every rule that young quarterbacks are taught. It is a careless mistake that will cost him at some point if it is not corrected.
“Ball security is job security,” is a quote that rings through every football player's head. For Freeman, protecting the football must be priority 1a, 1b, and 1c for this upcoming week. If he continues to turn the ball over at a high rate, Northwestern’s losing streak will close the 2022 season at 11 in a row.
What does a yellow light mean?
In this reference to the iconic scene from Taxi, Freeman needs to do what a yellow light means and slow down his decision-making on the field. It is easy to be over-excited and lose the fundamentals in his first game, but the sophomore needs to clean up the basics, both physically and mentally, if he wants to succeed.
If you wonder what separates a good team from a 1-10 team, it’s plays like these. There is clearly a miscommunication as the running back goes in the opposite direction of the offensive lineman going to set up a screen. A veteran QB sees this, processes it, and either dirts the ball or throws it into the stands; Freeman, on the other hand, decided to work backward in the pocket and threw off his back foot and across his body. A quarterback cannot do one of those things on a play, let alone both, and the sophomore put the ball nowhere near the running back. Even if the ball had been on target, it would have been a hospital hit with the linebacker closing in at full speed. In a busted play, the only time the ball should be in the field of play is if someone is wide open. If not, throw it away and live to play another day.
In another RPO by Northwestern, the decision made by Freeman to hand the ball off, while safe, prevented a bigger play from happening. On the bottom of the screen, both NU and Purdue have two players on the outside. When Malik Washington runs a swing in that direction, the ‘Cats now have a three-on-two advantage on the edge. Now, I barely passed math, but I know that three is greater than two, so get the ball to where you have more numbers. Washington is shifty enough to find a crease and make a play, and Freeman needs to make the read and throw the swing. He has to do a better job recognizing his matchups and getting the ball to his playmakers because he left yards and chances to move the ball on the field.
Freeman’s reads were iffy at best on Saturday, as it looked like he was not letting everything process and moving impulsively. Is that expected for someone getting his first-ever collegiate start and first start in two years? Absolutely; however, he needs to calm down and go through his reads if he wants to give the ‘Cats a chance to snap their losing streak.
There was not a lot, but it is Thanksgiving, so let’s end this film session on a positive note!
This was Freeman’s best throw of the day. On third-and-long, the Boilermakers were in a shallow Tampa 2 coverage, and Washington did a great job of finding the soft spot in the coverage on a slant route. After one of his better three-step drops of the game, Freeman fired a ball, with his momentum not completely forward, to Washington for a first down. Would I like to see the sophomore transfer his weight more to his front hip and step into this throw? Absolutely, but his upper half delivered a solid ball without much help from his platform. If Freeman can clean up his footwork, he has more than enough arm talent to be a competent Big Ten quarterback.
Being a walk-on is hard enough, as nothing is guaranteed, but Cole Freeman has done everything right from an off-the-field perspective. After a tough loss on Saturday, one where he did not play well, the sophomore stood at the podium and answered questions from the media, and what he did after his availability stood out to me.
Thinking of Cole Freeman and his gutsy first career start on Saturday.— Luke Slabaugh (@LukeSlabaugh) November 21, 2022
Can’t remember the last QB I covered who shook reporters’ hands after a news conference, let alone a loss. Classy guy. pic.twitter.com/yeQ51sF6eI
Freeman shook reporters’ hands after tough questions and a loss that dropped Northwestern to 1-10. Little things like this by a fourth-string quarterback and a walk-on show that the high-character locker room, which Pat Fitzgerald has talked about during his entire tenure at the helm of the program, is still intact despite a difficult season on the field. Even if Fitz is to blame for the on-field issues, it is hard to argue that this program is still not led behind the scenes by a great group of young men who embody the values of their head coach. Nothing has been gifted to Freeman since he got to Evanston, but a simple gesture like this shows what kind of character is found from the top to the bottom of this ‘Cats roster.
Did Cole Freeman show me anything to warrant him being in the discussion of being the ‘Cats starting quarterback next year? No, absolutely not; however, he played about as expected for someone who had not started a football game in two years and was fourth on the depth chart just a week ago. If Freeman gets another start on Saturday against the Fighting Illini, he will need to show significant improvement to give Northwestern any chance of reclaiming the HAT and ending its 10-game losing streak. If the walk-on has any magic up his sleeves, he is going to need it against the No. 2 ranked defense in the nation.