Welcome back to the film room. As was said a mere two games ago, close the door and get ready to burn the tape. I’m going to have to quote Coach Fitzgerald on this one when he was asked if there were any positives to last Saturday: “None.
Northwestern was absolutely demolished in every facet of football. Iowa’s defense is ranked fifth in total defense in the nation, and it was obvious that the Wildcats’ offense did not stand a chance. The defense itself warrants a story of its own for the way it made Spencer Petras look incredible.
But, we’re here to talk about the other quarterback in this game, Brendan Sullivan; the sophomore’s drives were far between. Let’s take a look at how the ‘Cats gunslinger performed.
Sullivan’s numbers do not jump off the page, but he was efficient with the football. He was 23-for-30 for 159 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also had four carries for 21 yards. The Michigan native’s yards per average fell below six yards for the first game that he has played in. On the bright side for Sullivan, his PFF passing grade was 68.9, and his overall grade was 69.0 — the two highest grades by a Northwestern quarterback on American soil this season. 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 80.0 %. Sullivan is still only two starts in, so comparing him to the other Big Ten quarterbacks would be unfair to the rookie.
Sullivan faced roughly the same amount of pressure as last week, as he was pressured on about 30% of his dropbacks; however, he struggled under pressure, completing just a third of his passes. The former three-star was once again efficient in the short game, completing 18-of-20 passes in attempts under 10 yards. Here’s a breakdown of Sullivan’s throws from Iowa City.
More than ever, the numbers from this game are misleading to what the tape shows, so let’s get into the film.
In a game that was all bad, let's talk about Sullivan’s mistakes against a very good Iowa defense.
Sullivan was definitely feeling the heat in Iowa. He was sacked seven times, although he certainly helped the Hawkeyes get home in some of them.
On Northwestern’s second possession of the game, the Wildcats had reached the edge of field goal range. NU desperately needed points, as the defense could not stop a nosebleed all day. On this play, the Hawkeyes brought five, but the offensive line and the running back pick it up correctly. Sullivan had room to step up into the pocket and deliver the ball, but instead bailed out right, allowing the edge rusher to continue upfield (where the tackle forced him) and take Sullivan down for an 11-yard loss. A mistake that set up a near third-and-30 for the Wildcats and took them out of field goal range.
On the following play, there is not a single black jersey near the Wildcats’ signal caller, yet he began to roll out and ran right into the quarterback spy. The O-line had this blocked perfectly, and all Sullivan had to do was either get deeper in his drop or just take one step to his left or right and he would have had a clean pocket to throw from. Instead, he once again bailed early and cost his team yards.
On this one drive alone, Sullivan took NU from the edge of field goal range all the way back to midfield as he left the pocket too early and ran into Hawkeye defenders. In a spot where Northwestern needed any kind of points, the young QB took the chance away by not having good pocket presence.
Sullivan is a good athlete, and his mobility has helped him be successful since taking over the job; however, he needs to get better in the pocket and develop as a pocket passer. Defenses have already begun to spy the sophomore to ensure he doesn’t scramble. It’s now up to Davison’s own to take the next step in his game and get comfortable sitting in the pocket and finding his receivers downfield.
Sullivan was good on screens and short routes, but did not make a “wow” throw all day. Nonetheless, this is the good, so we’re gonna find a positive.
Staying on the field
The ‘Cats’ dual-threat quarterback showed off his ability to extend drives, even just for a little, with both his arm and his legs.
On a third down inside Iowa territory, the Wildcats needed to continue the drive to get points to stay in the game against a hot Iowa offense (yes, you read that right). In what was a really good play call by offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, the O-line recognizes a twist stunt and passes it off correctly, staying behind the LOS to tell the defense it is a pass play. Sullivan does a good job getting into a quick drop, but puts his foot in the ground and takes off on a designed QB draw. He picks up about 10 and moves the chains. This part of the offense was nonexistent just a few weeks ago, but Sullivan’s mobility and athleticism have added a new way for Northwestern to move the football.
This may have been Sullivan’s best throw of the day, and it has nothing to do with his arm talent. This was a really good pre-snap read by the sophomore, as he determined that the Hawkeyes were playing man coverage. In man coverage, a linebacker or safety has the running back: in this case, it was the safety eight yards off the ball. As soon as Sullivan saw that, he snapped the ball and knew right away he was going to Evan Hull on the swing route. He threw instantly to Hull, who easily beat the safety to the sideline and picked up the first down. This was really good decisiveness from the young QB: reading the defense pre-snap and being decisive with the football. He needed to get better at trusting his reads, and he did it perfectly on this play to keep the drive alive.
The game was long done by this point, and Iowa was playing its backups as it celebrated a homecoming win. To Sullivan’s credit, though, he marched the ‘Cats down the field and got them into the end zone as time expired. He hit a couple of slants during the drive in which the ball left his hand with a nice zip on it. On the final play of the game, Sullivan, in a recurring theme, probably bailed on the pocket too quickly, but did a really nice job flipping his hips and finishing downfield as he found Raymond Niro III in the back of the end zone for the touchdown. Credit to the rookie for playing hard until the clock hit zero.
It was a shorter version of Sullivan’s Slings today, as there was truly not much to break down. The Northwestern offense was barely on the field, and when it was, Sullivan was under duress. NU did almost nothing with the football all day, and the sophomore did not put anything on tape that made you jump out of the screen or pull your hair out that needed to be discussed this week.
It may be more interesting next week, though: Sullivan might need to throw the ball over 100 times trying to play catchup against the Buckeyes.