For the final time this season, welcome back to the film room everyone. It feels as if it has been said every week, but it was another week where Northwestern would want to burn the tape. In the HAT game, the ‘Cats were steamrolled 41-3 by the Fighting Illini to close out an abysmal 1-11 season. In what can only be described as a strange stat line, NU actually had more yards than Illinois, but still lost by 38, a perfect summation of the Wildcats’ season.
It was a bad day for the quarterback room, a continuation of the entire month of November. Sophomore walk-on Cole Freeman got the start for the second week in a row with Brendan Sullivan and Ryan Hilinski sidelined with injuries. Freeman was pulled in the second half for first-year Jack Lausch, ensuring that every quarterback on the roster saw the field this season. For the final time this year, lets take a look at how the ‘Cats’ gunslingers performed this week.
It was a bad week for Cole Freeman, as the walk-on was 12-for-22 for 93 yards, zero touchdowns, and four interceptions. The sophomore had six carries for 29 rushing yards and fumbled once. The New Jersey native’s yards per attempt did increase from last week, but it was still a measly 4.2 YPA.
To the surprise of some of us here at Inside NU, Freeman’s Pro Football Focus grade was higher than last week. PFF gave the sophomore a 29.7 passing grade, and a decent rushing grade bumped his overall grade up to 34.3. Freeman was once again ranked dead last in PFF passing grades among all quarterbacks (min. 13 attempts) and was in the bottom five amongst quarterbacks in overall PFF grades.
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 57.1%. As the former walk-on has not played a full two games, it would be unfair to compare him to the other Big Ten quarterbacks.
Freeman was not protected well at all. He was pressured on 50% of his dropbacks and failed to protect the ball when under duress, throwing three interceptions. The walk-on has not completed a pass over 20 yards, but was able to get the ball downfield with intermediate throws. The sophomore was efficient in the short game, going 10-for-12 on passes under 10 yards. Here is a breakdown of all of Freeman’s throws for the final week of the 2022 season.
This week really felt like the numbers did not accurately represent what the tape showed. So for the final time this season, let’s jump into the tape.
There was a lot of it, so let’s delve into it.
As I say every week, every coach from Pop Warner to the NFL will tell you that winning the turnover battle is imperative to winning football games. How does a team outgain an opponent but still lose by 38 points? Committing six turnovers, including two that were returned for scores, is an easy way to do that. The ‘Cats were dead last in the nation with 31 turnovers on the season, and Freeman did not help buck the trend. Four of his five turnovers were on the plus side of the field, killing multiple promising NU drives.
On his first interception of the day, the Illini dropped into a three-deep coverage to take away any deep passes. Freeman did a good job working through his progression, but like last week, his footwork deteriorated. The Jersey native’s weight appeared to be still in his back foot, causing the ball to sail over an open Evan Hull into the arms of Devin Witherspoon for the easy interception. Witherspoon set Illinois up with great field position and the Illini were able to connect on a field goal to go up 10. The ‘Cats were well within field goal range, and Freeman’s mistake was, at a minimum, a six-point swing that changed the momentum of the game. There was nothing bad about the decision on this interception, but the walk-on’s mechanics cost the ‘Cats.
This interception is both not a great throw and also not a great decision. It is second down on the edge of field goal range, and the only thing a quarterback cannot do is force a ball down the field: just learn to live another day. The Illini did a good job bottling up all of the Northwestern receivers, forcing Freeman to extend the play outside the pocket.
Freeman tried to put a touch pass in a tight spot to Evan Hull on an improvised wheel route, but the walk-on did not put enough on it, as it was tipped and picked. Even if Freeman had gotten the ball to Hull, there was a good chance the back would have been rocked by the safety screeching down. The quarterback threw a ball that had four Illinois defenders around one Wildcat receiver, and it ended up killing another NU drive in Illini territory.
No other words except this can not happen at the Big Ten level. This is a simple zone read exchange, and a clear give read as the read key shoots up the field. Freeman just never let go of the ball; it was a botched exchange, and the ball came free on the ground. The walk-on gets blasted as the Fighting Illini scoop and score for an easy touchdown. This is a mistake that is not on anyone but the quarterback, and the lack of fundamentals shown from Freeman is an indictment of the coaching staff.
Once again, this turnover is about bad fundamentals. Freeman continuously backed up in the pocket and never created a base to throw from. He tried to side arm a drag late; however, because he had no base to generate power from, the ball did not have enough zip on it to beat the closing defender. The defender jumped in front of the receiver and waltzed in for the easy pick-six. This was the end of Freeman’s night as he was pulled for first-year Jack Lausch.
Freeman’s turnover woes are not from his decision-making, but from a lack of solid fundamentals. His feet were all over the place, his weight was not transferring to his front foot and he struggled to execute the basics correctly. He has to get back to the fundamentals before he can worry about Big Ten schematics.
There was not much about this game that was good, but because this is the last installment of this series, let’s end on a positive note.
For all of Freeman’s struggles, it is obvious that he is a very good athlete. Like Brendan Sullivan, the sophomore’s ability to run the ball was beneficial for Northwestern.
This is a really good job by Freeman. He realized the read key was playing the back, so he pulled it down and got in the C-gap for a big play. He was able to shed a tackle and pick up a solid chunk of yards after contact. He also did a good job protecting the ball, a sign he learned from his mistake against Purdue when he got stripped. Freeman’s raw talent is noticeable, and his athleticism is comparable to other Big Ten quarterbacks.
The Cole Freeman experiment has come to an end for Northwestern, and he performed as well as a walk-on, fourth-string quarterback would be expected to play. Freeman’s mechanics need to be cleaned up in the offseason, and after reviewing the tape for the last two games, he is not ready to command a Big Ten team.
The walk-on’s problems with the fundamentals are seen across the quarterback room, and that falls on one man: offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Mike Bajakian. It appears that Fitzgerald may retain Bajakian for the upcoming season, but the offensive playcaller needs to prove he can properly develop a quarterback, something he has not shown during his time in Evanston. If Northwestern’s QB play remains the same for another year, it will be Bajakian this time getting a pink slip.