clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sullivan’s Slings: Rusty

In his first start of 2023, the ‘Cats’ backup struggled.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Howard at Northwestern Photo by Ben Hsu/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome back to the film room everybody. While the Wildcats are on their bye week, that doesn’t mean that we take weeks off to break down QB play. The ‘Cats took on the Howard Bison this past weekend for homecoming, and the FCS team gave NU a battle to the final whistle. Although Northwestern held on for a 23-20 victory, it had multiple opportunities to bust the game wide open.

Heading into the contest, NU was shorthanded due to injuries. Starting QB Ben Bryant missed the game with an upper-body injury, so Brendan Sullivan lined up behind center against Howard. It was Sullivan’s first start since Week 10 of 2022, when he left the game early with an injury. In his first start of the season, the junior showed some flashes but struggled in other areas.

The Numbers

It was an efficient day for Sullivan, who finished 13-for-18 for 131 yards and two touchdowns. His performance earned him a 64.2 PFF passing grade. His 7.4 yards per attempt was the highest mark in his career (in games he played four quarters). No. 6 had one PFF Big-Time Throw (a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window), but had no turnover-worthy plays. On the ground, Sullivan added 58 yards and a touchdown, but he did put the ball on the turf once. The ‘Cats’ QB garnered a 58.7 PFF run grade.

The junior felt the heat on Saturday, being pressured 12 times. Despite being under duress, Sullivan only attempted four passes under pressure, completing two. It was a conservative game plan from NU, which only attempted six throws more than 10 yards down the field. Here is a breakdown of all of Sullivan’s tosses.

To be honest, the numbers do not reflect how the tape looks; in fact, the two look like direct opposites. So without further ado, let’s dive into the film..

The Good

There were multiple moments throughout Saturday’s game where Sullivan really shined. While it wasn’t always pretty, the Davison, Michigan native did just enough to lead NU to victory.


This is the part of Sullivan’s game that really excites Northwestern fans. He’s able to make something out of nothing, and showed it multiple times against the Bison.

This play was just pure athleticism. Off play action, Sullivan boots to the weak side of the field and takes off downfield. It looked like a short gain, but he was able to tiptoe down the sideline before cutting back inside and turning on the jets for a 35-yard touchdown. These are the plays that make Sullivan so electrifying because he can create big moments with his legs. This was NU’s first opening drive touchdown of the season, and it was No. 6’s rushing ability that led to the score.

This single play encapsulated my takeaways from Saturday’s game. Mike Bajakian went back to his wheelhouse and called the fake screen wheel, which was a perfect play call against the Bison’s Cover Two defense. Cam Johnson is wide open instantly, but Sullivan does not pull the trigger. This ball should have been out two seconds before he finally released it, taking the hole shot for the easy first down. Instead, the ‘Cats’ backup bailed to his right. Luckily for the Wildcats, Howard never picked up Johnson, who ran free down the sideline.

Where Sullivan’s athleticism shines through is his pass to Johnson. The Michigan native never sets a platform, yet effortlessly flicks one 35 yards, off his back foot, to hit the sixth-year in stride. The junior was able to compensate for his initial mistake with a freakish type of throw.

While this play was a touchdown, similar mistakes almost cost NU the game, so let’s dive into the negatives of Sullivan’s performance.

The Bad

Although he completed over 70% of his passes, Sullivan struggled when dropping back against the Bison. The ‘Cats’ backup did not look comfortable under center, and he especially faced issues with his decision-making.

Get rid of the ball

Watching this game back, I couldn’t help but feel that Sullivan was hesitant to throw the ball. No. 6 had 3.23 seconds to get rid of the ball yet still scrambled often.

This play was the turning point of the game. With a conversion on fourth down, the game is over. Northwestern can run at least another minute off the clock and go up three scores. Howard brings five blitzers, including the slot corner coming free; however, both Bryce Kirtz and Thomas Gordon are wide open on curl routes. This should be a one-hitch and throw from Sullivan, yet he does not pull the trigger and tries to bail out of the pocket, but gets pulled down for a sack and a turnover on downs. This is a basic play, one that any quarterback needs to make. The junior looked at the open receiver, with plenty of time before the rusher got home, but didn’t throw it. The more I watch it, the more infuriated I get because this is such a simple concept that he needs to complete. On the next play, Howard takes it 64 yards for a touchdown to cut it to an 11-point game, pulling itself right back in the game.

If Sullivan wants to be a B1G starter, these are the plays he has to make.

This is another play that made me go, “What are you doing?” Howard drops seven into coverage and only rushes four, which the Wildcats’ O-line picks up easily. Yet, Sullivan drops his head and takes off running, even though the pocket is perfectly clean. There is no reason for the ‘Cats’ gun slinger to bail; in fact, he needs to stay in the pocket and step up. It became clear that Sully was working to his first read and scrambling if it wasn’t there. There is more than enough time to wait for the pass catchers to get open, but No. 6 doesn’t even give his targets a chance. To play football at the Big Ten level, you have to be able to sit in the pocket and deliver the ball down the field. So far, Sullivan has not shown he is capable of doing that.

First, this is a hell of a catch by Johnson. Second, Sullivan needs to get rid of this RPO quicker. The corner is playing eight yards off the ball and bailing on the snap, and Kirtz is running a five-yard hitch. There is the leverage, get the ball to the outside now. Both inside defenders step up in catch-man, so the decision has been made for Sullivan. On an RPO, the ball has to come out; otherwise, the referees will always throw a flag for an ineligible man downfield. Once again, it is the minute details that separate Big Ten starters from backups, and Sullivan has to improve if he wants to take the reins of the ‘Cats’ offense in the future.

Final Thoughts

After watching Sullivan against Bison, I think it is finally time for the debates surrounding the Wildcats’ quarterback room to end. Ben Bryant is the starting quarterback for Northwestern because he gives NU the best chance to win. While more athletic, Sullivan still needs to develop mentally before he can start in the Big Ten.