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Sullivan Slings: Different QB, same number of hits

Behind Northwestern’s offensive line, the ‘Cats’ QB was running for his life.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Nebraska Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the film room, everybody. If you read any of these pieces last season, you came to know the phrase “burn the tape”; well, we are running it back because for the first time this season, Northwestern’s offense needs to burn the tape from its game against Nebraska.

The ‘Cats fell short in Lincoln ,17-9, despite the defense forcing two turnovers. It was a story that has plagued Northwestern for years: good defense but inept offense leading to defeat. With starting QB Ben Bryant sidelined for a second straight game, NU’s offense was led by junior Brendan Sullivan.

It was another poor showing for the junior, although the rest of the offense did not help its quarterback in any shape or form. The offense consistently shot itself in the foot, crossing into opponent territory seven times yet coming away without a touchdown. To be polite, Mike Bajakian’s group has work to do. Alas, before I go into a tirade about tight end and offensive line penalties, let’s dive into how the ‘Cats’ backup fared against the Cornhuskers.

The Numbers

The eye test from Saturday did not align with the stats. Sullivan finished the game 12-for-23 for 176 yards and an interception. His 52% completion rate is the worst of any start of his career, and his performance earned him a 43.2 PFF passing grade, another career low in his starts. In the first half, Sullivan only had 10 yards through the air, including a six-yard pass to Joseph Himon in the final seconds of the half. According to PFF, Sullivan had one big time throw, but had two turnover-worthy plays. On the ground, No. 6 added 35 yards on three carries.

As if it is already not hard enough to play quarterback, Sullivan had defenders in his face all day. He was pressured on 55.9% of dropbacks and was sacked eight times. On his 19 dropbacks under pressure, he only attempted nine passes, although he did complete five of them. However, even when the pocket was clean, Sullivan struggled. The ‘Cats’ signal-caller completed only 50% of his passes with no pressure, racking up a meager 50 yards. Nebraska brought a blitz nearly three-fourths of the time, so it is no wonder why the junior felt heat throughout the game.

Outside of two big plays, Sullivan kept the ball close to the line of scrimmage. Sure, Northwestern did not give him much time to get the ball down the field, but the Michigan native played conservatively. Here is a breakdown of all of Sullivan’s throws against Nebraska.

To be honest, I’ve never seen stats more poorly reflect the tape than this stat line. So without further ado, let’s dive into the tape.

The Good

This will be a more abbreviated section than normal because there was not much good from this past weekend. However, there were some positive moments throughout the game.

Drop it in the bucket

Sullivan has shown throughout his career the ability to fit balls in tight windows. It was no different on Saturday when he made a couple of throws that made me go wow.

This was the best throw not only of Sullivan’s season, but of his career as a Wildcat. The offensive line fails to pick up the blitzer, leaving him with a clear path to the quarterback. Another Husker beats an O-lineman inside, and the junior feels the heat instantly. Instead of bailing out of the pocket, as he usually does, Sullivan steps up and resets his feet. Once he is set, he uncorks a bomb down the sideline, as he is about to be popped, to hit Bryce Kirtz in stride for a 66-yard gain.

To get the ball down the field that far is impressive, but to drop it in perfectly is a whole other level. Yes, the flick is incredible, but it was the way Sullivan stepped up — not out — of the pocket that made me smirk. It is a small improvement, but one that did not happen against Howard. It’s the next step in his development, but it is good to see the pocket presence slowly coming along.

Watching this play from the press box, it looked like Sullivan badly underthrew A.J. Henning; however, the tape said otherwise. As soon as Sullivan finished the play fake, he had two defenders barreling down on him because the offensive line could not hold up. With Huskers in his face, the junior had no time to set his feet and threw off his back foot. Even with no base, Sullivan flicked his wrist and got the ball to Henning for a 32-yard gain.

There is no doubt that Sullivan has a cannon of an arm, and he can make some throws that lead fans and coaches to believe that he can be a viable Big Ten quarterback.

The Bad

It was almost all bad for Northwestern’s offense in Lincoln. The ‘Cats had nine third-and-long situations, and NU was constantly going backward. It was not all on the quarterback, but he certainly didn’t help at times.

Going through the progression

One of the main criticisms of Sullivan’s play is his inability to get through his reads or make the correct read. On Saturday, this same problem came back to bite Northwestern.

Two plays made me lose my mind in the press box on Saturday; this was one of them. This is a walk-in touchdown if Sullivan just makes the right read. Marshall Lang comes across the formation pre-snap and the Wildcats move to a bunch set. This is a classic pick play, with Thomas Gordon and Bryce Kirtz clearing out the defenders. Because Nebraska is in man coverage, the defender gets into the wash, and Lang is left wide open in the flat.

To be honest, I don’t know what Sullivan was doing. Lang is the primary read here, as the other two are trying to clear Nebraska out. This ball should be out instantly; instead, he doesn’t throw the ball and takes a sack. His eyes dart to the middle of the field first, which makes no sense, and he never even sees Lang wide open. Even from the press box, I’m practically yelling “Lang is open!” NU only came away with three points on this drive when it should have been at least six.

To be a Big Ten quarterback, the easy plays have to be easy. The Cornhuskers gave Northwestern free points, but Sullivan’s inability to go through his progression pre-snap cost NU a touchdown.

You may be asking yourself, “Why is a second-down incompletion on here?” Well, it is here because this is a decision Sullivan can’t make based on down and distance. It is second-and-10, so the goal is to make it a third-and-manageable. This is also not a good play call from Bajakian, pushing every receiver 15 yards down the field.

Despite the poor call, Sullivan has to understand that throwing a deep ball, with a low chance of completion, puts NU in a bad spot on third down. Playing QB at the Big Ten level, understanding basics such as down and distance has to come naturally. Sullivan is still struggling mentally to do the fundamentals correctly. Even in minuscule snaps like this play, there is a larger underlying concept that he still is not grasping.

Another week, another rendition of Sullivan leaving the pocket for no reason. Nebraska only rushes three, and NU’s offensive line picks it up with ease. This is a clean pocket, yet Sullivan bails out and scrambles, not getting even close to the first down marker. There is no reason to scramble here; in fact, it is the opposite of what he should do. He needs to step up and has plenty of time to set his feet and find a receiver. He never even goes through his progression, failing to work the backside of this read.

These are the Sullivan plays that drive me insane because he has shown how good he can be when he steps up in the pocket (see the bomb to Kirtz), but continually makes the same mistakes. Sure, Northwestern’s offensive line was bad, but Sullivan often puts the unit in tough spots. At the Power Five level, a quarterback has to be able to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike play-in and play-out. So far, Sullivan has yet to prove he can do that.

Protect the football

Sullivan may have only had one turnover on an end-of-half Hail Mary, but the junior gave the ‘Huskers multiple opportunities to take the ball away.

Sullivan got lucky here. On the second offensive snap, he drops back and locks eyes on Kirtz immediately. Everyone on the field knew where he wanted to go with the ball, allowing the corner to break on the ball and jump the route. The defender read No. 6 like a book and should have taken this back for six. The Wildcats were fortunate that the ball went right through the corner’s hands; otherwise, they could have been staring out a quick 7-0 hole.

This is a problem we have seen from Sullivan throughout his career. He tends to not go through his progression, instead showing where he wants to go with the ball; it allows defenses to make plays on the ball. He may have survived this mistake, but teams will capitalize if he continues to put the ball up for grabs.

CATCH. THE. DAMN. BALL. Quarterback 101 is catching the snap before anything else. Jackson Carsello puts it on his numbers, and Sullivan just drops it because he’s starting his drop before the ball even gets there. This is the first offensive play, one right after the defense forced a turnover, and Sullivan had the ‘Cats going backward already because of a basic mistake.

If you want to see the epitome of Northwestern’s game against Nebraska, look no further than the first offensive snap of the game. NU constantly shot itself in the foot because it couldn’t do the fundamentals correctly.

Final Thoughts

Rewatching this game was frustrating because the Wildcats had so many opportunities to win, yet continued to get in their own way. Sullivan was not good, but he had no help around him. Bajakian kept trying to stretch the field, while Kurt Anderson’s unit was walloped up front. Something needs to change on the offensive side of the ball, and that includes better play out of the QB.