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Bryant’s Bombs: Under pressure

The ‘Cats’ gunslinger struggled to stay upright against the Nittany Lions.

Penn State v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Welcome back to the film room everybody. After an improbable comeback against the Golden Gophers, the Wildcats faced a much taller task in No. 6 Penn Sate. While Northwestern went toe-to-toe with the Nittany Lions in the first half, PSU pulled away in the final 30 minutes, departing Evanston with a 41-13 victory. Northwestern’s offense could not get anything going all day, accumulating a mere 175 total yards. The Nittany Lions’ D-line got after the quarterback last Saturday, racking up 48 pressures. For Northwestern QB Ben Bryant, it was a game where it was difficult to stay upright. In fact, the veteran ended up leaving the game early after getting destroyed on a blindside sack. It was a game where NU’s offensive line was overmatched, the ‘Cats’ signal-caller could not find a rhythm during the game.

The Numbers

In his abbreviated appearance, Bryant finished 14-for-25 for 122 yards and added a rushing touchdown as well. After averaging nearly eight yards per attempt against Minnesota, Bryant fell back to under five yards per attempt against Penn State. For his efforts, No. 2 earned a 50.5 PFF passing grade — his second-lowest grade of the season. According to PFF, the sixth-year had zero big-time throws but also had zero turnover-worthy plays.

Bryant felt the heat on Saturday, being pressured on over 50% of his dropbacks and getting sacked five times. After having nearly three seconds to get rid of the ball against the Gophers, the veteran had 2.68 seconds to throw this past weekend. When under duress, the ‘Cats’ gunslinger completed just 25% of his passes and only for 2.5 yards per attempt. The sixth-year only attempted five passes more than 10 yards down the field, hooking up with his target just once. Here is a breakdown of every throw from Bryant against PSU.

The stats were not great for No. 2 and the ‘Cats against the Nittany Lions, and the tape displayed a similar conclusion, so let’s dive into the film.

The Good

When protected, Bryant was efficient in delivering the football; however, he was protected few and far between. With that, let’s take a look at what NU’s starter did well.


Bryant did not have a truly impressive throw the entire game, mostly settling for screens and check down, but I was encouraged by the sixth year’s use of the RPOs.

This is a simple RPO backside slant, but an absolute seed from Bryant. Penn State plays a seven-man box with man coverage on the outside. The key to an RPO is the linebackers, and in this scenario, the linebackers come downhill in run support and vacate the middle of the field. Bryant reads the backers and rifles a ball to Cam Johnson on the slant. Johnson has a defender draped all over him, but the throw from the Cincinnati transfer puts it only where Johnson could get it.

This is the same exact concept as the previous play. The Nittany Lions’ linebackers once again played downhill in run support, vacating the middle of the field, and Johnson replaced them. This is not a difficult read, and Bryant flicks the ball to No. 14, who does the rest. Penn State made it incredibly difficult to get anything going on offense, so capitalizing on these opportunities was crucial for the Wildcats. While simple, Bryant made the right decision each time.


The ‘Cats’ signal-caller was running for his life on Saturday. Yet, for a mobile quarterback, Bryant showed off his wheels against the No. 6 Nittany Lions.

I think I’ve said this more in the past two weeks than in two years but this is an excellent play call from Mike Bajakian and an even better job by NU’s quarterback. On this zone read, Penn State brings a safety blitz, who becomes the read key. Because the safety decides to hit Cam Porter, Bryant pulls the ball and takes off. With no one around, No. 2 scampers for the first down. Now, I would like for him to avoid a massive hit at the end of the play, but Bryant has surprised me with his ability to use his legs. It is not a big part of his game at all, but he does just enough to make opposing defenses respect him as a running threat.

The Bad

There was not that much bad from a pure quarterback standpoint, as Bryant was getting clobbered on each play. The ‘Cats’ starter found himself either throwing the ball away or throwing into tight coverage.

Feeling the heat

Bryant saw the grass throughout Saturday’s contest. Most of it was not his fault, but the ‘Cats’ quarterback sped up his processing due to the constant pressure.

This was the only play, from Bryant, on Saturday that made me let out a “what are you doing” in the press box. In a boot play call, Bryant has plenty of space to continue to roll to his right to the open field; instead, he spins backward right into the pressure and has to throw the ball away. The veteran needs to work to the open space, and if no one is available, take off and run. However, because of the pressure he faced all day, he bailed quickly and threw it away. It’s hard to play quarterback when you are constantly getting pummeled into the turf, but NU needs its veteran QB to remain poised as the bullets fly around him.

Final thoughts

Truthfully, there is so little to take away from Bryant’s play against No.6 Penn State. Because of the pressure throughout the game, NU was limited to screens and check downs in the passing game. It felt like Bryant just never had a chance to scan the field and demonstrate his ability like he did against Minnesota. Outside of two drives, one aided by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, the ‘Cats were going backward instead of forward.

Heading into Howard tomorrow, it remains to be seen if Bryant will play. David Braun said he should be able to play, but there has been no confirmation from Northwestern. If the sixth-year can go, I expect he and the Wildcats’ offense will get back on track against the Bison.