Welcome back to the film room, everybody. The Wildcats could not have had a better game last Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin. Northwestern whooped the Badgers 24-10, putting up nearly 300 yards and scoring on every possession in the first half. In fact, it was the first time the Badgers have allowed 24 points in the first half at Camp Randall since 2008. Everything went right for NU, starting the game 10-for-10 on third down.
For the first time in over a month, the ‘Cats’ offense was led by Ben Bryant. In his first game back from an upper-body injury, the sixth-year looked like he hadn’t lost a step since throwing for almost 400 yards against Minnesota. With the Wildcats’ QB1 back in the lineup, let’s take a look at how he fared in Wisconsin.
It was a phenomenal return to action for Northwestern’s starting signal-caller, finishing 18-for-26 for 195 yards and two touchdowns, also adding a score on the ground. His 69.2% completion rate was his highest as a ‘Cat, and Bryant earned a 77.1 PFF passing grade for his efforts. Much like the Minnesota game, the grad transfer averaged 7.5 yards per attempt, much higher than the 4.1 yards the team averaged the week prior against the Hawkeyes. Despite multiple chunk plays, PFF only awarded the sixth-year one big-time throw (a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window), and said the QB did not have a single turnover-worthy play.
In his first game back, No. 2 did not have to fret defenders barreling down on him all game. The veteran was only pressured on 29% of his dropbacks, the lowest since the ‘Cats beat Minnesota in Week Four. When he was under duress, Bryant still managed to throw two touchdowns. Bryant also did a good job beating the Badgers’ blitzes, completing 70% of his passes on the 60% of snaps when Wisconsin brought an extra rusher.
While Bryant was extremely efficient in the short passing game, finishing 14-for-18 when throwing fewer than 10-yards down the field, he also pushed the ball long to pick up massive chunks at a time. Bryant completed 75% of his passes of 20+ yards, including his two touchdown tosses. Here is a complete breakdown of where No. 2 went with the ball.
To be honest, I think Bryant played better than the stats could even describe. So, let’s dive into the tape to see where NU’s gunslinger thrived.
Bryant came back with guns ablaze on Saturday, leading NU on four straight, nine+-play scoring drives to start the game. Everything was working for No. 2 against the Badgers, but here is what really stood out.
Standing tall in the pocket
One of the best parts of the veteran's game is his ability to stay in the pocket, go through his progression and make the smart pass. Even after missing a month, those traits shined bright in Madison.
This is gorgeous execution from the ‘Cats. Northwestern runs a levels concept to the three-man side and tags a go route to the backside. The Badgers bring a zone blitz, sending five, and a pass rusher comes free off the edge.
Despite the pressure in his face, Bryant’s processing does not speed up, and he stays inside the pocket. With Cam Johnson burning the corner off the line of scrimmage with ease, Bryant knew where he wanted to go with the ball. He beats the blitzer with the throw and drops one in the bucket for a touchdown. This is a perfect throw from Bryant, but it is even more impressive because there is a defender hurtling down at him. His ability to stay in the pocket and allow his receivers to make plays helps the offense stay ahead of the sticks.
Nothing like beating a blitz for a score. Much like the play above, Wisconsin brings pressure on third down, yet Bryant doesn’t fret. The Badgers overwhelm the Wildcats’ offensive line, and there is a free rusher coming off the blind side. Northwestern runs a switch concept on the far side of the field, and UW fails to cover A.J. Henning on the wheel. Bryant recognizes this and waits for No. 8 to bend the corner.
Even with the pressure inching closer, NU’s QB does not bail out of the pocket. Instead, he stands tall and delivers a strike to Henning. The defender is all but drooped around the veteran’s legs when he releases the ball, but he still gets the job done.
This is the part of NU’s offense that has been missing the past few weeks. Much has been made about the offensive line’s poor play. but it was not helped out by its quarterback. Bryant’s ability to remain idle in the pocket and deliver the ball ensures that the ‘Cats’ offense is less volatile.
This category has nothing to do with a certain trait Bryant showed against the Badgers, more just things that made me cackle in the press box on Saturday.
If anyone remembers Peyton Manning’s goal-line TD against the Cowboys, I raise you Ben Bryant. This is one of the better ball fakes I’ve ever seen. In fact, I was completely fooled from the press box, and apparently so was the entire Wisconsin defense. Everyone bit on the handoff to Porter, so Bryant was able to waltz into the end zone. This is something mastered over six years of college football, and Bryant was just showing off his skill last Saturday.
To be honest, there wasn’t any. Bryant played about as clean of a football game as humanly possible. However, there is always room to improve.
Now, the definition of risky is different for everyone, but Bryant left a couple of passes available to the defense in Wisconsin.
Bryant gets away with one here: trying to throw a slant to Bryce Kirtz, yet fully doesn’t see the linebacker dropping into coverage. He is lucky that the ‘backer is just a step too slow; otherwise, this ball is picked off for an easy touchdown. Up three scores, there is no reason to try and fit the ball in that tight of a window, and Bryant is very fortunate that the Badgers could not capitalize.
There is a reason that Bryant has been the ‘Cats’ starter this season. When he is under center, Northwestern’s offense is much more consistent because of its viable passing game. Also, the running game benefits because teams cannot stack the box. All in all, having Bryant taking snaps is exactly what NU needs as it turns its attention to bowl eligibility.