Welcome back to the film room everybody. After a brief hiatus for finals week, I have returned for the penultimate edition of Bryant’s Bombs, and this week we are talking HAT. It was a barnburner in Champaign, with the ‘Cats holding off the Illini for a 45-43 victory, the most points ever scored between the two squads. In the final Big Ten West game, the matchup featured over 800 yards of total offense, a perfect homage to the division.
For the Wildcats, Ben Bryant was under center for the third week in a row and led the offense to 38 points, the most in 2023. While it is a few weeks late, and Northwestern has turned its attention to Utes, we’re going to rewind to Thanksgiving weekend and evaluate how the ‘Cats’ gunslinger performed.
Bryant closed out the regular season 24-for-32 for 234 yards and two touchdowns, and he added another score with his legs. However, the sixth-year tossed two interceptions, and both turned into points for the Illini. In his final regular season game, Bryant’s yards per attempt dropped slightly from 9.2 against Purdue, coming in at 7.3 against Illinois.
Despite the two costly mistakes, PFF awarded No. 2 an 83.5 passing grade, the highest by a QB in purple and white in a full game since Peyton Ramsey in the 2021 Citrus Bowl. Furthermore, PFF determined that the veteran had two big-time throws (a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window), yet his two turnover-worthy plays found the hands of the defenders.
The ‘Cats’ signal-caller had some of the best protection of the season against the Fighting Illini, sitting a clean pocket on 75% of dropbacks. When kept upright, Bryant was 21-for-25 for 207 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. Even when the Fighting Illini brought a blitz, the grad transfer was very efficient, completing two-thirds of pass attempts against the extra pass rusher. Also, No. 2 attacked down the field. Over 50% of his passes were 10+ yards deep, and he found his target on 11 of the passes. As always, here is a complete breakdown of Bryant’s passes.
While the numbers paint a strong picture, the tape will show the full story. So without further ado, let’s dive into the tape.
There were a lot of positives from Bryant’s performance in Champaign. For the majority of his throws, he was on time and in rhythm, moving the ball up and down the field. While we can consider the entire game a stock-up, we’ll take a look at what specifically stood out.
I know what you’re thinking: you’re highlighting Bryant as a runner? I was surprised too, but when I watched the tape, I could not have been more impressed with Bryant’s internal clock and escaping the pocket.
This is a veteran quarterback taking advantage of what the defense gives him. The Illini bring six on a blitz and play man coverage behind it. Because the Wildcats have five receivers running routes, every defender is keyed in on their target, not paying attention to the QB. When Tre Tyus runs his check-down route out of the backfield, it pulls the middle linebacker with him to the sideline, vacating the middle of the field. The sixth-year realizes that no one is paying attention to him, so he finds the hole in the pocket and jets off for a 17-yard gain. You can see that as soon as he stepped up in the pocket, the veteran tucked the ball and took off, recognizing that there was nothing but green grass in front of him.
Same concept, only this time it goes for a score. Illinois brings an extra pass rusher and plays man coverage behind it. NU calls a five-man concept, including multiple crossers to try and set natural picks for an easy score. Instead, because the crossers get outside the hashes, and Thomas Gordon draws the middle linebacker to the numbers, the middle of the field is vacated once again. While No. 2 could step up and reset his feet, he sees paydirt in front of him, and scampers in for the easy touchdown.
I also want to point out that in both of these clips, Bryant escapes through the front of the pocket, guaranteeing positive yards no matter what. I have talked at length this season about Bryant’s ability to get through a progression and make the right read, and these plays are a perfect example of this strength. Scrambling is the right read, even if it knocks down his passing stats.
Moving the defense
In a similar vein to our last topic, Bryant gets through his progression quickly and keeps defenders on his heels.
This may be one of my favorite throws from the entire season. Once again, the Fighting Illini play man coverage across the board. Directly after the snap, the ‘Cats’ QB looks to the far side of the field, moving the one-high safety following Bryant’s eyes to the right. Once the grad transfer realizes he has the safety moved, watch him whip his head to the other side of the field. Snap.
By the time the safety can break and turn to the other side of the field, Cam Johnson has already beaten and stacked his defender, and Bryant drops one in the bucket for a huge gain. It is a game of cat and mouse between the quarterback and the free safety, and this time, the quarterback baited it perfectly. There is no chance for the safety to disrupt the play because Bryant fully took him out of it, making it a game of pitch and catch for the pair of sixth years.
While there was a lot of good, Bryant made the game closer than it should have been a few times. Yes, you all know what this topic is going to be.
Protect the football
This is an area Bryant usually thrived in this season. Since Week One’s debacle in New Jersey, Bryant had only turned the ball over two times the rest of the season. However, he made two costly mistakes against Illinois.
First of all, I hate the play call from Mike Bajakian. Cam Porter just ripped off a massive run, you are inside six minutes, and you call four verticals? This is not a good decision either from Bryant, who gets drilled as he lets go of the ball. Kirtz is covered the entire way, with the defender in phase the whole time. Unless this ball is perfect, hitting Kirtz over his far shoulder, this is a 50/50 ball at best. Because of the hit, Bryant could not get enough on it, and the 50/50 ball turned into a 100% interception, Kirtz had to try to come back and play defense, but the ball landed right in the corner's lap. Luckily for the QB, the defense bailed him out with an interception of its own.
Tips and overthrows, a defense’s best friend. I don’t hate the read, but No. 2 just airmails it into the awaiting arms of the free safety, who goes untouched for a pick-six. A.J. Henning has a little bit of separation, so Bryant is trying to lead him outside, but he never sees the safety ranging over and leaves it inside enough for the interception. His footwork is clean, he just put too much mustard on the throw.
To the grad transfer’s credit, he quickly recuperated and led NU down the field to retake the lead before the half. However, instead of it being a 15-point Northwestern lead after the next two drives (the Wildcats scored on the first drive after halftime), it was still a one-score game because Bryant gifted the Illini a free seven points.
Bryant played a solid game overall, but his few mistakes were costly. At the end of the day, he did enough to help the Wildcats recapture the HAT and bring it back to Evanston. In his final college football game, he will face a much taller task in a stout Utah defense, but ‘Cats fans should be thankful that when it counted the most this season, Bryant was ready for the challenge. NU would not be 7-5 if Bryant did not wear purple and white this season.