Welcome back to the film room. For the first time since I started writing this piece last season, I can finally say it is a victorious film review. After nearly 700 days, Northwestern had won a game on American Soil, thrashing the UTEP Miners, 38-7. Furthermore, it was the offensive performance the Wildcats needed after their abysmal showing in Piscataway to kick off the season.
NU had nearly 400 yards of total offense, including 184 on the ground. It was all about the ground game this week for the ‘Cats after putting up just one rushing yard before the last two minutes of their season opener. NU ran the ball 39 times against the Miners, averaging nearly five yards a carry. Because of how effective NU was on the ground, the Wildcats barely put the ball in the air.
Removing Joseph Himon’s 85-yard touchdown on a screen, the ‘Cats passed for 122 yards on only 13 completions. Ben Bryant, NU’s starting quarterback, was not the only gunslinger to see action this past weekend. With Bryant leaving the game midway through the third quarter with an injury, Ryan Hilinski, Jack Lausch and Cole Freeman all saw snaps under center. While all four did play, there are no real passes to break down, so this piece will solely focus on the sixth-year’s play.
It was a conservative, yet efficient day for No.2. Bryant was 11-for-17 for 116 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game early with an injury. His yards per attempt jumped to nearly seven yards after not clipping the five-yard mark last week.
PFF graded Bryant at a 70.7 passing grade in Week Two, a significant jump from his abysmal 30.1 grade in Week One. After having five turnover-worthy plays against Rutgers, Bryant dropped that number all the way to zero in NU’s home opener. As you will see later, the film shows that the Cincinnati transfer did a better job protecting the football. When adjusted for receiver drops, PFF says the sixth-year would have completed 75% of his passes.
Furthermore, the ‘Cats’ signal-caller was vastly improved under pressure this past week. The ball was out of No. 2’s hands in 2.26 seconds, nearly half a second faster than in the season opener. He was much more efficient too, completing 50% of his passes when feeling the heat.
After attempting to air it out last week, and making costly mistakes, NU called a more conservative gameplan in Week Two. Bryant only attempted five passes more than ten yards past the line of scrimmage but kept the Wildcats ahead of the sticks with underneath passes. Here is a breakdown of where No. 2 went with the football against the Miners.
The stats do not jump off the paper, but it was a significant improvement from the sixth-year’s debut in purple and white. With that being said, let’s jump into the tape.
Even though there were limited opportunities, Bryant showed plenty of improvement in the Wildcats’ home opener. The bar was low, but it was encouraging to see him have success under center.
Staying on the field
Interim head coach David Braun kept mentioning that the offense never had a chance to get rolling against Rutgers because it was never on the field. This week, Bryant extended drives with multiple third-down completions, allowing NU to stay on the field.
This was Bryant’s best throw of the day. He starts looking right to his first read, but quickly darts his eyes across the field to the rest of his progression. The pocket collapses around Bryant, as the defender barrels down, the sixth-year stands tall and rifles a ball to Cam Johnson for a third down conversion and huge play. Sure, Johnson did most of the work to get the ball to midfield, but this is a big-time throw from Bryant. He zips this ball into the open spot of the Cover Four-zone, right past the curl linebacker, to move the chain. He anticipated where No. 14 would be, and threw the ball on time, allowing Johnson to run after making the grab.
With Northwestern backed up against its own end zone, a punt would have set the Miners up in good field position to retake the lead; instead, NU dug out of its own territory and flipped the field. Despite having to punt later in the drive, this play helped the Wildcats keep UTEP off the board and win its first game in over a year.
In another third-and-long situation, Northwestern runs two clear routes and leaves A.J. Henning underneath for the first down. This is a simple one-read play, where if Henning is smothered, the ball should get to the checkdown instantly. Bryant recognizes the coverage, and with a clean pocket, delivers a strike to Henning to move the chains. This ball has to come out on time, as a linebacker is sitting in the middle hole to take away the middle of the field. Bryant fits the ball in between the outside linebacker and the middle ‘backer for an easy pitch and catch. With a clean pocket, Bryant has shown he can throw with timing and put his receivers in good spots, a marquee of a good quarterback.
Taking what the defense gives you
Last week, I was frustrated by the lack of getting the ball outside on RPOs to get ahead of the sticks. Well, this week, Northwestern took advantage of the Miners respecting the run game.
This is as easy as it will get for a QB. The corner is playing eight yards off the ball and backpedaling, so take the free five yards. Bryant recognizes the space pre-snap, aborts the run mesh, and flings it out to Johnson for five yards. It is a lot easier for an offense to be successful when it avoids third-and-long situations, so picking up five yards on first down is ideal. Bryant does not hesitate and helps NU stay ahead of the sticks.
This is another great example of just taking the easy completion. UTEP comes out in man coverage, and the corner on the top of the screen is eight yards off the line of scrimmage and instantly drops into his backpedal. Bryce Kirtz runs a three-step slant, and Bryant slings it to No. 17 for a first down. There is no chance the defender can make a play on the ball, especially if it comes out on time. Bryant does not even take a drop; he just hitches and gets the ball to Kirtz instantly. These are gimmes, but it was encouraging to see the sixth-year get the ball out with rhythm to his targets.
To be honest, I’m knit-picking here. I thought the ‘Cats’ signal-caller played a clean game. However, there are always things that need to be cleaned up.
Avoiding unnecessary hits
It is hard when you are a competitor, but Bryant needs to protect himself more. He is the starting quarterback behind a shaky O-line, so taking extra punishment is a recipe for disaster.
I still believe this is the play where Bryant was injured and had to leave the game. A high snap from Ben Wrather turns this into a broken play, and No. 2 tries to will his way into the endzone; instead, he takes a massive hit. I know Bryant is trying to make a play, but cutting it back inside and lowering the shoulder is not a great idea. It is a down territory, pick up as much as you can, but go down — there are still two more chances to get three yards. The play was already busted, and now Bryant is taking a major hit. If he wants to stay healthy for the rest of the season, especially against bigger Big Ten opponents, the sixth-year needs to learn to go down and avoid the big hit.
Northwestern played a good game, but it missed a few opportunities to blow this game open earlier than it did.
With UTEP playing man coverage, Mike Bajakian wisely puts Himon all the way out as a receiver, drawing a linebacker in coverage. Himon uses his speed and blows right by his defender, becoming wide open down the sideline; however, Bryant overshoots him. Just like with Henning in Week One, NU had a chance to hit a big play, but the QB can’t get the ball to the receiver. Is it a timing issue? Maybe. But at some point, the Wildcats will need to connect on a deep ball to win football games. The conservative play style works when playing a less talented opponent, but NU will have to get more aggressive as it dives into conference play.
After Week One, questions about whether Bryant should remain the starter swirled across the internet. While this past week did not display a strong air attack, Bryant demonstrated that he can effectively lead the ‘Cats’ offense. As the competition increases, No.2 will have to show he can play high-level football. However, this week was leaps and bounds ahead of what we witnessed in New Jersey.