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Bryant’s Bombs: Regression to the mean

Against one of the top defenses in the nation, No. 2 faltered.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the film room. After picking up its first win in nearly 700 days on American soil, Northwestern traveled to Durham, North Carolina to take on No. 21 Duke. The game went as expected, with the Blue Devils trouncing the Wildcats, 38-14. NU could not do anything on either side of the ball, giving up over 250 yards on the ground and scoring just seven points before both teams emptied their reserves.

Duke quarterback Riley Leonard was phenomenal on Saturday afternoon; however, on the other sideline, ‘Cats QB Ben Bryant struggled against a talented Duke defense. Bryant came into Durham after leaving NU’s win early with an upper-body injury but showed no signs of lingering pain during the game. The rest did not support Bryant well, as the running game was all but non-existent. Interim head coach David Braun said NU did not play up to its standard, and it’s hard to argue with that. Let's dive in and break down No. 2’s performance.

The Numbers

It was not a day to write home about for Bryant. The sixth-year completed 17 of 34 passes for 123 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His 50% completion rate was the lowest in his short tenure in Evanston. To make matters worse, after his yard per completion jumped to nearly seven yards a catch, that number fell all the way to 3.6 yards per reception. For his efforts, Bryant earned a 59.2 PFF passing grade for the week. Now, that is not as good as his 70.7 passing grade in Week Two, but not nearly as hard as No. 2’s 30.1 passing grade in the season opener. PFF says Bryant had two turnover-worthy plays but made one big-time throw (a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window).

The sixth-year saw pressure this week, more than in the home opener, being under duress on 13 snaps, and completed roughly 40% of his attempts under pressure. Where Bryant continues to struggle pushing the ball down the field, hitting just one of seven passes more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. Here is a look of all of Bryant’s attempts in Durham.

The numbers accurately reflect the tape from Week Three, so let’s dive in.

The Good

It feels like every week, I am saying that there was a ton of good, or nothing good. This week, there was not much positive to take away from the thrashing. Now, a decent amount of credit needs to go to a good Duke secondary; however, Bryant did not help himself. While the majority of this game was poor, No. 2 did show some flashes.

Keeping drives alive

Despite finding the endzone just once, Bryant did a good job of converting third down and staying on the field. No. 2 picked up eight first downs for NU, with multiple conversions staving off punts.

This is one of Bryant’s best throws of the day. Facing a third-and-long, the Blue Devils come out in Cover 3, meaning the corners are eight yards off the ball and bailing on the snap. No. 2 realizes his leverage and easily slings it over to Bryce Kirtz for a fresh set of downs. Kirtz does a good job of pressing the corner vertically and stemming to the sideline to create separation, and Bryant puts it right on him for the first down. Bryant does a good job of reading the coverage and finding a favorable matchup to move the chains.

This entire eight-minute drive was an encouraging sign for the offense, but this was a big-time throw from Bryant. Northwestern needs to start turning three points into seven points, and converting in the red zone is key to winning football games. Bryant does not hide where he wants to go with the football, locking eyes on Bryce Kirtz as soon as the ball is snapped. No. 2 gets into his three-step drops, hitches and riffles one to the receiver’s outside shoulder. This ball is placed only where Kirtz can get it, and Bryant sticks it on him right at the first down marker to move the chains. Just two plays later, Northwestern found the end zone for the first time, as Bryant connected with a wide-open A.J. Henning for a touchdown.

The game was well out of hand by this point, but this was a good job by the sixth-year to keep the ‘Cats on the field. Once again, Bryant is not shy about where he wants to go with the football, locking eyes on Cam Johnson on the snap. Bryant gets into his three-step drop, sets and fires an out route to Johnson right at the sticks. Against man coverage, Johnson presses his defender vertically and breaks out, and Bryant puts the ball right on his target’s outside shoulder. The defender has no chance to make a play on the ball because of where the transfer placed it, and No. 14 makes a phenomenal diving grab at the marker to move the chains and keep the Wildcats on the field.

As the season progresses, Bryant has gotten better at keeping the Northwestern offense on the field and extending the drive. The next step is capitalizing on moving the chains and finishing drives with points.

The Bad

Against a really good Blue Devil’s defense, it was going to be a tough day for Bryant; however, the sixth-year lacked consistency throughout Saturday’s contest.

Throwing into coverage

Being aggressive against a superior opponent is advantageous, but Bryant put the ball up for grabs too many times, putting NU in a poor position.

Duke is in Cover 3, and only brings four, but is able to get pressure on Bryant. As No. 2 feels the pressure, he tries to sidearm it into Henning on the post route. However, he does not see the corner, who breaks on the ball and should have intercepted it. Now, on third and long, Bryant is trying to make a play, but the sixth-year got away with one. The ball just hangs up in the air for too long and should have been going the other way.

While Bryant often knows where he wants to go to the ball, sometimes the defense knows it too. Bryant works all the way backside to Johnson and a hitch, but hitches and waits for a second too long, allowing the corner to read his eyes and break on the ball. The corner, playing man coverage, jumps the route and beats Johnson to the ball for the easy interception. This is the same type of play that got No. 2 in trouble in the season opener: staring down his intended target. Bryant did not have much help on this fourth down, as his receivers were smothered and he had to make a play, but he still needs to improve at moving defenders with his eyes.

Missed Opportunities

I say it every week, but Northwestern left points on the field on multiple drives against the Blue Devils. Playing high-powered offenses like Duke, NU needs to convert these scoring chances to stay in the game; instead, it was a bloodbath.

Duke came out in Cover 3 once again, and Kirtz does a phenomenal job splitting the corner and safety on a skinny post. This is a touchdown if No. 2 can get him the football; however, the ball is wobbly and way short. Bryant’s footwork is clean and he is not under any pressure, but the ball dies instantly and is nearly intercepted. Based on the TV angle, it looks like Bryant never had full control of the laces, but it is still a throw he should make. Braun mentioned during Monday’s press conference that Bryant needs to play more consistently, and plays like this are the ones the Wildcats need their gunslinger to start connecting on to not be the bottom-feeders of the Big Ten.

This is another set of points left on the field by the ‘Cats. Joseph Himon beat the linebacker to the flat and, with his speed, had a walk-in touchdown if Bryant flipped it over to him. Instead, the Cincinnati transfer sails it over No. 20’s head. Bryant’s feet are all over the place, hopping like a bunny, that leads to the miss throw. This is a throw most high school quarterbacks make, and one that a sixth-year Big Ten signal caller has to make. For NU to win any conference game this season, it needs to start doing the fundamentals, on both sides of the ball, at a higher level.

Final Thoughts

The jury is still out on Bryant, who’s had a rollercoaster of a season so far. Heading into the bulk of conference play, the Wildcats need No. 2 to play like he did at UC to break a nine-game Big Ten losing streak. Will he? We’ll see.