Welcome back to the film room, everybody. After a rough trip down to Durham, Northwestern returned to Evanston to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
It was not a pretty start for the Wildcats, who fell behind 24-7 at the half. As the game reached the fourth quarter, NU found itself trailing 31-10, but the Cardiac ‘Cats sprung into action. Northwestern rallied for 21 points in the final frame to tie the game up at 31. Just a few minutes later, Charlie Mangieri waltzed into the endzone to deliver NU the victory 37-34. The ‘Cats’ improbable win was led by the incredible play of Ben Bryant, who had struggled so far in 2023. No. 2 absolutely balled on Saturday night, so let’s dive in and take a look at how the gunslinger willed the Wildcats to victory.
Bryant finished the game 33-for-49 for 396 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. It was the most passing yards a Northwestern QB had thrown for since Ryan Hilinski tossed 435 against Duke in 2022. Furthermore, his four-TD performance was the most by a Northwestern Quarterback since Trevor Siemian in 2013. Bryant’s yards per completion skyrocketed after a measly 3.6 yards in Durham, jumping to 7.6 yards this past Saturday. Furthermore, No. 2 averaged nearly 12 yards per pass this week, his most as a Wildcat. For his efforts, the sixth year earned a 73.5 PFF passing grade, his highest as a member of NU. According to PFF, Bryant 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), but had two turnover-worthy plays.
Like its quarterback, NU’s offensive line had one of its best days in 2023. Bryant had nearly three seconds to get rid of the football and was only brought down twice. He was only pressured on nine out of almost 50 passes, including six on blitzes. Although limited, No. 2 did struggle under pressure, only completing 33% of his attempts while under duress. When protected, Bryant completed over 70% of his passes for 362 yards and four TDs.
Where Bryant still is struggling is pushing the ball down the field. The sixth-year was three of eight on balls 20+ yards down the field; however, he was extremely effective with mid-range throws. Here is a breakdown of every pass from the ‘Cats’ gunslinger.
Now, the stats show how good Bryant was, but the tape is even more impressive. So, with that being said, let’s dive into it.
I could put the entire fourth quarter on this list, but Bryant did so many things well on Saturday night. It’s hard to throw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns and not play exceptional football. Although Bryant played a good game holistically, here are a few places where he really excelled.
Bryant was dropping the ball in a bucket throughout Saturday’s contest. He was hitting receivers in stride and putting the ball in places where defenders had no chance to make a play.
This is an absolute dot from Bryant. Minnesota is playing man coverage across the board, and the Wildcats counter with four verticals. Bryce Kirtz wins off the line of scrimmage, creating a small amount of separation from the corner, and Bryant tosses a perfect ball. He takes his three-step drop, shifts his eyes from the far side to the near side of the field, and flings it out with ease to No. 17. Bryant could not have placed this ball any better if he went and handed the ball to Kirtz.
The fade lands on the outside shoulder of Kirtz, who gets his foot down for a 30-yard gain. There is zero room for error, as the corner recovered and is in phase to make a play on the ball, yet Bryant gave the corner no opportunity to make the play. The ball was placed where only the receiver could make the catch, and one play later, Bryant found Kirtz once again to make it a one-score game.
This is perfection all around. Perfect play call from Mike Bajakian, a perfect route from Bryce Kirtz and an absolute seed from Bryant. Minnesota is playing Cover 4, and Kirtz runs a sluggo double move. The corner bites on the slant, allowing Kirtz to speed right by him and get wide open. Awaiting the double move, Bryant steps up in the pocket after feeling pressure, resets his feet and hits Kirtz in stride for an 80-yard touchdown. The deep ball looked effortless from Bryant, who had already missed a couple of deep throws throughout the game. In an offense that had struggled so far, this 80-yard pitch-and-catch jumpstarted the ‘Cats for the rest of the game.
Although not flashy, this may have been my favorite throw of the game. After being pushed back by a holding penalty, Bryant nearly picks up the first down on a laser to Marshall Lang. The Gophers are in Cover 6, and No. 2 sees that the linebackers have dropped to their eight-yard hook/curl zone depth. Because the safeties are backpedaling, UMN leaves the middle of the field open. Bryant, who recognizes the coverage, puts a ball on a rope to Lang, over the linebacker and under the safety, for a gain of 15. It’s a simple three-step and hitch, but the speed at which the ball comes out of Bryant’s hand is impressive. While this throw will not be on a highlight reel, it shows the QB’s ability to fit the ball in between defenders to keep NU ahead of the sticks.
One of the best characteristics of the sixth-year is his ability to remain calm and maintain his mechanics. On Saturday, even as the pocket tightened around him, Bryant did not break down and forget his fundamentals.
This is exactly what you want to see from a quarterback. Bryant drops back and looks for Cam Johnson as his primary receiver but quickly realizes that he is covered. Instead of trying to force the ball or take off running, Bryant drifts back in the pocket to get more space, flips his hips forward, and whips a ball to Kirtz for a fresh set of downs. When the play does not go as intended, it is very easy for a QB to improvise and forget their mechanics; however, this is one of Bryant’s strengths. His footwork remains consistent no matter the situation or how much duress he is under — which makes for more consistent QB play. With these fundamentals, I don’t worry about Bryant throwing off his backfoot and sailing a pass.
First, this is one hell of a play call for Bajakian. Second, this is a hell of a throw from Bryant. Rolling to his left, he sees Mangieri is wide open and pulls up, allowing himself to reset his feet and make the cross field throw. Bryant hitches twice and unleashes a long ball into the awaiting arms of his tight end for the walk-off touchdown. To cap off a career day, Bryant executed a perfect call because his footwork allowed him to step into the throw and deliver a game-winning dime.
To be honest, I have very few qualms with Bryant’s performance on Saturday night, so I am going to nitpick.
Although the comeback was incredible, the Wildcats should have never even been down 21 points. NU had multiple chances to score points but failed to convert.
The Bryant-Henning connection took a few lumps before connecting on the game-tying score. Henning beat his man on the post, but No. 2 just put too much on it. His footwork is good, but he did not put enough loft on the ball. This is a TD if the duo can connect, but the gunslinger needs to start hitting these throws.
It was deja vu just minutes later, as Bryant and Henning couldn’t hook up. Henning was once again wide open, this time splitting both safeties, but Bryant overshoots him. Everything else here is clean, but the tandem needs to work on its timing to eventually connect on one of these deep balls.
While Bryant played extremely well, there were a few passes that left me scratching my head.
When you are scorching hot, you are more willing to take chances that are questionable, but this was just a bad read by Bryant.
Minnesota drops eight into deep Tampa 2 and the Wildcats run four verts. When everyone runs vertically, the squat corner is able to run with the route, and the Gophers ran it to perfection. Cam Johnson is swallowed up, with the corner underneath and the safety right on top. This should have been intercepted, but UMN can’t come down with it. Bryant decided where he wanted to go with the ball pre-snap and ended up throwing into double coverage. If he had gone through his progression, he would have found Cam Porter wide open for a checkdown with plenty of room to run.
Bryant was absolutely dominant on Saturday night, shushing everyone who was calling for Brendan Sullivan to replace him. This was the type of performance NU expected when it brought No. 2 in this past spring, and he put on a passing show.