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Bryant’s Bombs: Welcome to the Big Ten

Even in Year Six, the ‘Cats’ signal-caller found out that there is still a learning curve.

Northwestern v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Welcome to the first edition of Inside NU’s weekly quarterback film room, where we will break down the good, the bad and mostly the ugly from the week before.

Northwestern has not scored double digits since October last year, and 2023 has been less than stellar for NU’s offense. For the fourth straight year, the Wildcats had a new signal-caller under center to start the season. This time it was Ben Bryant, who transferred to Evanston this spring after spending 2022 as the starter for Cincinnati. In Bryant’s first appearance in purple and white, it was a slog of a performance. Factor in that the run game was nonexistent, he was pressured 17 times, and it makes it a tough debut for the transfer. By the time Bryant and the rest of the starters were pulled from the game with two minutes left, the ‘Cats trailed 24-0 and had failed to reach the redone at any point in the contest. To be blunt, it was bad football to watch. So, if you are sicko and want to rewatch this game too, let’s dive into the film.

The Numbers

Bryant finished his first game with the Wildcats completing 20 of 36 passes for 169 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. While Bryant did complete over 50% of his passes, his PFF passing grade was a meager 30.1 for his performance in Piscataway. Only Cole Freeman finished with a lower PFF grade last season.

While Bryant’s completion rating was barely over 50%, PFF has his adjusted completion rating (completions + drops) was 67.6%. While his yards per completion fell under five yards, Bryant’s average passing attempt was roughly 10 yards down the field. He had two Big Time Throws, which PFF classifies as a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window. The arm strength is there, but the sixth-year transfer struggled when facing the heat this past weekend.

Rutgers seemed to live in Northwestern’s backfield last Sunday, forcing Bryant to get rid of the ball quicker than wanted. No. 2 was sacked five times and had roughly 2.7 seconds to get rid of the Football. While the sixth-year completed 65% of passes with a clean pocket, he found a receiver just three times of his 17 dropbacks under duress. When No. 2 was under pressure on Sunday, he held on to the ball for over three seconds; comparatively, when the pocket was clean, Bryant got the ball out of his hands in under 2.5 seconds. On the NFL passer rating, which scales from zero to 158.3, Bryant scored 6.3 when under pressure.

The numbers confirm what was already known about Bryant heading into the 2023 season: he is a true pocket passer with limited ability to improvise. With NU’s offensive line struggling to find its way, it is tough sledding for the Cincinnati transfer. The tape is a pretty accurate representation of the numbers, so let's dive into the film.

The Good

While it was not a pretty NU debut for Bryant, he did have some bright spots. There was a reason he won the starting job, and he displayed those traits on Sunday.

Getting through the progression

One of the things college quarterbacks struggle with is making their way from A through D of their reads. Many lock onto the first read, and if it is not open, instantly go to the check down or try to run. Bryant, on the other hand, showed his ability to find his second target and move the chains.

This is a good job by Bryant working back to the weak side of the field. After taking the snap, No. 2 shoots his eyes to the right side of the field, looking at the first read in the progression. After realizing No. 1 is covered, the Northwestern QB hitches twice and gets his eyes and hips towards Cam Johnson, his second option, and Bryant rifles a ball into Johnson on the post-curl. Despite the good coverage from RU, Bryant understands that his primary option is unavailable, so he rapidly works his way through his reads to find the open target. This is a prime example of Bryant’s strength as a QB: however, in this clip, he had ample time to get rid of the ball.

Throwing into tight windows

When protected, Bryant showed the ability to fit the ball in between defenders. Bryant was able to put the ball where only his receiver could get it, creating chunk plays for the Wildcats.

In his second play as the ‘Cats’ gunslinger, Bryant unleashed an absolute seed for a huge play to A.J. Henning. Henning, who is running a deep crosser, creates enough separation between the corner and the high safety ranging over from the middle of the field. However, the ball has to be perfect in order to be completed, and it was. After a clean drop and hitch, Bryant lofts the ball just out of the underneath corner’s reach and drops it into the awaiting arms of Henning before the safety can knock it away. It is a risky throw, but one that Bryant made look easy. The 26-yard pickup gave a glimpse into what the duo of transfers could do this season, and if they can keep finding open space, NU will move the ball this season.

This is the Ben Bryant that was advertised. This pass should not have been completed, as the hook linebacker is in the perfect spot to make a play on the ball, and the safety is sitting and waiting to jump a pass over the middle. That does not phase Bryant though, as he zips a fastball right by the linebacker to Johnson on the slant for a fresh set of downs. The speed of the ball out of his hand is absurd, as the defenders barely have time to react before the ball is in Johnson’s hands. This clip is another example of what Bryant can do with a clean pocket, but keeping him upright is a lot easier said than done.

The Bad

Let’s be honest, Sunday may have been one of the worst games of Bryant’s career. There were plenty of lowlights for No. 2 this past weekend, but mistakes that can definitely be cleaned up.

Staring down receivers

While Bryant did a good job of working through his progression throughout the game, he sometimes found himself locked to one target. His eyes led defenders right to the football, halting the minuscule amount of positive momentum that the Wildcats’ offense gained.

Even though the game was out of hand by then, this was the worst throw of the game from Bryant. Rutgers came out in a simple Cover 2 look, and the Wildcats ran four verticals down the field. In Cover 2, quarterbacks are told to take a hole shot, which is a high-velocity pass in the space between the corner and the safety, and Bryant tries to do exactly that.

However, No. 2 locks his eyes on Cam Johnson, allowing the underneath corner to read the QB, drift back right into the vacated space, and make the easy interception. Everyone on the field knew where the sixth-year wanted to go with the ball, and Rutgers made him pay. I would have liked to see Bryant set his feet, get his weight to his front hip and deliver the ball with more pace, beating the defender to the spot. Bryant said postgame that he tried to aim it instead of just letting it loose, but disguising his target and moving the corner would have aided him as well.

In this clip, Bryant never even looks away from his first read, even though the WR is covered and the backside is wide open. The sixth-year is waiting and holding the ball for way too long, allowing the pressure to finally flush him from the pocket. Had he realized that his first read was smothered, he could have continued through his progression and found the tight end on the hitch for an easy five-yard completion; instead, Bryant is forced to scramble and takes a massive, and avoidable, hit from a defender. He nearly injured himself because he did not go through his progression to find the open receiver. When half the field is eliminated, it makes it much easier on the defense. Bryant has shown his ability to go through his progression, but he needs to do it more consistently.

Balls behind

One of the best things a QB can do is lead his receivers and put the ball in space for them to run after the catch. However, on numerous occasions last Sunday, Bryant was behind his pass-catchers, making it incredibly difficult for them to haul in the throw.

After the 26-yard completion to Henning, Northwestern had a the Scarlet Knights reeling and had a chance to drive down the field and score. However, this misfire from No. 2 sputtered the drive. This a great play call from Mike Bajakian, who used Rutgers’ aggressive linebackers against them, having an RPO slant in the vacated space. Johnson is wide open, with plenty of room to run after the catch, but Bryant sails him behind. Johnson attempts to leap and contort his body to haul it in, but the ball is out of reach. The sixth-year’s footwork is good, but he does not get his arm all the way forward. If Bryant puts the ball on target, NU easily picks up a first down or even more; instead, the ‘Cats fell behind the sticks and had to punt the ball away.

This is another drive-killing misfire from Bryant. On a third-and-long, Johnson runs a hitch just past the line to gain, and with the corner playing off, Johnson had plenty of space for an easy pitch-and-catch. Bryant, with a clean pocket, just misses. His footwork is good, his weight is on his front hip, but he’s behind his WR. It is possible that No. 2 thought Johnson was going to turn outward and tried to put it on his outside shoulder, but that is a pass that has to be completed. NU did not have many opportunities to possess the ball in the first half, and missing on third down conversions did not give the Wildcats a chance to make it a competitive game.

Missed opportunities

In a game where the ‘Cats barely possessed the ball, it needed to capitalize on the few chances it had to change the momentum of the game. However, each time it looked like NU was putting something together, it would fail to capitalize on the game-changing play that would swing the momentum.

It is hard to nitpick a 45-yard pass because that is a hard throw; however, connecting on these passes is the difference between winning and losing Big Ten games. Henning has his man beat, and if he is hit in stride, there is a good chance he takes it to the house, putting NU back in the game to start the second half. Because Bryant sailed it over No. 8’s head, Northwestern had to punt again. I love the aggressiveness, I love the decision to let it fly, but it just needs to be executed. At some point this season, the pair will link up for a deep touchdown.

If you know me, you know how insane this drives me. This is a simple RPO with a bubble, and on the outside NU has three, and Rutgers has two defenders. Sure there is a high safety, but he is not making this play. On third-and-4, all you need is a first down. When the offense has three and the defense has two, get the ball to the three. This ball should have been out on the snap to Jacob Gill, who could easily pick up a fresh set of downs.

NU does a really good job of cross-blocking for the screen, putting the tight end on the corner. If Gill gets the ball, he only has a safety to beat. Instead, the Wildcats try to run the ball up the gut, and Cam Porter gets demolished in the backfield. On the ensuing play, Northwestern turns it over on downs. It is a minute difference, but one that may lead to points.

Bryant has to recognize the advantage and get the ball to his playmakers in space. Is this one of my pet peeves? Absolutely. But is it something that a sixth-year quarterback should see? Absolutely. The ‘Cats moved the ball well, but continued to sputter when they got into Rutgers’ territory. These missed opportunities are a big reason why the first team offense failed to get on the scoreboard last Sunday in Piscataway.

Final Thoughts

It was not a pretty debut for Bryant, and he has owned up to that. However, on the second watch back, he did not play as poorly as I remember it being from the press box last Sunday. With very little help from his offensive line, Bryant constantly found himself on the turf in the second half, hampering his ability to display his strength.

He needs to cut down on the miscues, but having a run game should help. It will be interesting to see how he performs against UTEP tomorrow, but ‘Cats fans should not lose all hope in the sixth-year just yet. If he is protected, which is a major if, he can be a productive quarterback.