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Inside the Play: Thorson uses his legs to jump-start the offense

What happened that allowed Clayton Thorson to break off a 68-yard run against Nebraska?

Every week, our Ian McCafferty will go back and critically review one or more plays from the past Saturday's game. These are the plays that, more than any others, were crucial in determining the outcome of the game. He'll check the film, and breakdown the how and why of those decisive few seconds.

Northwestern is back in the win column and that means we're going to look at something that Northwestern did right instead of one of their shortcomings. We haven't broke down  a Clayton Thorson-centric play since the Ball State game so it's time to take another look at how the redshirt freshman is doing, especially in the running game. This week we're going to look at Northwestern's biggest play of the win over Nebraska, Clayton Thorson's 68 yard run.

(All Video via ESPN)


It's certainly been a roller-coaster of emotions hasn't it? After five weeks, Northwestern was the No. 13 team in the country and some shaky quarterback play was, for the most part, ignored. Then, in two pretty brutal losses, it was magnified.

However, Clayton Thorson did his best to quiet any thoughts of a quarterback controversy on Saturday against Nebraska. While his passes weren't particularly crisp in the first half, Thorson was able to change the game with his legs.

There wasn't much positive for Northwestern in the beginning of the game. After a quick three-and-out from the offense, the defense looking shaky during a short Cornhuskers drive that resulted in three points. Then, with 10:20 left in the first quarter on the first play of Northwestern's second drive, magic happened:

Clayton Thorson is fast, but you knew that already. He also moves really well laterally for someone who is 6-4 and 210 pounds. We've seen this before against Stanford, but that was a designed run. Here, Thorson is using his instincts to make something out of nothing.

The Breakdown

Pre-snap alignments:

Thorson 1

Due to the nature of this play, the offensive set-up doesn't tell us much about the ensuing run. Northwestern is in a standard passing set with three receivers, which, on first down, is nice to see. However, Nebraska's defensive alignment sheds a lot of light on what happened here.  The Cornhuskers are playing man press coverage on the sidelines and a more relaxed man concept in the middle. This, first and foremost, is what makes the length of this run possible.

It's quite simple really. When a defense is playing man coverage, the majority of the defensive backs have their backs to the quarterback. This creates a large amount of space at the second level since those in the secondary are so focused on the receivers. They are also slow to react when the quarterback takes off. If a zone concept is being played, then each player has his own designated area and is watching the quarterback. If Nebraska was playing a zone here, Thorson would probably still get five or so yards, but he wouldn't break off 68.

That's not the whole story, but it's certainly the largest contributor as to why Thorson had so much room to run.  Just look at the field a second or so after Thorson snaps the ball.

Thorson 2

Everybody except the linebacker and the safety are looking away from the quarterback. This gives Thorson an extra couple of seconds on the defense when he starts his run.

As for what Northwestern did well here, it all starts with the offensive line. Eric Olson and Matt Frazier do a superb job sealing off their rushers and opening up a hole on the right side of the line. Seriously, just look at this:

Thorson 3

As soon as that hole opens up, Thorson takes off. Here is where we reach quite possibly the most incredible part of the play. Look at Nebraska linebacker Josh Banderas (52). Do you know what his job was on this play? TO SPY THE QUARTERBACK. Nebraska wasn't stupid, they knew Thorson could run so they made sure they had a linebacker essentially assigned to Thorson, instead of back in coverage.

Thorson 4

Banderas plays it well, initially. As soon as Thorson starts running he breaks towards him to try and take him down in the open field. The defensive play design worked about as well as Nebraska could have hoped, except Banderas misjudges Thorson's speed. In this aspect, this play is almost identical to Thorson's touchdown against Stanford. The defense had a designed spy to cover a possible quarterback run, only the quarterback was faster than any linebacker on the opposing team.

Banderas takes a horrendous angle towards Thorson, realizes his mistake a second too late and Thorson sprints by him up field.

Thorson 5

The next phase of this play involves great receiver blocking and SPEED. First of all, Dan Vitale does a great job to keep his man engaged long enough to allow Thorson to get past, but the real star is Christian Jones. Jones somehow manages (with questionable legality) to block two Nebraska players at the same time and turn this play from a gain of 15 to a gain of 68. Finally, Miles Shuler throws a great block down field and Thorson is able to use a quick misdirection to gain another 20 yards. Unfortunately, Nebraska cornerback Joshua Kalu (10) is fast enough to run down Thorson from behind and push him out of bounds just before the end zone.

Thorson would go on to have another play very similar to one at the end of the second quarter as well:

Poor Josh Banderas, he once again makes a mistake, this time not realizing Thorson is even running and then being unable to chase him down. This is great work from Thorson to avoid the pressure and turn nothing into 49 yards.


These types of plays are difficult to really take away anything concrete from since they're broken plays, but the results do give us a couple of things to think about.

First, the Wildcats should try to call more designed runs for Thorson. Let's reiterate that: FOR THORSON. Not the speed option, anything but the speed option. How about working in a well-timed quarterback draw or perhaps a couple more play action roll-outs or naked bootlegs? Any package of plays that can let Thorson use his legs will benefit this offense.

Next, Thorson should be the starting quarterback, without any doubts or uncertainties. This should no longer be anything close to a debate. Do two big plays forgive some of the troubles he's had throwing the ball? No, but they show the upside that Thorson possesses. Could Zack Oliver make either of those plays? Probably not. Thorson has been thrust into a high-stress situation and has performed admirably.

If Northwestern continues to give its redshirt freshman time to grow, we might be seeing many more plays like the ones above in the near future.