EVANSTON — "Clayton, could you just, uh, take me through the touchdown pass to Carr?"
The interview room, relatively sleepy, is quiet. It's late. The clock ticks closer to midnight.
Clayton Thorson, still un-showered after his fourth collegiate football game, looks at the questioner, then briefly side-eyes his teammate Dan Vitale, who smiles and looks down.
"Uh, yeah." The redshirt freshman smiles. "Um. He ran a good route. He was in man coverage out there. And, uh, it was good protection up front. I had time. And he scored. Um." Still searching for words, his wry smile grows bigger. "Yeah, it was pretty cool."
Finally, he breaks.
The smile turns into laughter, echoed by members of the media and his two teammates sitting at his sides.
Vitale, still laughing, pats him on the back.
Thorson smiles for just a beat longer, before his mouth straightens again.
Back to business.
The one thing everyone says about Thorson, be it Vitale, his head coach Pat Fitzgerald, offensive coordinator Mick McCall, longtime friend and Northwestern running back Justin Jackson or veteran wide receiver Christian Jones is that he's never too up or too down. His emotions stay level, even-keeled.
So when you catch a glimpse of that boyish laugh and fleeting smile, cherish it. It won't be there for long.
For the most part, Thorson's clean-shaven, freckled face is straight.
It's also the new face of Northwestern's football program. And he knows it.
Behind an unprecedented defense, the Wildcats are off to a 5-0 start that has pushed them up to No. 13 in the AP Poll. Yet, it's the redshirt freshman quarterback who is constantly requested by the media, although he is only available on Tuesdays mornings due to academic commitments.
He says just enough for a decent soundbite — he praises his teammates and the coaching staff constantly and is always quick to self-critique — but nothing that could ever get him in trouble.
Once, Jackson, who has known Thorson from their days growing up in neighboring towns in the Chicago suburbs, said he doesn't even think Thorson goes over the speed limit when he drives.
That same morning, a reporter from CBS Chicago asked Thorson about whether he would watch Northwestern alum Stephen Colbert's debut on the Late Show later that evening. It was for some type of promotional stunt for the station's local affiliates.
Thorson gave a textbook answer. He said it was cool that Northwestern alumni are doing great things, but that he had some work to catch up on and some film to study so he would try to catch a glimpse of the show but couldn't guarantee anything. The reporter asked him if we would DVR it.
"I don't have a DVR or anything like that. I'm a poor college kid," Thorson joked.
In an ironic sense, he's funny. As illustrated by his comments following the Ball State win, he understands that his answers may not be the most exciting or descriptive.
But he can also be genuinely funny.
After Northwestern's season-opening 16-6 win over then-No. 21 Stanford in his first career start, for example, Thorson described what it was like to celebrate his first collegiate touchdown, a 42-yard run.
"The O-line," Thorson said while cracking up, "they really hit your head hard when you score."
But as quickly as his humorous and light-hearted side appeared, it vanished as he talked about his performance in a holistic sense.
Matt Frazier feature
Matt Frazier feature
"Me personally, I think I can always do a lot better," Thorson said. "I missed some throws. There were some decisions I made that weren't great."
There was also the time when Thorson got visibly upset on the sideline after throwing one of his two interceptions in a 19-10 win at Duke in Week 3, one of the few times Vitale has seen his QB frustrated.
"We kinda made eye contact," Vitale said, moving his arms in a downward motion, trying to suppress his quarterback's anger, "I was just like, ‘calm down.' And immediately, he was smiling again, ready to go. That's just kind of how he is. He's pretty even-keel but, yeah, I've seen him get frustrated but then he just snaps back into it, focuses up."
Glimpses of real, raw emotion from Thorson — both positive and negative — have been few and far between this season.
So have flashes of potential. Northwestern has installed a conservative game plan for Thorson, rushing the ball for a Big Ten-leading 1,244 yards through five contests. The Wildcats have, statistically, the least productive passing attack in the conference, averaging just over 142 yards per game through the air. Only Rutgers has thrown fewer passes than Northwestern's 114 so far in 2015.
For the most part, Northwestern has kept Thorson under wraps. Fitzgerald and McCall haven't had to rely on Thorson to win games.
In fact, Northwestern has trailed in the second half of games just twice this season. The first was for 14 seconds, the time it took Solomon Vault to run back the post-halftime kickoff to give Northwestern a 9-7 lead over Duke. And the second was for 2:55, the time it took Thorson to pick apart Ball State's defense and find Dan Vitale in the end zone to give Northwestern a 14-10 lead on the Wildcats' first second-half drive.
It's a precarious situation for the Northwestern coaching staff.
About a month-and-a-half ago, it was reasonable to think this would be a re-tooling year for Northwestern. It was one that would provide opportunities for growth with a young quarterback in Thorson, a burgeoning star in Jackson, a sophomore, and a defense led by two more sophomores in middle linebacker Anthony Walker and safety Godwin Igwebuike. Thorson would be able to make some mistakes in a relatively low-pressure environment. He would be able to test his strong arm and electric legs against Big Ten defenses. This season was supposed to be about the future.
A month-and-a-half later, it's about the present.
Northwestern now has realistic sights set on a Big Ten title, and maybe something bigger. Jackson has been one of the nation's top rushers, while Walker and Igwebuike have become bonafide stars, leading the best scoring defense in the country.
With each passing victory, Thorson's margin for error has gotten slimmer. When Pat Fitzgerald said Thorson's best game was a 128-yard performance against Minnesota, his reasoning was simple. "Zero turnovers, baby!" he said. Ball security is the top priority.
In August, the thought of a turnover or two might have been okay, as long as the young QB learned from his mistakes. But with winning comes heightened expectations. And with heightened expectations comes pressure.
So as the season nears mid-October, Thorson's play must match his demeanor. Never get too high. Never sink too low. A controlled aggression with a strong dose of conservatism.
He matched that description to a T against Minnesota. His final stats weren't eye-popping, but he was aggressive on third downs, completing nine of his ten passes, many on timing routes to the sidelines. He even picked up one with his legs, and found Mike McHugh for a crucial fourth down conversion.
But the tests, and thus the pressure keep mounting on the 6-foot-4, 210-pound signal-caller's shoulders. In a matter of days, he'll travel to Ann Arbor to face off with No. 18 in Michigan in the Big House. And again, he will be asked to operate a conservative game plan.
He won't have an opportunity to grow accustomed to the 100,000-plus seat stadium. He won't be able to adjust to the noise, to learn to block it out. He won't have time.
Instead he'll fall back on that demeanor, the same calmness that even the team's veterans find surprising, and that the media find humorously clichéd.
"They are just another team on our schedule," Thorson said about Michigan. "Right now they are just another team in our path."