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Inside the Play: Thorson’s Legs Save the Game

Clayton Thorson had two huge runs in the fourth quarter against Purdue. Why were those plays so successful?

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.

After playing virtually no close games for the first seven weeks of the season, Northwestern has decided to bring back Cardiac 'Cats football the last few weeks. After two straight two-point wins, the Wildcats were looking for an easy victory against Purdue, but turned in one of their weaker efforts of the season. Lucky for them, they were playing Purdue. However, the story of the game was the temporary benching of Clayton Thorson in the third quarter. Thorson would come back in after two subpar Zach Oliver drives and lead the team to victory. Today, we're going to look at the two plays that made that possible: Clayton Thorson's pair of 16-yard runs late in the fourth quarter.

(All Video via BTN)

Well that was a little close for comfort. After a couple close wins, most people expected an easy win over an overmatched Purdue team on Saturday. But, as we all know, Northwestern makes sure nothing is ever easy.

Saturday's game was one with multiple different identifies. First it looked like Northwestern would coast to victory after a 7-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to start the game. Then it looked like we were in for a shootout when the Boilermakers scored on their very first play. However, the game settled somewhere between bad and ugly.

It looked as if things were falling apart for the Wildcats in the third quarter when Clayton Thorson threw an interception to Purdue's Frankie Williams and was promptly benched by the coaching staff. Zack Oliver came in and couldn't move the ball well either, so Thorson was brought back in. After he got the offense into Purdue territory, the Wildcats faced a crucial third-and-13 on the edge of field goal range. Thorson was under pressure but, as we've seen all year, he made a play with his legs.

Then on the very next play he tucked the ball and ran again, gaining another 16 yards.

This is the third time this season that we've looked at Thorson using his legs to make plays, with Stanford and Nebraska being the other two, but that's because it's such an important part of his game. Anyway, let's take a closer look, starting with the third-and-13 scramble.

The Breakdown

Pre-snap alignments:

Thorson 1

These are the kind of alignments that you'd expect to see on a third-and-13 play. Northwestern is spreading out the offense with five wide and only Thorson in the backfield. Purdue is countering this by playing a quarters defense with five defensive backs, two safeties, three linemen and only one linebacker. The important part here is that they're playing man and there isn't much help up the middle, which is ideal for a quarterback scramble. Since all the defensive backs are locked in on a man, they won't be looking back at the quarterback, which gives Thorson some extra time when he takes off.

Thorson 2

One of the biggest contributors to this play, or whatever you want to call it, is very poor line play from Northwestern. This is only two seconds after the ball is snapped and there's already pressure up the middle by defensive tackle Jake Replogle (who was getting double teamed). To make matters worse, the pocket collapses about a half-second later.

It's at this point that Thorson makes the executive decision to tuck it and run. Purdue defensive end Evan Panfil (95) pushes in a bit too much inside and Thorson has room to his left to roll out. He then goes into full runner mode.

Thorson 3

Now it's time for what's apparently turning into a running gag on Inside the Play, the "opposing team has a linebacker spying the quarterback but he reads the play really poorly" section.

This week's culprit is linebacker Garrett Hudson. Hudson thinks that Thorson is going to take the ball to the near sideline so he makes a move to his right, and at that point he's toast. Credit Thorson with a great cut, but it continues to be baffling as to why opposing linebackers can't ever get a good read on him. Speed does indeed kill, it seems.

Thorson 4

Once Thorson leaves Hudson in the dust he still has to get the 13 yards needed for the first down. Solomon Vault throws an okay block at the second level, buying Thorson a little bit of time, but the player he's blocking above is also the player who will eventually make the tackle.

Thorson 5

After Thorson cuts to the outside he's grabbed by linebacker Jimmy Herman and it appears as if the miracle play is going to fall short. What happens next is just strength and determination. Thorson keeps his legs moving and manages to fall forward for the first down.

Next, we've got the play directly after the one analyzed above, which had a very similar result. The only difference this time is that it was a designed run instead of a scramble.

Pre-snap alignments:

Thorson 6

Northwestern has six players on the line, two wide receivers out on the near side, Dan Vitale up behind the line and Thorson in the shotgun with Warren Long. This is a dead-giveaway for a run to the right. Since Northwestern is telegraphing a run here, Purdue stacks eight players in the box, a smart decision that just didn't wind up panning out.

Thorson 7

This is a brilliant play call. As soon as the play starts the offensive line pulls towards the far side to help sell the play fake to Warren Long. Not only does this work, but it seals six Purdue players off from the play.

With all that said, this was very close to being a loss. Purdue's Evan Panfil (95) doesn't fall for the play fake and is untouched into the backfield, only he gets juked out of his shoes.

Thorson Gif 1

It's really just not fair. Panfil does what he's taught to do, which is to contain the signal-caller, but just gets his ankles broken.

Thorson 8

After that encounter in the backfield, there's only one more player that can make a play on Thorson before he gets to the first down marker, and it's Andy James Garcia. However, and stop me if you've heard this one before, he takes a bad angle and Thorson sprints by him.

Thorson 9

Really the funniest part of the play is the fact that Dan Vitale literally blocks no one. He could have thrown a block on Panfil or Garcia but instead seems almost surprised that Thorson is running by him with the ball. That might have been part of the play design, but it's strange.

The rest of this play consists of Thorson running straight into the safety and getting gang-tackled at the five-yard line, but this time it was a smart blocking scheme that got him there.

The Takeaways

The takeaways here are very similar to those of the Nebraska game. Thorson should run more often and the team should let him do it. His scrambling makes Northwestern that much more harder to defend and frees up the passing offense somewhat since the defense has to utilize a spy on him.

More importantly, and we've been saying this all season, the Wildcats need to incorporate more designed runs for Thorson. Not option or weird speed plays to the outside, but plays like the one above. Let Thorson reach top speed early on and allow him to run by slower defenders. If teams are going to continue to misjudge his speed, then Northwestern needs to use that to its advantage.

Thorson's legs are part of what makes him so special, and are what gives him the clear advantage over Zack Oliver at quarterback. Northwestern will need plenty more from him both on the ground and through the air if the Wildcats want to win in Madison on Saturday.