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Northwestern football season in review: Quarterback player grades

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What grade does Clayton Thorson receive for an up-and-down redshirt freshman season?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

With Northwestern's regular season over, and only the bowl game remaining, it's time to evaluate the Wildcats' 2015 season. Over the next two weeks, between Monday, Dec. 14 and Christmas, we'll be going position by position and doling out grades to every Northwestern player that was a significant contributor this year. We'll start with the quarterbacks, progress through the offense, move over to the defensive side of the ball, and then finish up with special teams and coaches on Christmas Eve.

To kick things off, let's take a look at the most important position on any football team, the quarterbacks:

Clayton Thorson - C+

51.6% completion, 1,465 passing yards, 7 TDs, 7 INTs; 374 rushing yards, 5 rushing TDs

Clayton Thorson’s first season at quarterback for Northwestern was a mixed bag. There were some spectacular moments, like his long runs against Nebraska or his deep passes against Ball State. However, these were counterbalanced by his disastrous performance against Michigan and long stretches of ineffectiveness against Purdue and Iowa. Thorson clearly lacked the raw stats one would expect from the quarterback of a 10-win team. His turnover rate at the beginning of the year was horrendous, and his overall passing efficiency was woeful. However, he remained effective enough within limited offensive gameplans to keep Northwestern in games, and he definitely improved his ball security as the season went along.

Offensively, Northwestern ended the season 109th in offensive S&P, which obviously does not reflect well on Thorson’s quarterbacking. Thorson’s passer rating was a mediocre 99.7, which ranked 113th in the country. However, you can’t win games with stats alone, and Thorson was very important to Northwestern’s excellent season. The stats are a bit misleading. As I wrote last week, Thorson had no help at wide receiver and a patchwork offensive line this season. Justin Jackson was one of only two elite Northwestern skill position players, and the other Dan Vitale, was underutilized as ever. Thorson’s numbers suffered accordingly, and Mike McCall’s conservative offense hampered his ability to rack up huge numbers. But for the most part, Thorson relied on Northwestern’s dominant defense and was usually not required to win the game himself. At times this season, Thorson showed he has the potential to be a great quarterback, but his inexperience led to multiple mistakes that hurt the team. Ultimately, Thorson was passable, and showed potential for growth, but he understandably had an up-and-down freshman season.

Zack Oliver - C-

42.5% completion, 195 passing yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs

Zack Oliver had two appearances in relief of Clayton Thorson this season. While some backup quarterback appearances go unnoticed, Oliver came in during two close games — not an easy thing to do — and made a pivotal play against Penn State that won the game for Northwestern. However, while Oliver’s throw to Austin Carr was perfect, his performances were otherwise uninspiring. Oliver led two great drives — the game-winner against Penn State and his first drive after Thorson was injured. His other drives in the second half against Penn State and against Purdue were not very effective. Oliver threw two poor interceptions and completed just 42.5 percent of his limited opportunities to pass. Overall, Oliver played a role in Northwestern’s 10-2 season, but there was little doubt that Thorson was the better option at quarterback.

Matt Alviti - N/A

Northwestern’s other quarterback prospect was buried on the bench for the whole season after failing to win the starting job in preseason. Despite his pedigree, Alviti was unable to beat out Oliver for the backup spot. It’s impossible to grade Alviti this season, but he has to be disappointed that he did not get any playing time. Alviti will be the backup quarterback next season, provided he stays at Northwestern.