Starting a new job is difficult for everyone. That difficulty is magnified significantly when your job is being the starting quarterback of a Big Ten program as a redshirt freshman. As expected, Clayton Thorson's first year at the helm of Northwestern has had its peaks and valleys. But while Thorson hit major struggles at times this season, it's fair to say that Northwestern could not have gone 10-2 without his efforts at quarterback. With the season coming to an end, it's worth evaluating Thorson's first season and looking ahead to the future.
On August 27th, 2015, Thorson was named the starting quarterback after winning the Northwestern's preseason quarterback competition between he, Zack Oliver and Matt Alviti. Prior to Northwestern's first game against Stanford, our Josh Rosenblat wrote:
"The 'Cats will go as far as Thorson takes them. And that'll hold true Saturday, throughout 2015 and beyond."
Surprisingly, Josh was wrong about Thorson's impact. While Thorson certainly showed flashes of brilliance this season, Northwestern relied more on its excellent defense and Justin Jackson's running ability than the play of its quarterback. Through a series of close games, the Wildcats went 10-2 despite a very conservative game plan for Thorson that rarely required more than 25 pass attempts.
"Being able to hand off to a guy and having him run for 150 yards a game is pretty sweet," Thorson said. "To have that defense to get the ball back for you...it's pretty awesome. [The defense and running game] is great to have, just to know you don't have to force things."
Northwestern's first game against Stanford was a good indicator of how the rest of his season would proceed. Thorson ran for 68 yards and scored his first of five rushing touchdowns. He completed 50 percent of his passes but made a great throw to Miles Shuler for 25 yards to set up a field goal. Justin Jackson had 28 carries for 134 yards. The defense held Stanford to six points and Northwestern prevailed in a close win.
More often than not, Northwestern repeated this formula to great success this season. When evaluating Thorson's freshman numbers, one must remember that Northwestern won in 10 of his 12 starts. Thorson gave Northwestern a chance to win every game, and he provided enough for the defense and running game to carry the team forward. Northwestern ran the ball on 60 percent of its plays to ease Thorson into the offense, and Mike McCall did not give him many opportunities to stretch the field because it was not very necessary. He performed well given the circumstances, and there's little chance Northwestern wins 10 games without Fitzgerald's pivotal decision to name his as the starter. As the Purdue game showed, Thorson was clearly Northwestern's best option at quarterback.
When examining Thorson's numbers, they obviously don't jump off the screen. His season passer rating was 99.7 and he had a 7:7 TD to INT ratio. However, Thorson dealt with numerous changes to the offensive line throughout the season. Geoff Mogus and Shane Mertz were both injured, and Coach Fitzgerald repeatedly shuffled different lineups depending on the situation.
"They, obviously, are very deep at O-Line," Thorson said. "We played a lot of guys...but that O-line's got a next man up mentality...I'm proud of them."
Young quarterbacks tend to perform worse under pressure, and there were several points where the beat-up offensive line was beaten at the line of scrimmage on pass plays, giving Thorson little time to throw. When the line played well, such as in the Nebraska game or in the first half against Illinois, Thorson was able to pick apart defenses and make good throws. During the second half against Penn State and Wisconsin, the offensive line struggled to give good protection to its quarterback, and the poor blocking against the Nittany Lions' ferocious pass rush actually caused Thorson to leave the game due to injury. Thorson was very good at escaping and avoiding sacks, but he was also forced to throw the ball away frequently. Northwestern's offensive line was 110th in standard down sack rate, but they were a respectable 45th in sack rate, probably thanks to Thorson's mobility. Thorson's running ability was obviously one of his strong suits, and he used that ability very effectively when in the red zone.
Thorson also suffered from a dearth of wide receivers. Dan Vitale, Northwestern's leading receiver, only reached 335 receiving yards on the season. Even when Thorson had good protection, his receivers were often unable to get open or make plays on the ball. Christian Jones had a tough year returning from injury, and Austin Carr was the the team's leading wideout with just 276 yards on 14 receptions. While experienced quarterbacks can do great things without great weapons on offense, it's hard to expect a freshman quarterback to reach that level.
As some fans recently told him, Thorson does have room for improvement. Statistically, he needs to make some significant strides to become an elite college quarterback. There were times this year where Thorson held back the team, such as his ineffective play in a win against Duke, a three turnover performance in the first half against Ball State, and struggles in the Michigan and Iowa debacles. Thorson also has to do a better job of protecting the football. He had eight fumbles this season and was lucky to only lose three of them. Thorson's completion percentage was only 51.6 percent, and he has to become a more accurate passer in order for Northwestern's offense to succeed. Whether this means improving his arm strength, gaining more experience with reading opposing defenses, or simply just tightening his throwing motion, Thorson will have to work on his accuracy this offseason. Lastly, Thorson could benefit from throwing downfield more often, as his yards per attempt was only 5.33. Thorson has the ability to throw an accurate deep ball, and he hit several deep passes this season, most recently against Illinois. Hopefully Mike McCall will open up the offense to take advantage of Thorson's arm in the future.
However, during certain patches of the season, Thorson looked very impressive and displayed his full potential. In the Nebraska game, Thorson ran for 126 yards and made several throws downfield in the second half (when he passed for over 150 yards) to win the game for Northwestern. If Thorson can consistently perform like he did against Nebraska or in the first quarter against Illinois, he will be fine.
"I've learned a lot," Thorson said. "I've learned a lot about how to be a leader, especially from guys who are older than you. I've learned a lot from those older guys like Travy [Traveon Henry], Dean [Lowry], Christian [Jones], and Deonte [Gibson]."
Next year, Thorson won't have to worry about adjusting to the starting quarterback role. If healthy, Thorson will enter next season as an established starter and a leader on the team, and if he can reliably perform like he has at his best this season, Northwestern's offense will be effective. With another year from Justin Jackson and a healthier offensive line, Thorson certainly should improve statistically from 2015. But in the words of the classic coaching maxim, Thorson also has to execute if he wants to improve. As for this season, though the College Football Playoff Committee has looked beyond Northwestern's win-loss record in the rankings, Clayton Thorson should get his fair share of credit for leading the team to ten wins. It is apparent he is the only one on the roster who could have done it.