Clayton Thorson is the starting quarterback for the Northwestern Wildcats. That much is certain. When Northwestern takes the field on Saturday against Stanford (11 a.m. CT, ESPN), and when the first offensive drive begins, No. 18 will be in the huddle.
But beyond glowing scouting reports and impressive high school tape that exhibited a combination of size and speed, a talented right arm, that's about all we know. That tape is evidence from the last time Thorson faced an opponent other than his own teammates. In high school. On Saturday, a much stiffer test will stare him in the face — a team ranked in the top 25, and, in recent years, a hard-hitting defensive powerhouse. Last year, Stanford was an elite defense:
So what can we expect from Thorson, who will be playing in his first competitive game in nearly two years?
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1. Expect Northwestern to run the ball a lot
This is a talented backfield, and undoubtedly the strongest part of Northwestern's offense is its stable of running backs. You already know about Justin Jackson. Auston Anderson is the big-play back. Warren Long, who has apparently had a good offseason, is the short-yardage back. It's not too complicated.
With a quarterback in his first game, the ball should be in the hands of those guys a lot. Even if Northwestern gets down early and has to play catch up, don't expect Thorson to throw 30-plus passes. Another reason for a ground-heavy attack is the opposition, who must replace all three starting defensive linemen from a year ago. That's not a disaster for a team that regularly replenishes talent, but expect Northwestern to test that defensive line early by pounding the ball.
2. Expect a lot of quick, short throws, especially early on...
Surprise! Mick McCall's offense doesn't utilize the deep ball much, and with an inexperienced quarterback, there's no reason to expect that to change. McCall will want to get the ball out of Thorson's hands quickly, especially early in the game, to give his young signal-caller confidence and a chance to get into a rhythm. Don't be surprised to see a lot of bubble screens, slants, crossing patterns and hitch routes. If Thorson's jersey is clean after his first few series — and he has some easy, high-percentage completions — that will be a confidence boost for him.
3. But don't expect that all game long
Thorson has the arm to get the ball downfield. He has the legs to get out of the pocket. Although Northwestern will probably look to be conservative early, Thorson's mobility, in theory, opens up the playbook. At some point, Thorson will have to take some shots downfield and challenge a secondary that lost its top five tacklers from last year.
4. Expect some read option
Part of the reason why Thorson won the job — perhaps a big part — is that he was a more skilled passer than Matt Alviti and a more skilled runner than Zack Oliver. Expect Thorson to keep the ball on the option a decent amount. I would not be surprised at all to see Thorson near double-digit carries. He moves well, and him keeping the ball every so often keeps the defense off balance. Plus, he has experience running the option:
5. Expect some jitters
Thorson hasn't faced anyone other than his teammates in almost two years. By all accounts, he's ready for this opportunity, and Fitzgerald called him "unflappable" Monday. But if he looks restless in the pocket, or misses a couple passes high or low, that's to be expected. It will be partially a product of rust and excitement.
6. Expect modest numbers
Thorson isn't going to come into this game and light it up statistically. That's mainly because Northwestern's offensive gameplan likely won't give him the opportunity to do so, but also because Stanford has a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball. This isn't high school anymore. This is a team expected to contend for the Pac-12 title, the No. 21 team in the nation.
Expectations, therefore, should be limited. Here's a reasonable projected statline: 15-for-23, 180 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; 8 rushes, 35 yards.
The Clayton Thorson era begins Saturday, and just about every Northwestern fan hopes that it is the start of something great. It very well could be, but greatness shouldn't be expected on day one. And that's ok.
"Bad plays are going to happen on Saturday," Thorson said Monday. "I'm going to mess up." If and when he does, let's not overreact.