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Northwestern 24, Ball State 19: Player grades from Northwestern's up-and-down performance against Ball State

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Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Every Sunday after a Northwestern win or loss, we'll be handing out player grades as a way to analyze the Wildcats' performance from an individual perspective. Rather than rush out the grades on Saturday, we'll sleep on them, and wake up Sunday ready to accurately evaluate NU's players, coaches and opponents.

Today, after No. 17 Northwestern's fourth-straight win to open the season with a 24-19 victory over Ball State, the grades are mixed:

Offense

Clayton Thorson

Grade: B
Stats: 18/31, 256 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT; 9 carries, 45 yards, 2 fumbles lost

I had a lot of trouble with this grade and it's probably higher than what many would expect. My reasoning is this: with a young quarterback like Thorson, you know that you're going to get mistakes. They're pretty much unavoidable. Sure, the interception (a miscommunication on an option route with a receiver) and two fumbles were troubling, but what we saw out of him in the third quarter should make Northwestern fans giddy. Thorson was on time and accurate on nearly every throw. Down 10-7 at half time, Thorson came out of the locker room on fire. On the opening drive of the second half, he completed all four of his attempts for 56 yards and a touchdown. Just minutes later, he led Northwestern on another long drive in which he finished 4-6 for 63 yards. The playcalling opened up, allowing him to find receivers further down the field, and it paid off. Although up-and-down, his play was a welcome sign as Northwestern looks to establish itself as a Big Ten West favorite.

Justin Jackson

Grade: A-
Stats: 33 carries, 184 yards; 2 receptions, 20 yards

With all the focus on Thorson's turnaround, Jackson kind of got lost in the shuffle. His 184 yards were a career-high and his third 100-yard game in four starts this season. But take away his 62-yard scamper, and Jackson averaged just 3.8 yards per carry.

Dan Vitale

Grade: A+
Stats: 5 receptions, 108 yards, 2 TDs

After compiling just 68 yards in the first three games combined, Northwestern's starting superback got back on track in a big way against Ball State. The senior had the first multi-touchdown game of his career and showcased his ability to stretch the field from the slot. He also was strong, as usual, as a blocker for Jackson and the running game.

Defense

Defensive Line

Grade: D
Stats: 181 rushing yards allowed, 4 quarterback hurries

Dean Lowry said as much after the game. The defensive line had its worst performance of the season. There was no push on Ball State up front. Both quarterback Riley Neal and running back Darian Green were able to find holes on the inside and on the perimeter. Neal was rarely pressured in the passing game, allowing him to find receivers downfield.

Linebackers

Grade: C
Stats: 181 rushing yards allowed

It wasn't all the defensive line's fault Saturday night. The linebacking group, usually with a Anthony Walker flying around in the middle, was sluggish. Green was able to run by Northwestern's linebackers on a few occasions, bursting into the third level without being touched. Walker, a notorious tackler, only racked up five total stops in the game.

Secondary

Grade: C+
Stats: 178 passing yards, 5 pass break-ups; J. Williams: 8 receptions, 133 yards, 2 TDs

With safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro going out with injury and third-stringer Jared McGee already hurt coming into the contest, the Wildcats' secondary really started to have issues. Ball State's Jordan Williams dominated Nick VanHoose for pretty much the entire game, using his speed, leaping ability and his 6-foot-3 frame to catch eight passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns. Both Traveon Henry and Matt Harris played well, though. Henry led Northwestern with seven tackles on the night, with two coming for a loss. Harris broke up three passes.