Saturday night was a tale of two teams...three if you count Ball State. For 30 minutes, Ball State outplayed Northwestern on both sides of the ball to the surprise of an uncharacteristically crowded Ryan Field. The Cardinals collected three takeaways — all courtesy of Clayton Thorson — while the Northwestern defense conceded a season-worst 221 total yards in the first half.
Northwestern went back to the locker room down only three points, though the deficit could have easily been three scores. Ball State missed two field goals, and botched a handoff inside the five yard line. But Northwestern's issues weren't schematic.
"We didn't have to make a whole heck of a lot of adjustments [at halftime]," said Pat Fitzgerald after the game. "We just had to come out and play."
Whatever was (or wasn't) said at halftime worked, because the No. 17 Wildcats came out on fire to start the third quarter. Dan Vitale's second touchdown of the day capped off a methodical eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Seven of the eight plays offensive coordinator Mick McCall cued from the booth resulted in at least five positive yards. The offensive line was nearly perfect on four runs and four completed passes that culminated in a swift seven points.
An equally dominant defense forced the Cardinals to give the ball right back to Northwestern after three plays, and six-foot-four Clayton Thorson stood tall in the pocket and resumed his assault on the Ball State defense. The Wildcats were not taking what the defense gave them; they were taking whatever they wanted. Thorson punctuated another 80-yard drive with a long touchdown pass, this time a gorgeous 25-yard strike down the sideline to Austin Carr.
Northwestern was, for all intents and purposes, a different team in that third quarter. This was the team that handily beat Stanford and Duke. This was the beginning of the sort of merciless second half rout you see after an elite team plays down to its competition for the first two quarters. The game was already over with 4:51 left in the third quarter.
Or so we thought.
Then the team that showed up in the first half reappeared again. The Wildcats would go on to win the football game, but not without allowing Ball State to score twice more. Northwestern never busted the game open like it appeared it would midway through the third quarter. A modest five-point victory improved Northwestern's record to 4-0, but not in the most convincing fashion against a team that gave up 56 points to Texas A&M and 36 to VMI.
Two different NU teams took the field Saturday. And thus, there are a couple of ways to look at Saturday's game. The optimistic observer would say that a very good football played its worst game of the year and still won. The skeptic, on the other hand, would say that a slightly overrated (and now injury-ridden) team squeaked by a sub-par opponent. Both views are valid.
But the argument for the former is compelling, and here's why: It appears Clayton Thorson is actually improving.
During the postgame press conference, Thorson admitted that he was "guessing a bit" in the first half, evidenced by the interception Fitzgerald referred to as "a great punt."
"He's a young man who's growing," Fitzgerald said about the quarterback who is now four games into his college career. Fitzgerald asserted that there was never any consideration of pulling Thorson after the disastrous first half, which, in retrospect, makes a lot of sense. Each of Thorson's aforementioned turnovers were the result of silly miscues rather than bad quarterback play.
Anyone can get the ball stripped while trying to run through tackles, so the first fumble is not too concerning. The second fumble was pretty bad, but should be considered a flukey mistake as the ball simply slipped out of Thorson's hands. The interception was a miscommunicated option route with Miles Shuler, and Peyton Manning used to make that same mistake with Reggie Wayne every once in a while, so there's no shame in that.
But for the most part, Thorson made better decisions Saturday night than he has all season. He did not force many throws into double or triple coverage the way he did in the first three games, and instead opted to throw the ball away when the play wasn't there. When the redshirt freshman had time to go through his reads, he was accurate on short, intermediate and long passes. His 256 yards and three touchdowns would have been 306 and four touchdowns had Shuler not dropped a 50-yard bomb in the first quarter. It was likely his most impressive performance of the season.
There are other concerns too of course, most notably the injury report, especially at the safety position. Godwin Igwebuike was taken to the locker room early in the game. Fitzgerald said after the game that safety Kyle Queiro, Igwebuike's replacement, broke his arm and will be out "for a while." Reserve safety Jared McGee was ruled out before the game, so defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz resorted to fourth-year backup Terrance Brown alongside Traveon Henry. The injuries are a worry.
But as Big Ten play approaches, Clayton Thorson's play, more so than anything else, will tell us which team is the real Northwestern. His performance Saturday offered signs that that team could make a run at the Big Ten West crown.