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Inside The Play: Clayton Thorson’s “Arm Punt”

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Clayton Thorson once again had a shaky first half on Saturday, highlighted by a miscommunication with Miles Shuler that led to an interception. What did (or didn't) Thorson see that caused him to make this mistake?

Photo: BTN | Illustrations: Ian McCafferty

Every week, our Ian McCafferty will go back and critically review one or more plays from the past Saturday's game. These are the plays that, more than any others, were crucial in determining the outcome of the game. He'll check the film, and breakdown the how and why of those decisive few seconds.

For the second time in three weeks we're going to ignore the above phrase "crucial in determining the outcome," at least for now, and instead talk about what was probably the strangest play from Saturday's game, Thorson's second quarter interception.

(Videos via BTN and ACC Network)

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We took a week off from talking about Clayton Thorson, but here we are once again analyzing everything that Northwestern's young quarterback does.

This week was a tale of two halves for Thorson, a very Duke-like first half that saw him turn the ball over three times, and then a very efficient second half. Most notable was the third quarter, when he played some of the best football he's played all year. However, we're not going to focus on that today (check back in tomorrow though...). Instead, we'll look at one of Thorson's three turnovers.

With 13:20 left in the first half, Northwestern had a 1st-and-10 on its own 15 trailing 3-0. Somewhat out of character, Northwestern drew up a passing play on first down, but due to a miscommunication between Thorson and Shuler, Thorson threw one of the worst looking interceptions you'll see to a "wide open" Tyree Holder — a Ball State defensive back.

That's the broadcast of the play as it happened, but here's the film we're going to primarily use, the All-22 shot of the play.

Fitz called this "a good punt" and before we dive into the play let's briefly look at how good of a punt it was. Hunter Niswander is averaging 38.9 yards per punt this season, this interception was worth around a net of 40 yards. So realistically it was a pretty good punt... Except it was on first down.

As for the play itself, it's a miscommunication, that much is clear. Shuler stops short and Thorson throws long, but what caused that confusion?

The Breakdown

Before we get to the pre-snap alignment, let's just quickly clarify what the play call was here. This was a wide receiver option play, and Pat Fitzgerald said as much in the postgame press conference. He called it a "Fly and Die," where the receiver starts running a go route, and then, based on how the cornerback is playing him, either "Flies" — runs a go route — or "Dies" — stops short and runs a curl route. So if the cornerback is playing press coverage, the receiver just commits to the go route and tries to beat him deep. If he's playing off, the receiver should break off the route

Just from that knowledge we can easily tell that Shuler "Died" while Thorson thought he was going to "Fly." But what did Thorson see, if anything, that made him believe that? Let's start before the snap:

Ball St INT 1a

There's not a ton here that would tip us off to why Thorson would think Shuler was going deep. In fact, if anything, the pre-snap alignment makes this interception even more worrisome. If you check up at the top where Shuler is lined up, Ball State cornerback Tyree Holder is playing a good seven or eight yards off of the line, which means he isn't playing press coverage. Instead, it looks like Ball State is in quarters, meaning all four defensive backs are dropping deep, with Shuler and his speed given a bigger cushion than Dan Vitale, who is lined up as a tight end, but ends up running a deep route to the near side of the field.

Once Shuler recognizes this, he (correctly) decides to "Die." It's a fairly simple read. But that's what makes this play so baffling. It's pretty easy to tell from just the defensive pre-snap alignment that Shuler will run a curl route, so either Thorson didn't see the cornerback playing off, or he completely misread the defense.

Ball St INT 2

This is what the field looked like as soon as Thorson was done with the play-action fake and his three step drop. He has five options, Vitale is running a wheel route down the near sideline and is covered pretty well, and Christian Jones is running what looks like a post route and is covered as well. That leaves Justin Jackson out of the backfield, Cameron Dickerson up the seam and finally Shuler. Before we come to a consensus, let's look at where everyone was when Thorson released the ball.

Ball St. INT 3

Realistically, Thorson doesn't have many good options. Perhaps he could fit a ball into Dickerson down the seam, but that's a risky throw likely into coverage. And anyway, he had already made his decision about where he was going to go with the ball. This interception happened because.... Wait for it... Clayton Thorson is a young inexperienced quarterback. A startling revelation, I'm sure.

Thorson was impatient and didn't progress through his reads. He even said so himself in the postgame press conference:

"I think Miles did the right thing, and that was my fault. I've got to go through my progression, l didn't do it on that play and that's going to cost us and I can't do that moving forward."

Thorson also mentioned that he was guessing a little bit in the first half, which explains why this throw was made

Takeways

Not properly going through progressions has been a problem, as it often is with any young quarterback, for Thorson so far. Most notably last week at Duke:

This was Thorson's first interception last week and it's not pretty. He's staring down Austin Carr from snap to throw. Any halfway decent safety would have been there for the interception.

Going through your reads is a basic tenet of playing quarterback, and Thorson has to make sure he's doing it every time he throws the ball. He doesn't yet need to be at a level where he can look off a safety to help get his receiver open, but he needs to make basic reads. Of course, he started doing that in the second half and had success doing so. And he's done so at times so far this season. He just hasn't consistently be making those reads.

Basically the takeaway here is what it's been all season, Thorson is young and he needs time to grow. In all honesty, the sudden success of the team isn't the most beneficial thing towards Thorson's development — saying that is borderline heretical, I know. He's expected to be perfect all the time now, but he's still going to make mistakes. At this point, we're too far gone though, and Thorson just has to make sure he can minimize those growing pains moving forward. Thorson will continue to improve, but he may still have another Duke type game in him. If that happens, win or lose, Northwestern needs to stick with its young quarterback to not only help him now, but help him in the future as well.