EVANSTON -- As soon as Clayton Thorson broke through the line of scrimmage, galloped down Northwestern's sideline with his team knotted with No. 21 Stanford at 3-all and hit the Cardinal 30-yard line, he accelerated. The redshirt freshman turned upfield and bolted past Stanford defensive backs into the end zone, putting Northwestern up 10-3 on a 42-yard touchdown run.
"The O-line," Thorson said about the run and ensuing celebration, "they really hit your head hard when you score."
And just like that -- with a pivot of a right ankle, foot speed not commonly found in a 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback and a couple bruises on his head -- a new era of Northwestern football appeared to begin. Thorson's first score proved to be the difference -- and the only touchdown scored by either team -- in Northwestern's 16-6 victory over Stanford to open 2015 after back-to-back 5-7 seasons.
"This is a new team," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
After months of indecision regarding Northwestern's quarterback competition in the offseason, Fitzgerald officially announced that the redshirt freshman had won the competition over redshirt sophomore Matt Alviti and senior Zack Oliver on Aug. 26. And on Saturday, the Chicago-area native seemed to prove his head coach right.
"I thought he played outstanding," Fitzgerald said. "I talked to him early in the week about not trying to out-play a fifth-year senior [in Stanford QB Kevin Hogan] by just doing what we do. And through that, he outplayed a fifth-year senior. That's what I saw today."
And his top receiver sang his praises as well.
"He did very well," senior captain Christian Jones said while laughing next to Thorson in the post-game press conference. "He did really good."
But by no means was Thorson perfect. The Chicago-native finished 12-24 for 105 yards through the air to go along with 68 yards rushing. Throughout the game he missed a handful of throws and threw some balls that could have been picked off.
"Me personally, I think I can always do a lot better," Thorson said. "I missed some throws. There were some decisions I made that weren't great."
But then there were moments like the one when Thorson was facing third and long after Stanford had cut Northwestern's lead to seven with about six minutes left in the game. The coaching staff looked to be protecting its young signal caller with back-to-back Warren Long runs that did nothing but chew the clock down. Then Thorson, with the pressure squarely on his shoulders, lofted a high-arcing pass to Miles Shuler down the sideline that landed perfectly in the receiver's hands for a first down.
"I like the fact that he's being aggressive," Fitzgerald said of the play. "I like the fact that he liked the match up on the outside and took the one-on-one shot. Feel free to keep playing us in man. We've got our weapons back."
It led to a 49-yard Jack Mitchell field goal, putting Northwestern up 10 and the game basically out of reach.
To Fitzgerald and Jones, who have coached and been around Thorson for a couple years now, his performance and collected demeanor weren't surprises. They've become used to Thorson's self-depreciating humor and ability to never get too up or too down, as well as his ability to make plays on the field.
But Saturday, in an upset of a top-25 opponent, Thorson introduced himself to the country.
"Now the cat's out of the bag," Jones said. "Clayton's a great quarterback."