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Inside The Play: Clayton Thorson's Touchdown

Clayton Thorson electrified Ryan Field with a 42-yard rushing touchdown against Stanford. How did it happen?

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

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.

This week, we go in depth into the play on which the future of Northwestern football truly arrived: Clayton Thorson's 42-yard rushing touchdown.

(All videos via ESPN)


Mark down 6 minutes and 27 seconds left in the first half of Northwestern's Week 1 game against Stanford as the exact moment that the Clayton Thorson hype train officially left the station.

Up until then, Thorson had played well, but had not blown anybody away. He had a couple shorter runs and had only completed five passes. In fact, he had already made some ill-advised decisions throwing over the middle, and was lucky to see those throws fall to the turf. It seemed like it was going to be same old, same old for Northwestern. Great defense, a good run game and shaky quarterback play.

With the ball in Thorson's hands, you could sense excitement in the stadium, but also a distinct air of caution. Fans had no idea what to expect... And then this happened:

Clayton Thorson is fast. On paper, he boasts a 4.51-second 40-yard dash time, but it's easy to be skeptical of that without seeing it on the field. Saturday, we saw it on the field, and it was just as advertised. But this play was about more than just that 40 time.

Many coaches like to use the phrase, "you can't teach speed." And yes, that is true. However, you can teach how to use that speed effectively and build a play around it. It's that knowledge that sprung Thorson for a touchdown.

Now, after the game, Thorson wouldn't say whether or not the play was a designed run, but it pretty clearly looks like it was. Thorson tucks the ball and decides to run in less than a second, as as we'll soon see, other players on the offense are setting up for a run play all the way.

So let's give credit where credit is due: Mick McCall called a really good play here. He combined Thorson's speed with a quarterback draw to confuse the defense, and it worked to perfection. Here's how:

The Breakdown

Let's begin with the pre-snap alignments, which are always important. Northwestern lines up spread out wide, with four wideouts. Thorson is in the shotgun with Solomon Vault. This formation almost screams passing play, especially on 3rd-and-7.

Stanford is in their nickel package, with only two linemen, four linebackers (two of them edge rushers), three cornerbacks, and two deep safeties. The two outside linebackers are playing up near the line, and the two inside linebackers are about five yards back.

Thorson TD 1

The first important part of the setup is that Northwestern has three wide on the right side — also known as the opposite side of where the play is designed to go. Stanford responds by dropping one of its outside linebackers into coverage in the slot, and compensates by blitzing one of its two middle linebackers. Left guard Ian Park (No. 63) recognizes the blitz though, and picks it up, leaving Thorson essentially one-on-one with Stanford's other inside linebacker, sophomore Jordan Perez:

Thorson TD 2

The second important piece here is that this is, in essence, a trick play. Northwestern is acting as if it is going to pass, and on 3rd-and-7, Stanford has every reason to fall for the bait. That trickery, combined with Northwestern's alignment, causes free safety Dallas Lloyd to shade toward the offensive right side of the field when the play begins. This leaves him ill-prepared for when Thorson eventually pulls the ball down and takes off.

Let's take another, wider look at the above frame:

Thorson TD 2 wide

The high safety is vertically in line with Thorson at the hash marks. But immediately following the above moment, he begins to move to his left (the offense's right) because he is keying on the receivers rather than Thorson.

Here's the play again. You'd think the safety would be able to meet Thorson at the second level, but he woefully misreads the play, and never re-appears in your screen until Thorson is a few strides away from the goal line:

The other important pieces occur on the play side. Stanford outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi runs an inside stunt, while one of the two defensive linemen loops around to set the edge. Northwestern left tackle Geoff Mogus pushes the lineman wide enough though, and Kalambayi gets stuck too centrally. That leaves a gaping hole at the first level:

Thorson 3 wide

At the second level, Thorson simply beats Perez, who it appears had been spying on the NU quarterback. This is the point that all the playcalling and preparation go out the window. The rest of this play is shear athleticism taking over. Thorson runs a 4.51 40, Perez runs a 4.77 40. There's your difference right there.

Let's also give some credit to wide receiver Mike McHugh though. McHugh is lined up to the short side of the field, and has one-on-one coverage. He knows his responsibility — not to beat the cornerback, but to seal him off. However, he initially feigns as if he's running a go route, getting an outside release (top of the picture):

Thorson TD McHugh

Once he gets the cornerback moving toward the sideline though, McHugh cuts back to the inside of the defender, and engages. He doesn't exactly pin the defender to the sideline, but he seals his side of the field for the necessary amount of time. That increases the width of the lane that Thorson has to beat Perez one-on-one, and thus increases the probability that Thorson is able to do so. And that's exactly what he does:


This was a well-executed play by Northwestern, but with a slower quarterback, it might not have even been a first down. That's the first and most important takeaway here. Thorson's speed allowed this play to transpire as it did.

However, speed wasn't the only thing in play. As we saw last year with Matt Alviti, you can have all the speed in the world, but you still need room to run. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall drew up a beautiful play, and the offensive line executed.

This play worked because Thorson provided the threat to throw, and the formation told Stanford that Northwestern was going to throw. But Thorson used his other potent weapon to score the only touchdown of the game.

That's the definition of a dual-threat quarterback.