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.
Monday we focused on Clayton Thorson's touchdown run, but today we'll look at a play that was arguably just as important: Thorson's 25-yard pass to Miles Shuler's in the fourth quarter.
(All videos via ESPN)
Throughout the course of any game, there are always a couple of plays that may not be remembered five days later, but that greatly influence the final outcome. On Saturday against Stanford, Clayton Thorson and Miles Shuler provided Northwestern with one such play late in the game.
With six and a half minutes left in the game, Northwestern faced a 3rd-and-8 deep in its own territory, and was at risk of having to put the defense back out on the field just minutes after a thirteen-play Stanford scoring drive. Thorson had been shaky through the air up to that point, but there was always going to be a moment late in the game where he would have to step up and make a big throw. This was it.
Because of a few near-disasters early in the game, some may have assumed that Northwestern would simply hand the ball off to Justin Jackson, play it safe, and likely punt the ball away. But in keeping with the theme of the day, Mick McCall was surprisingly aggressive, and Thorson threw a beautiful ball for a 25-yard completion down the sideline to Miles Shuler:
This play is well executed on both ends for Northwestern. It's a great throw from Thorson while under pressure, and an equally great catch from Shuler, over his outside shoulder, while falling out of bounds. When asked about the play during Monday's press conference, Shuler said that "Clayton just threw a perfect ball" and "it was just great execution on that play."
Execution aside for a second, this play was the pivotal moment of the game for Northwestern. A punt would have put considerable pressure on the defense in a one score game. Shuler's catch kept the momentum firmly on Northwestern's side, and allowed them to control the rest of the game.
Just like Monday's breakdown, let's start with the pre-snap alignments:
Northwestern has four wide out of the huddle, but motions Dan Vitale into the backfield before the snap. At the snap, Clayton Thorson is in the shotgun with Solomon Vault, and Vitale is about a yard in front and to the right of Thorson. On the surface, this formation and personnel scream pass, but Northwestern had run out of this set before, earlier in the game in fact. Perhaps the motion with Vitale is a bluff of sorts to force Stanford to honor the possibility of a draw.
Crucially though, the motion causes Stanford to alter its defensive alignment. With Vitale now a threat to the right of the formation, Stanford's left safety (offense's right) steps up to a position about eight-yards off the line of scrimmage, and the right safety, who was previously there, drops back into centerfield (out of the picture below):
Stanford's three cornerbacks here are playing man. The slot cornerback is playing off of Christian Jones, but the two outside cornerbacks are in press coverage, and that's what's most important here. The low safety appears to be keying on Vitale, and single high safety is directly in line with the ball, meaning he is a non-factor on any throw to Shuler to the wide side of the field.
This gives Shuler the opportunity to beat Stanford corner Ronnie Harris over the top. Critically, this is something Northwestern was unable to do last year. Shuler (and Tony Jones) battled injuries, and thus teams did not have to honor the deep threat of Northwestern's receivers. Stanford doesn't do that here, and Shuler shows that he can make them pay.
The reason the outside corners are in press coverage though is because Stanford is sending a blitz. All six of its six-man box are coming for Thorson, and they present the biggest danger to the play's success.
The blitz actually confuses the offensive line, and Shane Mertz fails to pick it up. Inside linebacker Blake Martinez (No. 4) loops around on a bit of a delay, and Mertz fails to recognize it. Martinez gets a clean run at Thorson. Left guard Ian Park also gets pushed back into Thorson. This two things combine to prevent NU's quarterback from stepping into his throw:
Thorson has to make a snap decision to get rid of the ball. He appears to take a quick look at Christian Jones, before quickly deciding to float the ball out to Shuler.
Due to how quick his decision is, combined with Shuler's comments from Monday, this play basically comes down to a pre-snap read. Thorson saw that he had single coverage on the edge, and that there was no safety help over top. There wasn't enough time to cycle through his reads. Even as he's taking his three-step drop, he likely already knows where the ball is going.
Stanford was so set on taking away Christian Jones that they opened themselves up to be beat over the top. Thorson had looked to Jones on the majority of third downs prior to this one. The defense also bet on Northwestern's unwillingness to let Thorson test Stanford deep. They focused on stopping the short passes and making Thorson uncomfortable with a blitz.
Unfortunately for Stanford, Thorson was confident enough to decide to throw a sideline fade on the biggest play of the game. And after the pre-snap chess game was over, Thorson's talent once again took over.
If the ball is perfect (further from the sideline), Shuler might actually go for a touchdown. But Thorson had to put the ball as far away from the defender as possible. Shuler gets an outside release, so Thorson throws to his outside shoulder where only Shuler can catch it.
Here's the full play once again:
A ton of credit goes to Shuler as well, as he's able to track the ball and get one foot inbounds to complete the play. That coming after he managed to fight through Harris' press and beat him down the field. This is probably one of those catches that in reality is even more difficult than it looks.
The number one thing to take away from this play is that Clayton Thorson can throw the ball, and under pressure to boot. He stares down a free rusher and throws a perfect pass off of his back foot. Even as shaky as he looked at times throwing the ball, he has the raw talent, he'll be fine.
More "Inside The Play"
More "Inside The Play"
Credit is once again due to Mick McCall for not being ultra-conservative here, and having confidence in his young quarterback. No one would have blamed him — well, maybe not, but it would've at least been understandable — if he had just packed it in, in fear of Thorson throwing a backbreaking interception. But McCall went for it, and the risk paid off.
Thorson's pre-snap analysis is what created this play though. He read the defense, saw he had single coverage on the outside, and committed to that decision even while under pressure. Earlier in the game, Thorson exhibited his speed. Here, he puts his throwing ability and his intelligence on display.
Thorson made plenty of mistakes Saturday. But he also provided glimpses of what he could eventually do.