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The source of Northwestern’s resiliency is its most important player

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When all looked lost for Northwestern, the Wildcats’ biggest names stepped up. The brand of resiliency the Wildcats showed today could come to define their 2016 campaign.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

He looked left. He looked right. There was no pressure in the face of Clayton Thorson, yet he was apprehensive. And then he made his decision, turning to the right sideline and firing a bullet in the direction of Austin Carr. But the ball was released too late. It never reached the intended target. It wasn’t close.

Instead, Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne stepped in front of the pass and trotted 43 yards, uninhibited, into Northwestern’s end zone to extend the Spartans’ lead to 14-0 with 8:31 remaining in the first quarter. It was all too familiar. Northwestern marches into the state of Michigan with considerable momentum and is squashed by a big-name conference foe.

But then, something funny happened... For the second week in a row, the Wildcats fought back.

Both supporters and media have been lambasted over the years with the moniker ‘Cardiac Cats’, and it has (for the most part) been a fitting pseudonym for Chicago’s Big Ten team. The lore is timeless, the highlights thrilling. But maybe, just maybe, this year’s Northwestern team is forming a new identity, one based around one word: resiliency.

In a lot of ways, today’s contest in East Lansing was a microcosm of Northwestern’s season. The Wildcats started slow; after being pinned on their own one yard-line and promptly going three-and-out, Northwestern’s defense allowed redshirt freshman quarterback Brian Lewerke and the Michigan State offense to span 39 yards on just three plays and jump out in front 7-0. Three plays later, Thorson’s egregious pick-six, one that he called “completely my fault” post-game, afforded the Spartans a 14-0 advantage. All looked lost for the Wildcats. The team on the field in the first five minutes of the first quarter more resembled the one that put up seven points on Illinois State at home than the one that stormed into Iowa City and bulldozed the Hawkeyes on their home turf two weeks ago.

As Layne waltzed into the south endzone, Northwestern could have folded, abandoned the run, struggled to stay on the field on offense or off it on defense en route to a humiliating loss after a big win the previous week(s). And considering the Wildcats’ up-and-down nature this season, that’s what would have made sense.

In that moment, there’s no way you could tell me, or any other fan, this would happen at Spartan Stadium on Saturday afternoon:

  • Clayton Thorson will finish the game 27/35 with 281 yards and four total touchdowns (three passing).
  • After trailing 17-7, Northwestern will rattle off 26 unanswered points and lead by as many as 17 before the game’s conclusion.
  • Northwestern will convert 10 of 19 third-downs compared to five of 16 for Michigan State, an area that had killed the Wildcats this season.
  • The Wildcats will win the time of possession battle by over 10 minutes.
  • Jack Mitchell will not miss a kick in this football game.
  • Northwestern will score 54 points in this football game.
  • Northwestern will win this football game.

And yet, all of that happened. There are a number of factors that go into a turnaround like the ones Northwestern has recently experienced — dating back to their comeback victory over Iowa two weeks ago — but none are more important than the resurgence of their quarterback, by all accounts the most important player on the team: Clayton Thorson.

The age-old adage says that to be a great quarterback, you have to have selective memory. Amnesia, if you will. In his year-and-a-half at the helm of Northwestern’s offense, Thorson has never exhibited the capacity to move past his mistakes; all three of his losses in 2015 were by over 30 points and were the result of poor starts snowballing into catastrophic blowouts. Even this season, Thorson flashed his vulnerability in high-pressure situations at the end of the Western Michigan loss and throughout the Illinois State debacle.

But in these past two games, he’s figured it out.

“He didn’t lose his composure, he didn’t get upset,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Thorson’s performance post-game. “Sometimes bad things happen and it’s more about how you respond than what happens.”

Thorson did respond, but, of course, he didn’t defeat Michigan State alone. Even without captain Connor Mahoney, the offensive line consistently afforded Thorson enough time to run through his progressions with a clear pocket. J.B. Butler filled in admirably for the senior captain. Justin Jackson utilized holes opened by that very same line to gash the Spartans’ front seven to the tune of 188 yards (a career high) and two scores on 34 carries. Austin Carr is the best receiver in the Big Ten. The defense cracked down on Lewerke after his hot start and eventually forced him out of the game in favor of the incumbent Tyler O’Connor. And when O’Connor came in and inexplicably catapulted Michigan State back into the game with two long touchdown throws, Solomon Vault quelled the bleeding with a timely kick-return touchdown.

When other people do their job, it takes part of the massive load of leading this team off of Thorson’s shoulders. The result of this is a more relaxed Clayton Thorson, a more resilient Clayton Thorson and, perhaps most importantly, a more efficient Clayton Thorson.

“I definitely feel more comfortable. I can throw it to one of the best receivers in the country, I can hand it off to one of the best running backs in the country and our coaches are doing a great job of putting us in positions to be successful... Everyone’s bought in,” Thorson said.

This is the Clayton Thorson Northwestern needs. A lot was made before and during the beginning part of the season about Northwestern’s hesitance to take chances, to stretch their opponent’s defenses out. But maybe that wasn’t their problem at all. Between the Iowa game two weeks ago and the Michigan State contest Saturday, Northwestern has had its two best offensive performances of the Clayton Thorson era. In fact, NU hadn’t put up this many points in a game since dropping 59 on Indiana back in 2011. But Thorson is averaging only 6.8 yards per attempt in those two contests. That mark would rank him 88th in the FBS among qualifying quarterbacks. But he also completed 69.2% of his passes in these games, and the offense he leads has put up a combined 92 points in their last eight quarters of football.

Fitzgerald himself stressed the importance of consistency in play-calling and execution and the contributions of others to Thorson’s development and maturity. “It’s critically important to be able to run the ball, it then gives you two dimensions... You get people to come down into the box and you can throw it over their heads. A year ago we couldn’t do that.”

So how do you turn offensive efficiency into a 54-point road explosion against a conference opponent? The answer is simple. Confidence and execution. They go hand-in-hand When Thorson is confident, he can really put pressure on the defense with his arm and his legs. It then trickles down to the rest of the team and good things happen: wide receivers gain confidence (ask Austin Carr about the confidence he has in his gunslinger). You don’t go from fumbling on the one-yard line toto dismantling a Mark Dantonio team in East Lansing overnight. It takes establishing a run game. It takes gaining confidence in short-to-intermediate throws and then, over time, expanding your offensive repertoire further downfield. It takes patience. That’s how you go from being last year’s Clayton Thorson to the guy that makes this play on fourth and six with five minutes left in the fourth quarter:

“He’s maturing in the offense. We’re six games in, 13 last year... And he’s starting to become comfortable, his confidence has been building,” Fitzgerald said. We’ve seen flashes of what Clayton Thorson can be in the past and now, coming off the best two games of his life, is his chance to cement himself as a leader of the offensive unit and the team as a whole.

This season may very well still end up being a disappointment for Northwestern. 3-3 is not the end goal of this team. But the progress Thorson and, by association, the team has made in recent weeks is cause for legitimate optimism moving forward. We’ve harped on Northwestern’s coaching issues all season, but this team (and Thorson especially) has clearly embraced the identity of a typical Pat Fitzgerald squad. Tough. Focused (for the most part).

Resilient.

“We can pout and start to point fingers,” Fitzgerald said on his team’s early-season struggles, “Or we can stay on the grind and keep the pedal down... The only way we we’re going to get it fixed was us.”

The defense showed cause for concern today, and Fitzgerald acknowledged that this team is not a “finished product.” He’s absolutely right regardless, this is not the Northwestern team that sent the city of Evanston into a frantic spiral with their sloppy 0-2 start to the season. This isn’t even the same Northwestern team that rattled off 10 wins in 2015. This is a new team, and it just might be Clayton Thorson’s team.

“He just needs to keep going, keep grinding,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s 19 games into his career and he’s doing a pretty good job. He’s giving us opportunities to win games.”

As Northwestern hits the stretch run, it’ll need for him to continue to do just that.