In the first seven weeks of the 2016 season, the Northwestern offense has already had a roller coaster season filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. So much so that at times during the Wildcats’ 54-40 win over the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday, it was impossible to believe this was the same offense that mustered just seven points against Illinois State last month.
This offense’s performance week-by-week has been documented and discussed at length with mixed reviews to start the season. But these past two games have shed light on the Northwestern offense. Against Iowa and Michigan State, we saw a Northwestern offense that appears to be approaching the game with a new and improved mentality, something that came as no surprise to the team’s head coach.
“Early in the year we weren’t a very good team,” Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “We didn’t coach well enough and we didn’t play enough, but we’ve stayed the course and we’ve kept grinding and good things usually happen when you respond and I think our guys have responded pretty well offensively and especially on the offensive line.”
Coming off its best performance of the season against Iowa, Northwestern’s offensive line on Saturday was yet again one of the game’s biggest difference makers, even with the absence of senior captain Connor Mahoney at left guard. Listed as doubtful by the injury report, Mahoney did not play in the game, but his replacement J.B. Butler helped contribute to another stellar performance for the Wildcats’ offense on Saturday, which included 490 total yards and just one sack allowed. It was the second week in a row the Wildcats surrendered just one sack.
“To see the way J.B. stepped up today with Connor being out, I thought was absolutely outstanding, outstanding by that young man,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m incredibly proud of him, I’m not surprised, he’s just a young man waiting for his opportunity and I’m really proud of the way he stepped up.”
The o-line’s strong performance helped open up all other aspects of Northwestern’s offense as well. One major benefactor was Justin Jackson, who had a monster workload on Saturday, carrying the ball 34 times for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Jackson has been an x-factor for Northwestern as of late, as he has a combined 60 carries for 359 yards and three touchdowns in the Wildcats’ last two games alone. After hitting a small slump in weeks 2–4 due to opposing defenses stacking the box with defenders, Jackson has been able to pump some life back into the Northwestern’s rushing attack, something Fitzgerald believes is crucial for having success moving forward.
“It’s critically important to be able to run the ball, it gives you the two dimensions because you have play action pass and you have the opportunity then to get people to come down in the box and throw the ball over their head,” Fitzgerald said. “A year ago we couldn’t do that. Right now we’re able to do that and I think that’s through a lot of hard work, I think our guys have really been grinding.”
As for the passing attack, Clayton Thorson was able to rebound from a pick-six he threw early in the game and proceeded to turn in the most efficient day passing of his career, completing 27-of-35 passes for 281 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, while also adding a rushing touchdown for the third consecutive week.
From a long stretch in this game, spanning from midway through the first quarter to the middle of the third quarter, Thorson was nearly flawless. During this duration, he completed 19-of-20 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns. Furthermore, he completed passes to six different players (Austin Carr, Flynn Nagel, Macan Wilson, Justin Jackson, Andrew Scanlan and Solomon Vault) and was 4-of-6 on third down conversions when he dropped back to pass. It was one of the most dominant stretches of play you’ll see all year from anyone.
While part of Thorson’s success can be attributed to the improved protection from the offensive line, much of the credit should also be given to the progress we’ve seen the redshirt sophomore make from last season to this season. In the Wildcats’ last two games, Thorson has displayed that he is more poised and comfortable when standing in the pocket. His accuracy has improved immensely, as evidenced by the many difficult sideline routes that he was completing throughout the game, and he appears to have built up a solid rapport with this receivers.
“He’s 19 games into his career and he’s starting to become comfortable, I think his confidence has been building,” Fitzgerald said about Thorson after the game. “I thought Mick (McCall) did a good job preparing them and I thought we handled the adversity early really really well, in particular Clayton. I just think he needs to keep going, keep grinding.”
“I definitely feel more comfortable,” Thorson said after the game. “But you see these guys around me, you know 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 putting us in positions to be successful.”
On the topic of receivers, anyone that’s watched even a fraction of Northwestern football this year knows that Austin Carr has been phenomenal for the Wildcats. And maybe even phenomenal isn’t a big enough word. Against the Spartans, his performance followed suit with the rest of his games this season as he hauled in a career high 11 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Carr currently leads the Big Ten in every significant receiving stat and none of them are close. His 43 receptions are 11 higher than any other player, his 595 yards are over 125 more than the next closest, and his eight receiving touchdowns are two more than anyone else.
But besides his impressive in-game statistics, Carr is also making significant impacts during practice, according to his head coach. After a poor showing from the receiving corps last season, Fitzgerald said the program’s receivers came into the off-season with a chip on their shoulders as they strived to improve their preparation and consistency. And while Fitzgerald does acknowledge that Carr has played a major role in the receivers’ development this season, he also credited another senior wideout who has played an equally large role in mentoring the younger receivers.
“I’m really proud of Andrew Scanlan,” Fitzgerald said. “I just thought he brought an attitude to the room, and he was hungry and he’s been through a lot of adversity in his life. I think he’s kind of the grandpa of the group, he’s done a really good job of imparting wisdom of the young players.”
Both Carr and Fitzgerald praised Scanlan’s passion and work ethic that he brings to the locker room. According to Carr, Scanlan’s demeanor compliments his own in that the two senior wideouts can take on a “good cop, bad cop” role with the younger players.
“Scan brings the fire,” Carr said. “He’s a fiery guy. I like to say he’s the emotional leader of the group.”
Moving forward, each position group will play a key role if the Northwestern offense wants to keep up the pace. The offensive line needs to continue opening up holes for Jackson to run through and giving Thorson time to throw. Jackson needs to break some big runs early on to open up the passing attack. Thorson needs to continue to stand tough in the pocket and execute on the difficult throws he’s been completing these past two weeks and the receivers need to continue to make Thorson’s job as easy as possible.
“It’s just gonna take a continued effort every week,” Jackson said looking forward to next week. “Coaches pushing us like they’ve been doing, us responding and coming into games...putting everything out on the field and not thinking too much or anything, just going out and playing. Trusting our preparation and trusting ourselves to go out there and make plays.”