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Player grades from Northwestern’s 38-31 victory over Iowa

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The Wildcats picked up a colossal win in Iowa City Saturday.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Every Sunday after a Northwestern win or loss, we'll be handing out player grades as a way to analyze the Wildcats' performance from an individual perspective. Rather than rush out the grades on Saturday, we'll sleep on them, and wake up Sunday ready to accurately evaluate NU's players, coaches and opponents.

This week much to (the majority of) our surprise Northwestern pulled out a 38-31 road upset against Iowa this weekend. Let’s see how some of our favorite Wildcats fared individually:

Offense:

Clayton Thorson

Grade: A

Stats: 18/30, 164 yards, three touchdowns; nine carries, 11 yards, one touchdown

“Clayton can be magic sometimes.”

These were the words of Austin Carr postgame and, on Saturday, Clayton Thorson was magic. The completion percentage and yard total don’t jump off the page, but don’t get it twisted: this was the best game of his career thus far. He didn’t turn the ball over, scored four of Northwestern’s five touchdowns and unleashed his inner Aaron Rodgers on a touchdown toss to Austin Carr in the third quarter, much to the dismay of the Iowa faithful. Credit the offensive line for showing real improvement and Mick McCall (it pains me to write it as much as it pains you to read it) for honestly calling a pretty good game, save the 3rd-and-5 play near the end. It never felt like Northwestern was consistently in long down-and-distances, which allowed Thorson to get comfortable and stay comfortable for the duration of the game.

Justin Jackson

Grade: A-

Stats: 26 carries, 171 yards, one touchdown, one fumble lost; three catches, 13 yards

We knew Iowa wouldn’t be able to stop the run and, as it turns out, so did JJ. Jackson ripped off chunks all day to the tune of 6.6 yards per carry and dug an icy cold dagger into the heart of all Iowans with a 58-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter to break a 24-24 stalemate. Northwestern never looked back. Unfortunately, I do have to punish him a little for losing a fumble in the second quarter on Northwestern’s half of the field. It only took Iowa 1:33 to turn that turnover into seven points and a 21-17 lead and, at the time, it looked like this gaffe was going to define the Wildcats’ performance. NU came out of halftime determined not to let that happen.

Also of note: with 171 yards Saturday, Jackson vaulted himself into the lead in the Big Ten in rushing yards. That is pretty cool.

Austin Carr

Grade: A+

Stats: Six catches, 73 yards, 3 TD

Austin Carr may be the literal messiah and I’m only 80% joking when I say that. He leads the Big Ten in receptions (32), receiving yards (465) and touchdowns (6) which is just absurd when you consider this is the same guy . There’s clearly a chemistry between him and Thorson and it’s absolutely beautiful to watch. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Austin Carr is on his way to almost singlehandedly reviving from the dead Northwestern’s passing offense and for that he should be forever cherished (and possibly worshipped).

Offensive line

Grade: A-

I’m clearly in a good mood today. But, in all seriousness, this was the offensive line’s best game of the season and it’s reflected in the stats of key skill players (see above). Thorson had time to make his reads all day and they did a fantastic job, especially in the second half, of opening holes for Jackson to run through. The 38 points NU put on the board Saturday are an indication of what this offense is capable of when the line performs. Thorson only took one sack.

Defense:

Ifeadi Odenigbo

Stats: Five tackles, four solo, four sacks

Grade: A

It doesn’t feel right to keep handing out A’s, but what choice do I have? I wrote last week that if the defensive line could disrupt C.J. Beathard’s rhythm, NU’s defense would have a shot at containing Iowa’s multi-faceted offense. There were certainly times when the Hawkeyes marched effortlessly through the Wildcat defense (a lot of that can be attributed to field position, but we’ll get there), but the threat of Odenigbo was ever-present. After going four games with only one sack, Odenigbo exploded for four on Saturday and THEY WERE ALL ON THIRD DOWN. That’s incredible and a potentially rejuvenated defensive line would be huge for NU’s defense as a whole.

Trae Williams

Grade: C

Stats: Four tackles, three solo, one interception

It was a rough day for Trae as, as has been the case with many of Northwestern’s young DBs, he was oft-exploited by Beathard throughout. Particularly troubling was the 46-yard catch by Jerminic Smith he was burned for early in the fourth quarter; Leshun Daniels punched in an Hawkeye touchdown just two plays later. All that aside, he makes this list with a passing grade on the strength of his game-sealing interception of Beathard with just over a minute left in the game.

Special Teams:

Jack Mitchell

Grade: A

Stats: 1/1 FG, 5/5 XP

This shouldn’t be a noteworthy enough performance for him to even make this article, but given the controversy swirling around Mitchell this week, it was a big day for the senior. It feels like it’s been a while since we had a perfect game from Mitchell, which is refreshing to see, because, while his struggles probably weren’t costing NU victories, it’s super frustrating to watch.

Flynn Nagel

Grade: B

Stats: One catch, six yards; one punt return, 47 yards

Nagel headlines the list of players who really only did one thing but still left his stamp on the game. Nagel’s ‘thing’ was a 47-yard punt return after Iowa went three-and-out to start the game. The return set Northwestern up at the Iowa five yard line for their first drive of the game. Thorson punched in a score two plays later. For an offense like Northwestern’s, the importance of momentum-altering plays like this cannot be understated. Nagel wasn’t much of a factor in the passing game in this one, though, so we’ll knock him a little for that.

Return coverage

Grade: F

This was the tomato-sauce stain on the clean, white t-shirt that was Northwestern’s performance on Saturday. Iowa had 139 yards on kick returns and 115 on punt returns which isn’t just ugly on paper; it also allowed the Hawkeye offense to operate with a shorter field for most of the game. With a defense that’s taking bend-but-don’t-break to a new level this season, Northwestern can’t afford to let these struggles in return coverage become a trend.