The common conception among football fans is that quarterback is the most important position on the team, and our No. 1 spot says nothing different. However, Northwestern went 10-3 last season with mediocre play from its quarterback, Clayton Thorson, so how actually important is Thorson to Northwestern in 2016? Ian McCafferty and Martin Oppegaard debate.
Ian McCafferty (Rank: 1): Clayton Thorson had a bit of a strange freshman season. He earned the starting job in camp and broke off a huge touchdown run in Northwestern's upset of Stanford. Then his team just continued to win until hitting a wall against Michigan and Iowa. There were times during the middle of the season where he really did not look good. He got hurt against Penn State and then benched against Purdue. Thorson is clearly the starter heading into 2016, but questions do remain about how much he will improve.
However, for the second straight year, Thorson comes in at No. 1 on our most important players list. Out of everyone on the staff, Martin, you were the only one to not put Thorson atop your list, so before I say anything, I'd like to know why.
Martin Oppegaard (Rank: 3): When I look at Thorson, there's no doubt he holds a significant amount of importance to the success of the Northwestern football team. Of course he does. He's the quarterback, responsible as not only the team's decision maker, but also tasked with making crucial, timely plays. However, Northwestern has a run-first offense, and as a team, it is carried by its defense. Northwestern simply does not go as Thorson goes.
Looking at Northwestern's wins last season against competitive opponents, Thorson just did not perform. He went 12-for-24 against Stanford, but Northwestern's defense held the potent Stanford offense to only six points. How about 9-for-23 against Duke with 2 interceptions, 13-for-28 against Nebraska, and 9-for-20 against Wisconsin. Even against Purdue, Thorson went 9-for-19 and against Illinois, only 12-for-25. The three losses look even worse.
The point I'm making is that Thorson was very bad last season.
Including the Ohio State quarterback trio, there were probably 11 or 12 Big Ten quarterbacks I would have rather had under center. To be fair, the wide receiving corps was horrifically bad and Thorson was in his redshirt freshman year, tasked with leading a young and largely unproven team. That said, Northwestern won all of these games I listed above despite Thorson's poor play. Heck, they even came back to beat Penn State after Thorson left the game with an injury. Zack Oliver didn't even play particularly well. While Thorson's undoubtedly an important part of this football team, to pinpoint him as the single most important player seems to me like we're putting a little too much weight on the conventional thought of the quarterback being imperative to his team's' success. This Northwestern team is more sophisticated; its hierarchy is structured differently.
I do think Thorson's growth is critical for next season. Facing a tougher schedule, Northwestern will need its quarterback to be a better decision maker, step up more in big games, and protect the football better than he did last year. However, what is more critical is the continued success of workhorse running-back Justin Jackson and a repeat of the dominant 2015 defense. Without both of those, Thorson will be in for more than he can handle.
IM: All of what you said above is true, but a lot of it is why I think Thorson is the most important player on this team. Yes, he was pretty bad at times, but his improvement will dictate how much better Northwestern will be this season as a team. The offense was historically bad last year, they were 111th in offensive S&P+ behind teams like Florida Atlantic and South Alabama. The defense was great, 5th in S&P+, but as we saw at certain times (Iowa and Tennessee) the defense can only hold on for so long when the offense continues to go three-and-out. Northwestern desperately needs Thorson to improve this season if it wants to succeed like in 2015.
Also, given how incredible the defense was last year, there's a pretty good chance it's not going to be that good again, which means the offensive production is going to need to step up. It's not that we're all just saying Thorson is the most important because he's the quarterback, it's that we're at the point where the offense really does run through him. By the end of 2015, Northwestern basically reached the limits of what it could do with only a running game and a defense. If Thorson makes it so they can't open up the playbook on passing plays, the rest of the team is hurt, especially Justin Jackson. Imagine how much better it would be for him if Northwestern could run draw plays that actually fooled the defense, or if the other team didn't consistently have eight or nine in the box on first down. The play of Thorson affects so many different elements of this team — almost every single one actually — and that's why he's the most important player.
MO: Very valid point that the defense can only hold on for so long, but I don't think an improved Thorson would have made a difference in any of Northwestern's three losses. Those games were lost by a total of 107 points, Northwestern was overmatched in every facet possibly imagined. One position, albeit a very important one, does not swing that great of a margin of deficit. You mentioned Iowa and Tennessee, two teams that were more physical, more talented, and simply better than Northwestern. An improved Thorson does not win those games.
I don't think it's fair to say that just because the defense was terrific last year, it's doubtful that they will repeat their dominance. Losing Lowry and Gibson hurts, but they are a deep unit and I'm confident in Hankwitz's player development. Anyway, last year, Thorson did make it so Northwestern couldn't open up its playbook on passing plays. Teams likely figured out the passing game was nearly nonexistent following the Duke game, and for nearly all of Big Ten play, they would stack the box to defend Jackson. And what happened? Jackson still rushed for 1,418 yards, averaging 4.5 per carry. Did Northwestern reach the limit of what it can do with a running game and defense? If that's winning their last five Big Ten games, including road wins in Lincoln and Madison, I'm not complaining about the limit.
Jackson had four great games to close out the regular season, going for 186, 116, 139, and 172 yards. There's no chance Northwestern could have won those games without him. Could they have won without Thorson? Absolutely. Zack Oliver played against Penn State and Purdue. Even against Tennessee, Jackson averaged 5.3 yards per carry. The bottom line is that last year Northwestern became tied as the winningest team in program history despite a dismal season from Thorson, and its success is not dependent on their quarterback's play. He's a very important player, but not the most important.
IM: Okay, I hear what you're saying. I don't agree, but I hear what you're saying. Just to clarify what I said about Iowa, and Tennessee, both of those games were close at half until the defense caved hard in the second half. Much of that was because they were gassed from being on the field so much thanks to a nonexistent offense. An improved Thorson means a better offense which in turn means a fresher defense. That point aside though, I do think we can all agree that Thorson is still very important and crucial to Northwestern's success in 2016. Whether there are other players that more important can be left up to debate, but Thorson is certainly right at the top.