It wasn’t very pretty, but Northwestern is finally in the win column in 2016. In their 24-13 victory over Duke, the Wildcats found success in both something old and something new.
The defense began to look a bit like its old self, as it was able to shut down Duke in the second half, but the offense was what led the team to victory, as Clayton Thorson unleashed three deep touchdowns.
In all of 2015, Northwestern only had three completed passes of 40 yards or more. On Saturday they had two in the second half alone. After attempting (and failing) to do so in the first two games, the Northwestern passing attack was finally able to truly stretch the field against Duke.
“It’s critically important,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been trying to throw the ball down the field more, and we’ve got to make people pay for putting 25 people in the box.”
That’s what Northwestern succeeded in doing Saturday night as Thorson threw for three touchdowns, a 26-yard score to Garrett Dickerson, a 44-yard score to Solomon Vault and a 58-yard score to Austin Carr. Alongside the long touchdowns, Thorson also completed 33-yard and 35-yard passes to Flynn Nagel and Macan Wilson respectively.
Although the passing game was striking deep, it didn’t really open up the running game. Justin Jackson only had 94 yards on 28 carries. However, if the offense continues to move the ball through the air, that might be the next step.
“If we can continue to do that we’re going to finally get some people to play off us a bit and we may have some balance,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think any of our first three opponents have hid their gameplan. I think they’ve said ‘we’re going to blitz everything and make Clayton and the receivers beat us.’ Obviously today we had success in that area, but I don’t think that gameplan is going to change until we show that we can do it.”
That’s why this is so key in the development of the offense. Last year, Northwestern had nobody who could stretch the field and now suddenly they have a plethora of receivers that can get open deep. Carr is Mr. Reliable, Vault is a burner who can really stretch things vertically and Dickerson can out-muscle defenders over the middle.
Having a deep passing attack opens up every other aspect of the offense for Northwestern. Opposing teams can’t stack the box as much against Justin Jackson, and they also have to play off the receivers more, opening up short and medium routes. The third touchdown, to Carr, happened because Duke brought an all out blitz and Thorson was able to hit his wide open receiver for a score after solid pass protection. If this becomes a part of the offensive arsenal, then opposing teams can no longer blitz as much, relieving a bit of the pressure on the offensive line.
“I think it was huge, having that in the passing game, which we didn’t have a year ago, those explosive plays, that’s something we’ve worked hard on,” Thorson said. “Credit those receivers getting open, it’s a good stepping stone for us.”
For Thorson, he had one of the stranger stat lines you’ll see. He set career highs throwing for 320 yards and 3 scores, but also only completed 46 percent of his passes and threw 2 INTs. He threw the ball 39 times and only completed 18, so he was wildly inefficient, but when he did connect it was for a big gain. On the day, he averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, but 17.8 yards per completion.
Thorson was far from perfect, as he did overthrow and/or miss a few receivers that were consistently open deep, but he was also sacked five times and constantly pressured. Around half of those incompletions were just Thorson throwing the ball away, and one of his interceptions was because Andrew Scanlan fell down. All in all, it was the best game of Thorson’s still-young career, and there is still plenty of room to improve.
If these types of explosive plays can be executed consistently, or at least be a threat, then suddenly the offense may open up, and that includes the play calling. There is still the limit of the offensive line, but suddenly, creative four and five-wide sets are a real possibility. Dickerson’s score was on an empty-backfield, five-wide set. Developing a hit-or-miss offensive mentality can be dangerous, but anything is better than the run-run-pass-punt offense of last year.
This possible emergence of a deep passing attack doesn’t solve all the overall offensive problems—not by a long shot—but it’s a step in the right direction and that’s more than Northwestern has been able to do in a couple of years.