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, the Wildcats were on the wrong end of a 24-13 scoreline, and the grades reflect the poor outcome.
Clayton Thorson: C
24 for 37, 249 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions, four sacks; 10 rushes for 43 yards, one touchdown
Thorson simply has to find a way to cut down on the turnovers, especially in the redzone. His first interception came with Northwestern driving effectively and in position to take a lead or at least attempt a field goal (yikes). It was a poor decision to try to fit a perfect throw into a small window between two defenders, and it was nowhere near a perfect throw. He had time and he had other options, which he acknowledged in the post-game press conference. His second interception was the final dagger, though by the time he threw it, Northwestern’s chances were very slim.
On the other hand, Thorson did some good things throwing the ball. His completion percentage of 64.9 was the second-highest of the season and fourth-highest of his career. He was able to fit some throws into small windows, too, but he struggles to get through his reads quickly. If his first option isn’t there, he either tries to force it or takes too long getting to his secondary and tertiary reads. He took some sacks he probably could have avoided.
As far as his legs went, Thorson showed that he can still be a major threat on the ground. His 42-yard score was a beauty and looked extremely similar to his 42-yarder vs. Stanford last year.
Pretty much the same play. 42-yarder vs. Stanford last year. 42-yarder vs. Nebraska tonight. pic.twitter.com/5FDR1xPg6y— Sam Brief (@sambrief) September 25, 2016
But his designed runs after that were ineffective. Additionally, he misses a lot of reads on the read-option. He doesn’t keep the ball much, and when he does, it’s not always the best option.
Overall, it’s more of the same. Thorson has clearly developed as a passer who can get the ball downfield, but his decision-making and accuracy is still a work in progress.
Justin Jackson: B-
20 carries, 79 yards; three receptions, 18 yards
For the first time since Michigan/Iowa/Nebraska last year, Jackson has been held under 100 yards for three games in a row. And this game was reminiscent of those first two in that series. He’s a great running back—there’s no debating that—but he has to do a ton of work for minimal gains. The stretch plays were generally unsuccessful, but he was able to find some room up the middle. Early in the game, it appeared he would be a big part of the gameplan, but once again he took a backseat to Thorson and the passing game.
Austin Carr: A
Eight catches, 109 yards, one touchdown
Austin Carr, the Big Ten’s leading wide receiver, has been fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. He’s a safety blanket, yes, but he’s also a vertical threat, and his hands are like glue. He made several impressive catches, including the touchdown.
Flynn Nagel: B+
Five receptions, 48 yards; one punt return, five yards
Nagel has become a solid second option and make an incredibly athletic catch of an off-target Thorson throw that might have been a pick had he not dove in front and corralled it. He also returned a punt, and generally has been good at making fair catches rather than letting the ball bounce. He’s an exciting guy for the future.
Offensive line: D+
There were actually times this week where the Northwestern offensive line held up decently, and given the level of competition, this was the best performance of the year. Thorson was afforded time to throw in general, and when the Wildcats ran the ball up the middle, it was effective at times.
But the Wildcats struggle on stretch runs, a staple of any spread offense, and there were still too many wasted downs due to poor line play. Additionally, there were two drive-killing third-and-one holding penalties, both of which came at important junctures in the game. Overall, it’s still an offensive line that’s very much below average. When a D+ is considered the best performance that’s far, that’s bad.
Defensive line: F
Maybe an F is harsh, but throughout the game, the defensive line failed to do its job. Northwestern didn’t have a single sack. The Cornhuskers ran for an absurd 310 yards. It looked like the Iowa performance from last year. Tyler Lancaster led the way up front with six tackles, but behind him, no one had more than three. Tommy Armstrong Jr. thoroughly befuddled the line with his running ability (13 carries for a career-high 132 yards), and the unit was simply beaten up front, especially in the second half.
Jaylen Prater: B+
Eight total tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, one quarterback hurry
Prater—not Anthony Walker Jr.—has been the best linebacker on the team thus far. Prater was all over the place. He looks faster and overall better than he was last year when a knee injury ended his season early. His play has very much been a pleasant surprise.
Godwin Igwebuike: B+
15 total tackles, two tackles for loss, one forced fumble
Igwebuike’s 15 tackles led the team, and save for one missed open-field tackle, he was very solid. He was called for one pass interference penalty which looked like the right call from our vantage point but looked a little more questionable on replay. He came up with the defense’s best play at the goal line, forcing a fumble, and has been a good leader for a very young secondary. It’s never a good thing when a safety leads the team in tackles, but his team-leading two TFLs show that he was making plays all over the place.
Trae Williams: D+
Williams was targeted early and often and had trouble with a talented group of Nebraska wide receivers. He was beat deep by Alonzo Moore on a double move and was also the victim on the Cethan Carter touchdown when he got picked and couldn’t recover in time. That he had zero pass breakups isn’t good, and because he played so far off opposing receivers, Armstrong Jr. had a lot of easy throws in his direction. It was a long night for the young cornerback.
Jack Mitchell: F
0 for 1 field goals, 1 for 2 extra points
You can say there are bigger issues on the team, but you may not be correct any more. Field goal and extra point kicking is a basic facet of the game. And Northwestern cannot do it successfully at all. Mitchell has been perhaps the biggest disappointment of this season, and it is seriously impacting the team’s ability to call plays and simply play normally when it gets into scoring position. That Fitzgerald declared an open kicking competition tells you how serious this issue is.