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Northwestern football season in review: Quarterback grades

Clayton Thorson showed major growth and stayed healthy all season.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

With the season in the rearview mirror, it’s time to assess how Northwestern’s individuals performed this season. All classes are according to the 2016 season. We start with the quarterbacks, where Clayton Thorson played almost every single snap in a markedly improved sophomore campaign.

Clayton Thorson (sophomore): B+/B

280 for 478 (58.58 completion percentage), 3182 yards, 22 touchdowns, nine interceptions; 97 rushes for 98 yards, five touchdowns

Perhaps no player more perfectly embodied the Wildcats’ up-and-down season than Thorson. He started off with a solid performance against Western Michigan but gave away Northwestern’s best chance to win with a goal-line fumble. He followed that up with a horrendous performance against Illinois State, although he was behind a crumbling offensive line. He threw four interceptions in the first four weeks, had two games in which he completed under 50 percent of his passes, and generally struggled with consistency.

But then came October and Thorson hit a hot streak, throwing for 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions. He also added three touchdowns on the ground in the four-game stretch. Thorson put together his finest performance of the year up to that point in a season-saving win at Iowa, throwing for three touchdowns and running for one more while not turning over the ball in a hostile environment. He followed that up with another four-total-touchdown day against Michigan State.

Thorson struggled against tough front sevens all season, especially against Wisconsin and Minnesota, where he attemped a combined 97 passes. That’s the biggest area for improvement for the junior-to-be. He needs to learn to extend plays from the pocket and feel/evade pressure better. There were some sacks where he could have navigated the pocket and kept his eyes downfield but instead tucked it in and absorbed an unnecessary blow or decided to bounce outside and throw it away or, even worse, got the ball knocked out as the pocket collapsed. While Fitzgerald was pleased with his signal-caller’s improved decision-making this season — a season in which he threw for the same number of interceptions despite 183 more passing attempts when compared to his freshman campaign — there’s room for growth.

When discussing the areas for improvement, it’s also quite important to discuss just how much improvement Thorson showed. He got through his reads more quickly and more often. He spread the ball around to a lot of targets; though his favorite by far was Austin Carr (and he sometimes locked onto him), seven different receivers averaged over one catch per game. He was more accurate, especially on third downs, and his development allowed for the offense to be more balanced, creative and dynamic. The school’s record holder in touchdowns in a single season (22), Thorson also showed mental toughness, overcoming early interceptions in several games.

It’ll be interesting to see how Thorson develops in his third year at the helm. The development between year one and year two is often the greatest, and while Thorson showed some very positive signs, there’s lots of room to improve, and he’ll have to do it without his Biletnikoff finalist Carr, who is out of eligibility.

It’s hard to give Thorson an all-encompassing grade. Do you put the emphasis on his October performances, which helped the team overcome a horrendous start in what has historically been Fitzgerald’s worst month? Can you overlook the early struggles? How much weight do you put on the massive numerical improvements and the school record in touchdowns? Putting all of it into account, he earns a solid B+/B. There’s ample room to get better, but the leap forward was encouraging, and he headed one of the Big Ten’s better offenses for a fantastic four-game stretch.

Matt Alviti (junior): INC

1 for 1 (100 completion percentage) two yards; four rushes, three yards

In his fourth year in the program, Alviti saw his most limited role yet, playing very little as Thorson stayed healthy for the entire season, save for one drive against Indiana. He didn’t do anything of note on that drive (his lone rush went for a 9-yard loss).

Overall: B+/B