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Inside the Play: Thorson gives Northwestern the lead with his legs

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The Wildcats took the lead for good after Thorson ran it in from 18 yards out.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Every week, our Ian McCafferty will go back and critically review one or more plays from the past Saturday's game. These are the plays that, more than any others, were crucial in determining the outcome of the game. He'll check the film, and breakdown the how and why of those decisive few seconds.

Northwestern won a football game! After going nearly a month without a victory, Northwestern traveled all the way to College Park and put on an impressive showing against the Maryland Terrapins. While the second half was all Wildcats, the first half was touch and go for the most part. In fact, when Northwestern got the ball with 8 minutes left in the half, it trailed 14-10. Four minutes later, the Wildcats took the lead for good as Clayton Thorson scampered into the end zone. Let’s see how he got there.

(All video via ESPN)

At this point, it’s nearly impossible to predict what Northwestern’s offense will look like week to week.

Seven days after looking not only bad, but sluggish, Northwestern traveled to College Park and put up 37 points. Yes, Penn State is much, much better than Maryland, but the offense was barely executing anything properly last week. Against the Terps, on the road, the unit looked explosive and consistently dangerous. College football remains about as predictable as the weather.

Luckily, the level of play on display at Homecoming didn’t travel with the Wildcats as they looked impressive in a Big Ten game for the first time this season. Hopefully, with the two toughest games out of the way, this trend continues on.

As for the game, it looked like Northwestern was in for a battle after no one tackled D.J. Moore and he went 52 yards for a touchdown, giving the Terrapins a 14-10 lead. Northwestern responded with a 13 play, 75 yard drive that was capped off by this:

This gave Northwestern a 17-14 lead, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the game.

Let’s see how Thorson was able to find so much running room.

The Breakdown

Pre-snap alignments for the 1st and 10:

The primary thing that jumps out here is the fact that Maryland is playing in the nickel while Northwestern has four wide receivers on the field. This means that either a linebacker or a safety is going to have to pick up the extra Northwestern wide receiver. As you can see above, the far side safety draws the assignment while both linebackers stay in the box just in case Northwestern runs the ball.

Right after the ball is snapped, the initial assessment appears to be correct; Maryland is playing man to man with one deep safety. As both linebackers stay put, it looks like one will pick up Jackson depending on where he runs his route and the other will cover the middle of the field and/or spy the quarterback.

Right away, all four receivers are picked up with Flynn Nagel’s crossing route being picked up by the safety.

The combo of great blocking and Nagel’s crossing route are what spring this play at the beginning. The line does a create job neutralizing the Maryland four man rush. Chandler Burkett (92) is pushed to the outside by Blake Hance, which will eventually allow Thorson to step up in the pocket. The other three linemen are kept in check and pushed towards the far sideline, opening that huge hole.

At this point, all the defensive backs are engaged in coverage, except for the other safety who is 20 yards upfield, so if Thorson decides to tuck it and run right here, it’s up to the linebackers to stop him. The only problem is that Jalen Brooks (43) is assigned to Jackson out of the backfield and Flynn Nagel has just caught the attention of Jermaine Carter Jr. (1) over the middle.

This is tough for Carter — if he doesn’t bump Nagel on his route, Thorson dumps it down to him for at least a first down and possibly a touchdown. The whole near side of the field in the flat is cleared out and, as we can see from the previous screenshot, the safety is a few yards behind Nagel. However, if he does bump him it opens up that huge hole above. Hance does a good job, but not too good of a job and Thorson is forced to step up in the pocket.

That’s when he sees nothing but open field in front of him.

This is the moment Carter realizes he’s in trouble. He’s the only free Maryland player in the frame and he doesn’t exactly have a good angle.

Also, there was just nobody between Thorson and the end zone on that side of the field. That’s what will happen when the far side safety has to cover a crossing route.

Also, Thorson is faster than a lot of the players on the field.

No one has a good enough angle to get anywhere near him until he’s already into the endzone. It’s 17-14 Wildcats and it’s time to celebrate by nearly injuring your head coach.

Takeaways

Clayton Thorson is fast, athletic and should pull the ball down to run a bit more often than he does. He doesn’t need to become Kain Colter, but he’s been making these kinds of plays for three years now, and it would be even better if he did it more often.

It’s hard to take anything away from the play calling here, as it was just sort of a broken down play that broke right for Northwestern. I’d still want to call more plays to utilize Thorson’s speed, but that might result in more speed option plays and no one wants that.

Sometimes you just have to admire a good play for what it is, a bit of a fluke and super fun. Hopefully we get more of those kinds of plays before the season ends.