EVANSTON— It was a familiar sight all night long.
Flynn Nagel streaked across the middle of the field on a drag route, one step ahead of a Michigan State defender. Stepping up in the pocket, quarterback Clayton Thorson hit Nagel in stride and the junior turned upfield and tumbled into the end zone to give Northwestern (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) the lead in triple overtime.
Saturday night’s 39-31 victory over No. 16 Michigan State (6-2, 4-1) at Ryan Field was a revival for Northwestern’s passing attack. With Michigan State loading up the box to stop Justin Jackson, Thorson attempted 48 passes, completing 33 of them for 356 yards and two scores.
Asked about what he saw from his receivers, Thorson kept it simple.
“They just kept getting open, and I’m not going to complain,” the redshirt junior said.
For Thorson, Saturday was his first 300-plus yard passing day since the Bowling Green game well over a month ago. Though his longest completion against Michigan State went for just 25 yards, Thorson played mistake-free football against a Spartan defense that came to Evanston surrendering under 200 yards per game through the air.
“As the quarterback, now you’re the hero or the zero,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Thorson. “I thought he took what the defense gave him, stepped up in the pocket, made some great throws.”
Consistent man defense from the Spartans meant a lot of slants and drags for Northwestern wide receivers, and plenty of receptions to go around as well. Six Northwestern pass-catchers had three or more receptions, including Nagel, who finished with eight catches for 87 yards and the game-winning touchdown. It was a career day for superback Cam Green, who amassed 76 yards and scored a touchdown in the game’s first overtime as well as a 2-point conversion in 3OT.
Justin Jackson managed only 2.4 yards per rush on 17 carries, but he made an impact in the passing game, hauling in seven receptions for 51 yards and making several defenders miss on a key third down conversion in the second quarter.
“We’ve been using our backs different ways for the whole year,” Fitzgerald said. “We want to get Justin in space, and we were able to get that accomplished.”
Talk about using Jackson differently. With Northwestern deep in Michigan State territory, offensive coordinator Mick McCall harkened back to a play drawn up in training camp this summer — a halfback pass. The Ball Carrier took a handoff from Thorson before lofting a pass to Bennett Skowronek in the end zone. Skowronek high-pointed the ball and fell to the turf with a touchdown, giving Northwestern a 17-10 lead in the third quarter and sending the crowd at Ryan Field into a frenzy. Will Jackson, with his 530.8 quarterback rating, be getting more opportunities to throw the ball?
“No, we will not be calling any more throws for him,” Fitzgerald said. “[It] looked like a really bad throw. Productive though.”
Jackson’s touchdown pass was one play in a game full of excitement, especially in the red zone. The Wildcats capitalized on all five of their scoring opportunities inside the 20-yard-line, including three consecutive touchdowns when it mattered the most.
“Once we get across the 50, we’ve got to score. And in the first half we did not do a good job of that,” Thorson said. “I was happy with how we turned around and just kept fighting, kept grinding, and eventually got in.”
Following several frustrating decisions in recent weeks, McCall showed creativity Saturday night, drawing up a beautiful play to get Northwestern on the board during the first overtime. Thorson pumped at Bennett Skowronek setting up for a screen behind the line of scrimmage, then found Green all alone in the end zone for an easy score.
“Mick and the offensive staff did a terrific job putting together a plan to take what they gave us,” Fitzgerald said.
More than anything else, the Northwestern offense was, in a word, fun. Thorson compared Saturday’s triple-overtime win to playing the NCAA Football video game with his brothers.
“This is definitely one of the most satisfying victories [since I've been here],” Thorson said. “I’m so proud of our guys. These are the games that we live for."
Damn that one felt good— Flynn Nagel (@All_I_DoIsFLYNN) October 29, 2017
Northwestern moves to 5-3, with three consecutive Big Ten victories and a strong sense of momentum. A slow start tempered expectations, but the Wildcats are through the toughest part of their schedule and should be favorites in each of their final four games.
“I don't think we needed validation,” Nagel said when asked if the win felt particularly rewarding. “We've always known we were a good team. We're just now starting to prove that.”
Saturday’s win might not have been validating, but it was exciting, different, and perhaps a turning point for these Wildcats. An quarterback back in rhythm for the first time in weeks. A host of receivers making plays all over the field. An offensive line that only surrendered one sack.
And at the end of it all, hundreds of students pouring onto Ryan Field, celebrating a win.