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Thorson’s Throws Week 5: Clayton Thorson has a big arm, right?

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Northwestern’s complete reliance on the short passing game doomed the Wildcats in Madison.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Thorson’s Throws, our new weekly statistical feature dissecting Clayton Thorson’s play every game. It’s a look at what worked and what didn’t for the quarterback, as well as the tendencies both he and Mick McCall showed in the passing game.

It was a brutal afternoon at Camp Randall for Northwestern. Save for a couple of late scores, every single aspect of the offense struggled. The passing game wasn’t a threat at all. Here’s why.

Year in and year out, everyone involved with Northwestern football — from casual fans to analysts to Pat Fitzgerald himself — knows what’s coming from Wisconsin: strong, smart line play on both sides of the ball. Sometimes Northwestern lives up to that. It did in 2015 when the Wildcats won at Camp Randall in a game dominated by Justin Jackson and NU’s defensive line. In 2016, though, Northwestern’s lines got thrown around in a relatively straightforward 21-7 loss. The same thing happened in 2017. Northwestern, as always, needed to establish the running game. It didn’t. It lost.

But more importantly, Northwestern’s inability to protect Clayton Thorson is what lost the game. Thorson was sacked 10 times and under immense pressure on countless other dropbacks. More often than not, this pressure came despite Wisconsin only rushing three or four defenders. As a result, Thorson had to get the ball out of his hands quickly. But there were other times when it seemed like the entire game plan was predicated on the short passing game. Take a look for yourself at the play-by-play. Thorson was pressured a lot. He wasn’t pressured so much that he had to make this many short throws:

Thorson throws play-by-play Wisconsin

DRIVE Down Distance Field position Receiver Air yards Total yards Notable
DRIVE Down Distance Field position Receiver Air yards Total yards Notable
1 2 7 WIS21 Skowronek 6 6
1 1 10 NU7 Skowronek 9 13
3 1 10 NU25 Lees 13 15
3 2 2 WIS37 Larkin 2 4
3 3 11 WIS34 Green 0 2
3 4 9 WIS32 Wilson 14 0 INT
4 1 10 NU44 Jackson 0 0 INC
5 2 15 WIS38 Nagel 8 9
5 2 5 WIS18 Jackson 3 0 INC
5 2 15 WIS28 Dickerson 1 12
5 3 3 WIS16 Dickerson 2 3
5 2 7 WIS10 Prather 9 9
5 1 GOAL WIS1 Green 1 1 TD
6 1 10 NU31 Green 3 0 INC
6 2 10 NU31 Skowronek 6 0 INC
6 3 10 NU31 Wilson 3 0 INC
80 74 1ST HALF TOTALS
--------------------- --------------------- --------------------- HALFTIME --------------------- --------------------- ---------------------
7 1 10 NU25 Skowronek 6 6
7 2 3 NU31 Nagel 6 9
7 2 5 NU45 Dickerson 5 0 INC
7 3 5 NU45 Jackson 0 5
7 1 10 50 Skowronek 3 0 INC
8 1 10 NU25 Skowronek 4 4
8 1 10 NU37 Wilson 8 0 INC
9 1 10 NU25 Nagel 2 6
9 2 4 NU31 Nagel 15 0 INC
9 3 4 NU31 Lees 7 0 INC
10 1 10 NU16 Jackson 3 3
10 2 7 NU19 Jackson 0 0
11 3 8 NU27 Nagel 10 0 INT
12 2 8 NU27 Skowronek 9 9
12 1 10 NU45 Chiaokhiao-Bowman 5 0 INC
12 3 7 NU48 James 46 0 INC
12 4 7 NU48 Lees 10 10
12 1 10 WIS42 Larkin 3 9
12 2 1 WIS33 Larkin 2 4
12 1 10 WIS29 Nagel 3 16
12 1 10 WIS13 Dickerson 15 0 INC
12 1 GOAL WIS29 Chiaokhiao-Bowman 2 2 TD
13 1 10 NU45 Dickerson 5 6
13 2 6 WIS49 Jackson 4 8
13 1 10 WIS41 Jackson 1 0 INC
13 2 10 WIS41 James 4 0 INC
13 3 10 WIS41 Lees 7 24
13 1 10 WIS17 Nagel 10 12
13 1 GOAL WIS5 Dickerson 7 5 TD
14 1 10 NU2 Wilson 7 7
209 145 2ND HALF TOTALS
289 219 GAME TOTALS

Let’s break this down in table format:

Thorson vs. Wisconsin breakdown

RANGE YARDS COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS/ATTEMPT YARDS/COMPLETION
RANGE YARDS COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS/ATTEMPT YARDS/COMPLETION
40+ 0 0 1 0 0
30-39 0 0 0 0 0
20-29 0 0 0 0 0
10-19 37 3 7 5.3 12.3
0-9 182 21 37 4.9 8.7

Of Thorson’s 45 passes on Saturday, 37 of them were thrown under 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Thirty-seven!!! That’s over 82 percent. Coming into the season, Thorson had thrown just 63 percent of his passes that short. Against the Badgers, he had to check the ball down a lot. That’s not the game plan’s fault. But Thorson threw an exorbitant amount of out routes, in routes and slants — routes that were his first read. It was a thoroughly uncreative game plan, and one that Wisconsin adjusted to after halftime and used to its advantage. In the third quarter, Thorson threw 12 passes. One went more than eight yards past the line of scrimmage. Northwestern had 10 yards of offense in the quarter. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Thorson was pick-sixed.

When sketching out the spread of Thorson’s air yards, which, yes, I do by hand and no, is not fun, I almost ran out of room to squeeze in every single short throw:

Key: J.J.=Justin Jackson, J.J.82=Jace James, M.W.=Macan Wilson, R.L.=Riley Lees, G.D.=Garrett Dickerson, B.S.=Bennett Skowronek, C.G.=Cameron Green, J.P.=James Prather, J.L.=Jeremy Larkin, RCB=Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, F.N.=Flynn Nagel

Yes, it’s that bad.

Here were a few notes I figured I’d throw in:

  • Bennett Skowronek caught five passes for 38 yards, an average of 7.6 yards per catch. Coming in, he had averaged 18.2 yards per catch. Skowronek’s “deepest” target was just 9 yards past the line of scrimmage.
  • Coming into this game, Thorson was averaging 6.2 yards per attempt on attempts under 10 yards. That dropped to just 4.9 on Saturday.
  • The most major discrepancy, though, was in the 10-19 air yard range. Coming into this game, Thorson averaged 17.4 yards per completion and 9.7 per attempt at that distance. That came down to 12.3 and 5.3 against Wisconsin.
  • Northwestern took two deep shots against the Badgers. One was just beyond the reach of Jace James. The other, to Skowronek, drew a pass interference.

So we’ll see what Northwestern changes for Penn State. Maybe McCall will try to get Thorson on the move via play-action and misdirection schemes, not only to take advantage of his athleticism, but also to take some pressure off his line. Maybe the line will play up to a higher level, allowing McCall to dial up some more deep route concepts and Thorson to deliver downfield.

Here are Thorson’s season numbers:

Clayton Thorson season

RANGE YARDS COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS/ATTEMPT YARDS/COMPLETION
RANGE YARDS COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS/ATTEMPT YARDS/COMPLETION
40+ 106 2 3 35.3 53
30-39 74 2 5 14.8 37
20-29 46 2 3 15.3 23
10-19 280 17 32 8.8 16.5
0-9 555 61 97 5.7 9.1

Other Thorson’s throws:

Week 1

Bye Week