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Northwestern looked different (and better) on first down against Michigan State

The Wildcats’ offensive resurgence starts on first down.

Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It took them eight games, but Northwestern is finally throwing the ball on first down. It has been an arduous and circuitous season of an offense full of zone reads and speed options at the behest of offensive coordinator Mick McCall. But those dark days seem to be in Northwestern’s past. After collecting less than 250 yards of total against Wisconsin, less than 270 against Penn State and then scoring just 10 points in regulation against Iowa, McCall must have had an epiphany. Maybe, McCall probably thought, just maybe, we should try something new. Against Michigan State, the Wildcats put together their most efficient first-down performance of the season.

Northwestern’s offensive rejuvenation looks good on paper. 39 points against the S&P+ No. 16 defense will put a glimpse of a smile on the face of the weariest and most apprehensive McCall skeptic. Four weeks have passed since the Wildcats came up short in Madison, and from Sep. 30 to Oct. 28, Northwestern’s first-down execution is night and day. It didn’t necessarily lead to an abundance of points in regulation on Saturday, but statistically, it was a terrific outing for McCall’s offense against one of the best defense’s it has faced in 2017. On first down, Northwestern was its best all season in conference play.

  • 31 plays for 125 yards (4.03 average) against Wisconsin
  • 27 plays for 118 yards (4.37 average) against Penn State
  • 38 plays for 230 yards (6.05 average) against Maryland
  • 32 plays for 143 yards (4.47 average) against Iowa
  • 37 plays for 239 yards (6.46 average) against Michigan State

Those numbers aren’t perfect —ESPN’s play-by-play feature is easily befuddled by turnovers and penalties — but the individual plays, along with specific “Run vs. Pass” information, can be found on each spreadsheet hyperlinked above. Interceptions were essentially counted as a net-zero and first-down plays with penalties were ignored in favor of the subsequent first down play.

On Saturday, Northwestern’s long-tenured coaching staff proved to not be allergic to change. The offense was aggressive on first down. Quarterback Clayton Thorson threw the ball downfield. The Wildcats took what it could get from a Spartans defense that dared Northwestern to beat them through the air, and then capitalized when Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio elected to play press coverage as the game wore on.

McCall ran the ball just nine times on first down against Michigan State. The last time the Wildcats ran their traditional zone running plays so little was when they played second half catch up against Wisconsin. This time, they threw on first down with the game tied. They even threw on first-down with the lead in the fourth quarter. They threw in overtime with a short field. They threw in double overtime and they threw triple overtime too. It was refreshing to watch. Here are three of Northwestern’s first four first down plays in its opening possession.

Obviously this drive doesn’t end well as the fight for extra yards by Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman results in a fumble. But Northwestern threw on all four first downs of its opening drive. Although it did not result in points, this drive was one of its most impressive opening drives of the season. It would set the tone for an offense that was determined to simply become less defensible.

Thorson threw early and often. Effortless completions can establish a quarterback’s confidence early. A check-down to Justin Jackson leads to eight easy yards on first down. Macan Wilson runs a simple five-yard snag route for a quick nine yards. Positive first down plays like these have been scarce, and while they weren’t explosive, they were effective. It established a much-needed rhythm for Thorson, who rewarded his play-caller with the most passing yards of his three-year career.

The second half told a similar story of change. Thorson opened the third quarter by finding Flynn Nagel off of play-action for 18-yards. When that play works, it forces the defense to respect the pass. Michigan State sells out to defend the run while leaving its corners on islands and dropping a deep safety to defend the slot receiver, which is Nagel. That gashed a huge hole for Nagel in the heart of the field, and the safety is so deep that Nagel has a first-down and then some after finally being brought down. It’s an easy pitch-and-catch for Northwestern.

This next play is what Northwestern fans have been yearning for. Thorson saw he had one-on-one with Macan Wilson on the outside so he took a shot. It’s barely under thrown and Michigan State's corner does a great job of finding the ball and making a play on it. Nonetheless, Thorson has very rarely tried to beat the defense over the top this season. This was the most decisively the most exciting incomplete pass of the year.

Thorson takes a huge hit on this play but hangs in there long enough to deliver a pass to superback Cam Green. He went back to the well one quarter later. The linebacker’s attempt to defend Green - a former high school wide receiver - is futile, and he gallops down the sideline for a huge gain.

This play-call immediately after Green’s second reception is fantastic. Thorson should have looked at Nagel in the slot instead of firing away at Wilson, but he was taking a shot at the end zone after a big play. On first down, that will always be OK. Another exciting incompletion.

Now is when it starts to get really unbelievable, because Northwestern throwing on first down with a fourth quarter lead is unprecedented. Thorson is given plenty of time against the four-man rush, Wilson gets just enough separation on a slant and the ball is perfectly thrown. You can’t defend this any better. But you can’t execute on offense any better. Which begs the question, why doesn’t Northwestern do this every time?

Once the game got to overtime, Thorson’s confidence was through the roof. And why wouldn’t it be? He finished the afternoon 33-of-48 for a career-high 356 yards and two touchdowns. These aren’t difficult throws for Thorson, but who knows if he makes them as cleanly had he not been making similar throws all game. The wheel-route by Green coupled with Thorson’s shoulder fake is almost unguardable. Touchdown. Northwestern.

It was Michigan State’s vaunted defense that won them conference games against Iowa, Michigan and Indiana. But on Saturday, it was Northwestern’s offense that put together its most impressive performance of the season. Backed by its highest dropback percentage on first-down this season, the Wildcats averaged significantly more yards on their first-down plays. Coming from an offense that has been traditionally stagnant, Saturday’s first-down success was a much-welcomed sight.

Mick McCall seems to be finally channeling his offense’s untapped potential, and it’s happening by turning Thorson loose. Change can be a good thing, especially when it’s long overdue.

But even more so when it works.