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Inside the Play: Will the real Clayton Thorson please stand up?

Thorson threw a couple of bad interceptions a week after inspiring confidence

Northwestern v Duke Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

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 looked shaky in the opener and we all just thought it was some rust from the offseason, but against a better opponent in week two they got run off the field. Worst of all, the passing attack that looked so good in week one, looked awful in Durham on Saturday. The day can be summed up in two bad interceptions from Clayton Thorson, both badly thrown balls behind his receivers. We’re going to take a closer look to see what exactly happened to Northwestern’s quarterback.

(All video via ESPN)

The Northwestern offense of my youth..... it has returned.

After Week One, everyone (including me) was excited about what appeared to be a much improved Clayton Thorson. His impressive statline of 28-for-38, 352 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, and 2 rushing TDs, boded well for his third year. Even if the team looked somewhat mediocre, there was hope for the future, a future that featured a top-tier quarterback.

Well it’s time to pump the breaks on all that optimism.

After his fantastic opener in Evanston, Thorson and the Wildcats traveled to Durham and got run off the field by the Blue Devils in a brutal 41-17 loss. Not only did Northwestern’s offense looked bad pretty much the whole day. Take out the garbage time Matt Alviti touchdown drive and the first team offense gained exactly 116 yards on the day.

Thorson’s line on the day? 11-29, 120 yards, 2 INT.

It looked like a freshman year Thorson line, except without the dominant defense to make it the outcome a victory. Four sacks and no running game certainly didn’t help, but Thorson was missing throws all over the field, very few worse than his two second half interceptions.

Fitzgerald came to the defense of Thorson, saying this pick wasn’t his fault and the receiver ran the wrong route:

Then he threw the ball late out to the flat to Jalen Brown:

These are not the most intricate plays we’ve ever looked at here, but in a game that should mostly be forgotten these are two of the more important plays moving forward.

Let’s take a look.

The Breakdown

Third quarter, 12:10 left, Clayton Thorson intercepted by Mark Gilbert

Let’s take a look at the pre-snap alignment to see exactly what Thorson was looking at here:

Look familiar? Well if you remember last week this is the same look from Northwestern that they had on the Macan Wilson touchdown. Trips Bunch out wide, five offensive linemen and a superback on the line and Thorson in the shotgun. Duke is far better prepared for it than Nevada was however. Duke lines up in a base 4-3, except they keep the Will linebacker out in coverage to add safety help. Still, there is a decent chance that a well run route will leave someone open.

A couple seconds into the play and from the way Thorson is positioned, it looked like Macan Wilson (the receiver who looks like he’s running right towards the score graphic) is the first read here. Wilson is running a crossing route, is already covered and will be running towards two other defenders, so he clearly wasn’t the right read here.

Meanwhile towards the bottom, Riley Lees is covered out in the flat while Chiaokhiao-Bowman seemingly runs an out route at the first down marker. The biggest takeaway here is the fact that Thorson makes the right read.

Look at the amount of space in front of Chiaokhiao-Bowman there. If Thorson hits him in stride it’s not only a first down, it’s probably a huge gain. Thorson throw is so far behind his receiver that Chiaokhiao-Bowman stopping in this tracks and laying out doesn’t even let him get to the ball. It hits Gilbert right in the chest.

Now, if we fully believe Fitz’s press conference comments, Chiaokhiao-Bowman was actually supposed to run a comeback route and there was a miscommunication. Thorson does reach out his hand towards Chiaokhiao-Bowman as they run back to the sideline, but since I’m not a body language expert I don’t know if that’s a “what were you doing” or “don’t worry it was my fault.” From the look of the play though it would seem Thorson just made a bad throw.

So unfortunately there’s no other high level analysis here, Thorson did everything right, there was a clean pocket and the receiver was open. The throw just wasn’t made.

Fourth quarter, 10:10 left, Clayton Thorson intercepted by Mark Gilbert

Gilbert strikes again!

Let’s take another look at the pre-snap alignments:

Northwestern runs out the trips bunch once again, only this time there are two extra wide receivers on the near side of the field. This time Duke is lined up in a dime package with six defensive backs, four defensive linemen and one linebacker. Northwestern, down 28, is clearly going to pass here and Duke is ready for it.

This play is a bit different than the first one because roughly one second after the snap, everything has gone wrong. There are already two defenders bearing down on Thorson with another on the way. At this point the play is close to doomed.

Either Thorson tucks the ball and takes the sack or he attempts to his whoever his first read was, so given his position either Flynn Nagel or Jalen Brown. There is no chance for him to throw to any of the receivers on the far side of the field even if they’re open, he never even had the chance to look at them.

From the above screenshot it clearly looks like Nagel would have been the right choice, but half a second later and:

That route would have been jumped (if Thorson even saw Nagel at all, he literally had 1 second to make a decision). So Thorson throws the ball to Brown.

It was not a good decision.

This is interesting because Brown was very well covered and Thorson tried to force the ball in there, but he had almost no time to make a decision and probably didn’t want to get sacked for the fifth time. A throw to Brown’s other shoulder is probably a completion, or at least not an interception.

Thorson probably should have just thrown the ball away, something he has been very good at throughout his career.


Clayton Thorson is a now in his third year as a starter. While he’s allowed to have bad games, this needs to be exception not the rule. Week One was such a pleasant surprise because it looked like Thorson had really taken a final step forward in his development. This week, he looks like a freshman again.

The game wasn’t all bad, here’s an example of what we know Thorson can look like when he’s playing well:

Quick three step drop, ball right on target in stride on the slant. This was probably his best stretch of the entire game, when the offense decided to finally fight the relentless Duke blitz with a series of quick slants.

Honestly, a big part of the problem against Duke was that there was zero chance of running play action. Thorson feasted on play action passes against Nevada, with no running game, not only was the offense stalled, but they couldn’t even jumpstart the team with their best weapon.

As for Thorson himself, we all know he can make the throws. Regardless if Thorson can replicate his Week One performance, he has to cut out these types of interceptions. Tipped balls or getting fooled by a defense is one thing, happens to the best quarterbacks, but he can’t be turning the ball over because he simply missed an easy throw.

Northwestern and Thorson should have one more chance to get right against a mediocre opponent Saturday against Bowling Green. But if they’re not right by the time they march into Camp Randall on September 30th, things might be even worse than they were in Durham.