Despite falling behind early, Northwestern rallied behind Clayton Thorson and took care of a pesky Nevada team to pick up a season-opening victory on Saturday afternoon.
Clayton Thorson showed that he is deserving of all the offseason hype by leading his Wildcats back into the game and ultimately into the win column. He looked calm and sharp in his progressions and made a number of huge throws, finishing 28-for-38 (74 percent) for 352 yards and two scores, adding 15 rushing yards and two more scores on quarterback sneaks.
Sophomore receiver Bennett Skowronek had a breakout game, catching 8 passes for 123 yards. Macan Wilson and Riley Lees caught Thorson’s touchdown passes and combined for over 110 yards. Justin Jackson carried the ball 30 times for an inefficient 109 yards (mostly due to poor interior run-blocking) and was the third-leading receiver with 5 catches for 42 yards.
On defense, Kyle Queiro led the way with 7 tackles and an interception. Nate Hall and Jared McGee also made several big plays over the middle of the field, while Joe Gaziano and Tyler Lancaster led the way on the defensive line.
Still, this one wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the score makes it seem. Northwestern was behind by 10 at the half and nearly ran out of cornerbacks. But in the end, Thorson wasn’t going to let his team fall to 0-1 for another year. The junior was brilliant in leading the second-half comeback.
Northwestern got on the board first after a big play on special teams. With Hunter Niswander punting for the second time in as many possessions, RB-turned-LB Warren Long was able to force a fumble on the return that was scooped up by Auston Anderson. One first down later, Thorson hit Wilson for a 33-yard touchdown to make the score 7-0.
It was surely an emotional moment for Wilson, who hails from Houston and ran onto the field today holding a Texas flag.
After that score, though, it was all Nevada for the rest of the first half.
The Wolf Pack immediately answered with an 8-play, 75-yard scoring drive, capped off by a touchdown pass from Gangi to Wyatt Demps on a slant. That drive featured a head-scratching personal foul penalty by senior Godwin Igwebuike.
The Wildcats would move the ball over their next few possessions, but a couple of ugly red zone mistakes rendered two long drives meaningless. First, true freshman kicker Charlie Kuhbander missed a 21-yard field goal on his first career attempt. The kick was from the right hash and Kuhbander didn’t angle the ball quite enough to get it inside the right upright, a problem we saw from Jack Mitchell last season.
Kuhbander, notably, was one of nine (!) freshmen to burn their redshirt in the opener. Rashawn Slater started the first series of the game at right tackle and split series with redshirt freshman Gunnar Vogel the rest of the way. Trey Pugh, Earnest Brown IV, Blake Gallagher, Sam Miller and Kyric McGowan also saw some action in the first half. Jace James and J.R. Pace made appearances in the second half.
Correction: The most Northwestern freshmen to play in a season is six. The Wildcats played six in the first half.— Inside NU (@insidenu) September 2, 2017
After getting field position back in its favor, Nevada’s air raid passing attack struck again, with Gangi hooking up with McLane Mannix for a 41-yard score. Northwestern cornerback Marcus McShepard, thrust into action due to Keith Watkins II’s season-ending injury, was burned on both first-half touchdown passes.
The Wildcat offense, led by Thorson and Jackson, moved the ball methodically down the field once again before disaster struck...once again. With the ball deep in Nevada territory, Northwestern appeared to have converted a second fourth-down on the drive. Thorson hit Skowronek over the middle, but Nevada’s Rufus Asauni was able to punch the ball out of his hands for a fumble and a turnover. It wasn’t the toughest hit; Skowronek absolutely needs to be able to hang onto the ball in that situation.
He would more than make up for it.
Nevada moved the ball well again on the ensuing drive, but Northwestern’s defense was able to hold the Wolf Pack to a field goal. Despite having over 20 minutes of time of possession in the first half, the Wildcats found themselves down 17-7 at the break.
The Northwestern defense responded nicely early in the third quarter, although the offense once again came up short in the red zone. A quick three-and-out for Nevada on the first possession of the second half led to another long drive from the Wildcats. This one stalled inside the 10 after a pair of passes that were just out of the reach of Flynn Nagel. Kuhbander drilled a field goal to make it a 7-point game.
Thorson showed off both his wheels and his arm after getting the ball back. On a third-and-12 just into Nevada territory, the redshirt junior made the smart decision to tuck the ball and run for the first down, picking up an extra 15 yards on a late hit by Nevada. On the ensuing pass, he hit the redshirt freshman Lees for a 19-yard score.
Following another defensive stop, Thorson hit Skowronek on a 48-yard bomb from near his own end zone. He purposefully under-threw the ball so the big Skowronek could come back and make the play. Unfortunately, the drive ended on a missed throw for Jalen Brown on 4th down, the third time that duo failed to connect. Brown would finish without a catch.
Early in the fourth quarter, the teams traded interceptions. Queiro picked off Gangi to stop a Nevada drive, but a pressured Thorson gave it right back on third down from his own 6-yard line, his biggest mistake of very few on the day. Joe Gaziano made a great play on a read option to hold Nevada to a field goal, but the Wolf Pack retook the lead at 20-17 with just over ten minutes to play.
Then Thorson and Skowronek went back to work. The duo hooked up for gains of 15 and 26 yards, and Jackson and Dickerson also made big catches. On third down, Thorson hit Wilson, who was tackled at the 1. For the fifth time, Fitzgerald decided to go for it, and Thorson used his length to score on a QB sneak and give NU a 24-20 lead.
A big 4th down stop by Joe Gaziano gave the ball back to Northwestern, who put the ball into Clayton Thorson's hands on a key third-and-seven to win the game.
On a tremendous play-call, Thorson connected with Wilson for a beautiful 41-yard gain along the sideline, in effect sealing the win. He then got into the end zone on another QB sneak, giving Northwestern a 31-20 victory.