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.
With moving back to Northwestern and classes getting started, life’s gotten in the way of the last two weeks’ columns. But we’re back in a big way, breaking down Thorson’s really poor performance at Duke (which I attended and watched from the press box) and his career-best performance against Bowling Green (which I attended and, for the first time in nearly three years, watched from the student section).
Northwestern sits at 2-1 on the season and so, too, does Clayton Thorson. In the two wins, he set career highs in yards passing. In the lone loss, he really struggled and put up numbers similar to his freshman year. Now it’s certainly not all Thorson’s fault that Northwestern lost to Duke — the offensive line was abysmal, the play-calling uninspired and the running game nonexistent — but he readily admitted he wasn’t at his best in Durham. The good news is he turned it around in a major way against Bowling Green.
Here’s what his spray chart looked like against Duke, followed by a play-by-play and a breakdown of his stats in ten-yard increments. Remember, a filled-in circle is a completion; a blank circle is an incompletion.
Here’s the play-by-play and statistical breakdown.
This is brutal. Absolutely brutal. Thorson’s longest completion of the day, 24 yards, was completed behind the line of scrimmage. On his four longest throws of the day — 35 air yards, 25 air yards, 16 air yards and 13 air yards — he was 0 for 4. He was 2 of 9 with a pick on throws that went double-digit yards in the air.
What were the reasons? Well, a big issue was the offensive line. Thorson was sacked four times against Duke and pressured several other times. Against Nevada, five of Thorson’s 38 throws traveled at least 30 yards downfield. Against Duke, that number dropped to two out of 29. Another major factor was the lack of a running game. Duke didn’t have to respect that threat whatsoever, rendering the play action useless. It’s a big issue when Northwestern can’t run, because Thorson needs some semblance of a running game to run this offense efficiently. As I wrote from Wallace Wade Stadium:
It’s the same story we’ve heard from all of Northwestern’s bad losses in Jackson’s career — against Michigan and Iowa two years ago, against Western Michigan and Illinois State last year and against Duke this year. Even with the improvements Thorson has made and the obvious growth he has shown, Northwestern won’t win without a strong showing from Jackson. Many times, it won’t even be competitive. And that’s not an indictment of Thorson nor the targets around him, because it holds true for most any team: When a star is completely canceled out, it’s going to be very difficult to win. Northwestern is now 6-13 when Jackson fails to reach the century mark and 1-8 when he fails to record at least 15 carries.
A third issue — and it’s closely related to the other two — is Thorson’s lack of success underneath. In Week 1 he hit on 80 percent (20 out of 25) of his passes that were 10 yards or fewer from the line of scrimmage. Against Duke, he hit exactly half that percentage (8 out of 20). When you don’t have time to throw it deep, corners, safeties and linebackers can play closer to the line and compress the field vertically. And when you can’t run the ball and thus fool the defense on play action — a weapon Northwestern loves to use to take its deep shots — completing anything vertical will be difficult.
Ok, so the Duke game was horrible. I saw it. You saw it. Northwestern got walloped. (Here’s where I tell you Duke is currently 4-0 with wins over Baylor and UNC and plays host to No. 14 Miami on Thursday night.) But most importantly, Northwestern left that game knowing that performance couldn’t carry over into next week’s effort against Bowling Green. It’s safe to say it didn’t.
Boy, I’ll tell you: Watching from the stands is weird. You get no depth perception, the angles are strange, and you can’t really tell how a play is developing. Watching from the press box is perfect because you see everything. So going back and watching the Duke film wasn’t all that eye-opening, because I had seen how bad Northwestern was that day in person from about the same angle as I got on the replay. But watching Bowling Green on replay, I realized just how good Clayton Thorson was. And I get that it’s Bowling Green and Northwestern was coming off an embarrassing loss and basically needed to dominate, but still. He was fantastic. He was accurate, on time, patient and smart. The spray chart backs me up.
Thorson hit on two of his three passes that flew at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, with one of them being a 58-yard score to Bennett Skowronek, who we wrote about last week. That ball went 47 yards in the air. His second-longest throw was incomplete to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman. His third-longest throw was a 18-yard strike, again to Skowronek and again for a touchdown. That ball went roughly 24 yards in the air. And the fourth-longest throw was a 22-yard dart to Dickerson, who took it all the way down to the one, a 28-yard gain. One trend that’s interesting regarding the deep ball against Bowling Green is that all four throws were to receivers near the sidelines, as you can see on the spreadsheet. In Week 1, the long throw to Macan Wilson that put the game on ice was also up the sideline. On throws traveling at least 20 yards downfield this season, Thorson has four completions outside the numbers and just two inside the numbers. We’ll see if Northwestern tries to attack the perimeter deep going forward or if it was just something Mick McCall and other coaches saw that Thorson could exploit against two inferior opponents.
Here’s Thorson’s play-by-play and breakdown from the Bowling Green game.
We can see some patterns emerging. As long as Thorson is able to sprinkle in the deep ball once every roughly handful of throws to keep the defense honest, he should be able to find stuff underneath, The same goes for Northwestern’s ability to run the ball. If it happens, Northwestern can be more successful. It’s not rocket science, but it does show a stark contrast. And against Wisconsin, line play will be absolutely crucial. (surprise!)
Through three weeks, Thorson’s splits look like this:
Clayton Thorson season breakdown (through three weeks)
Thorson threw a lot of short passes against Duke for a very low yardage total and completion percentage. Against Nevada and Bowling Green, he was very good underneath and was able to take a few shots deep. That’s where the success of this offense lies. Against Wisconsin, it will be interesting to see if Northwestern can provide Thorson the time to take those shots every once in a while. Perhaps McCall will try to get his big, athletic quarterback out of the pocket via play-action. Maybe he’ll make a concerted effort to get the ball to Skowronek and Dickerson, both of whom were outstanding in Weeks 1 and 3 and invisible in Week 2.
Northwestern’s had two weeks to figure out what works and what doesn’t and apply that knowledge to the game plan for its most important game of the season. Come 11 a.m. at Camp Randall, we’ll see if the Wildcats have used that extra time to their advantage or whether the issues that plagued them at Duke continue to limit this talented-yet-inconsistent offense.
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