With 2:51 remaining in the game, Clayton Thorson and the Northwestern offense were faced with a decisive 3rd and 7. Nevada had just one timeout remaining and the Wildcats had the ball at the Wolf Pack 44-yard line. The conservative play would have been to hand it off to the Big Ten’s active leading rusher, force Nevada to call its final timeout and punt the football, hoping your defense can hold a four-point lead. It’s the safe play we’ve seen Northwestern make time and time again.
Thorson, however, had bigger ideas. Northwestern’s quarterback faked the handoff to Jackson and dropped a 41-yard dime down the right sideline into the outstretched arms of Macan Wilson. It was a perfect example of the type of aggressive offense Northwestern lacked at times last season (see: Ohio State, Minnesota). It was also the icing on the cake of a phenomenal day for Thorson, who went for it all with the game on the line and got it. In typical fashion, the three-year starter was quick to praise his wideouts.
“Credit to those receivers,” Thorson said, shortly after complimenting his offensive line’s protection. “They went up and made some big catches. The ball wasn’t always great and they adjusted and made some catches. We want to take shots and we felt like they were giving it to us so we did.”
For an offense that had been deprived of big passing plays over the past two years, the second half of Saturday’s game was a welcome sight. Thorson had just four passes longer than 40 yards in 2016. In just the second half on Saturday, he connected with Bennett Skowronek for a 48-yard gain and the 41-yarder to Wilson. Wilson also added a 33-yard touchdown reception in the first half while Skowronek caught a 26-yard pass on a wheel route in the fourth quarter. These throws over the top that were largely absent from the offense last season — where most of the big passing plays were Austin Carr running after the catch — proved to be the difference in today’s win.
Skowronek led Northwestern with eight catches and 123 yards in the game, matching his total in receptions from his freshman campaign.
“This year I was just playing loose, playing comfortable and playing confident, that was the biggest thing for me,” Skowronek said. “Clayton and I worked together all offseason and we built a little connection there. It was really fun out there today.”
Thorson was surprised to hear Skowronek only caught eight balls last season.
“I didn’t know you had eight catches last year, that’s probably more my fault than anything,” Thorson said to Skowronek. “Ben did a great job going to get the ball and being aggressive with his hands...It’s fun to see him do well because of all the hard work he’s put in.”
Although Thorson may have found Skowronek just eight times last season, he distributed his throws generously today; eight different Wildcats had receptions. Running back Justin Jackson was second on the team with five receptions.
“I just want to be an outlet for Clayton,” Jackson said. “We worked on that a lot in the offseason. Just being there on checkdowns, and they dropped coverages a few times today so I was able to get some catches off that. He spread the ball around a lot today so that was good to see. A lot of guys stepped up and made huge plays for us down the stretch.”
Perhaps the most impressive drive of the game came following a tough interception on the Wildcats’ first drive of the fourth quarter. Under duress, Thorson sailed a throw over an open Jalen Brown, one of his rare misses on the day, and Nevada got 3 points off the turnover to take a 20-17 lead. Northwestern needed an emphatic response and its redshirt junior quarterback showcased his maturity and poise that we praised this offseason.
The three-year starter capped an 11-play, 75-yard drive by breaking the plane himself on fourth and goal from the one-yard line. Four-and-a-half minutes later, Thorson punched in his second rushing touchdown of the day with another QB sneak. Northwestern had effectively put the game on ice, extending its lead to two possessions with under a minute remaining.
“I love it,” Thorson said. “Everyone does all the work and then we get down to the one-yard line and I get to punch it in. But yeah, you just keep your feet moving, and it works out. Thankfully I’m about two yards long so it’s pretty easy to get in, those guys up front did a good job getting push.”
“I thought Clayton responded well to his interception,” Pat Fitzgerald added. “The big turning point was the interception we gave up and we held them to three. That was a big turning point and great response...”
Thorson’s 352-yard day tied a career high for passing, and his four total touchdowns matched totals set against Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue last season. Thorson also went 28-for-38 on the day, an efficient 73.7 percent clip. Other than the interception and a few missed throws (four of which were intended for newcomer Brown), Thorson was fantastic.
While Skowronek, Wilson and Jackson were the leading receivers, Flynn Nagel and Garrett Dickerson each had four receptions. Riley Lees hauled in his first two career catches, including a beautiful 19-yard touchdown reception on a strike from Thorson to tie the game up at 17. Cam Green and true freshman Kyric McGowan each added a catch. Redshirt freshman Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, true freshman Jace James, and junior Jelani Roberts all saw the field as well. Charlie Fessler was sidelined with an injury. The abundance of wide receivers testifies to the depth of this group.
“I felt great about the wideouts going into the game,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought we had better depth this year than we had in the last couple years from the way that the guys have practiced.”
Saturday’s win was not the convincing 24-point victory Vegas was expecting, but Clayton Thorson manufactured two near-perfect fourth quarter drives when it mattered most. He stretched the field like we haven’t seen him do before, distributed passes all over the field and seems to have rapports with four reliable targets: Skowronek, Wilson, Nagel and Dickerson. And on the biggest play of the game, on 3rd and 7 with the game on the line, Thorson went for it all and got the win.