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Thorson’s Throws Week 1: Thorson keeps Northwestern moving forward

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The stats show the junior’s short-ball accuracy was a major factor in his opening weekend performance.

Nevada v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Welcome 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.

In Week 1, Thorson was accurate all over the field, but especially underneath. No, he wasn’t perfect, but he was relatively consistent in his ball placement. With the exception of a few throws, he gave his pass-catchers a chance, and, in turn, his teammates helped him out, reeling in most of the catchable balls Thorson delivered. The result was perhaps his finest outing as Northwestern’s quarterback.

Clayton Thorson was really, really good Saturday. With the exception of two high throws — one that resulted in a turnover on downs and one that was picked off — he was very accurate, especially on the short throws upon which Mick McCall’s offense is predicated. The numbers show that. The first spreadsheet below is a full play-by-play of Thorson’s passing, with air yards being how far down the field from the line of scrimmage the intended receiver was, when the ball got to that depth, whether it was a completion or not, and total yards being how many yards the play totaled. (NOTE: For simplicity’s sake, all passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage carry zero air yards.)

Clayton Thorson play-by-play

DRIVE Down Distance Field position Receiver Air yards Total yards
DRIVE Down Distance Field position Receiver Air yards Total yards
1 2 7 NU27 Jackson 0 1
1 3 21 NU13 Jackson 0 1
2 2 9 NU21 Dickerson 2 5
3 1 10 NEV43 Brown 33 0
3 2 10 NEV43 Nagel 7 8
3 2 11 NEV33 Wilson 36 33
4 1 10 NU39 Green 6 7
4 1 10 NEV45 Brown 35 0
4 4 3 NEV38 Jackson 0 15
5 3 7 NU7 Wilson 11 0
6 1 10 NU17 Nagel 0 5
6 2 4 NU34 McGowan 0 10
6 1 10 NU44 Skowronek 4 6
6 4 2 NEV39 Dickerson 5 6
6 1 10 NEV33 Jackson 4 6
6 4 2 NEV25 Skowronek 10 12
7 1 10 NU25 Jackson 1 0
154 115
--------------------- --------------------- --------------------- HALFTIME --------------------- --------------------- ---------------------
8 1 10 NU45 Dickerson 2 0
8 2 10 NU45 Skowronek 10 10
8 1 10 NEV34 Nagel 9 9
8 1 10 NEV22 Lees 12 16
8 2 GOAL NEV6 Nagel 7 0
8 3 GOAL NEV6 Nagel 13 0
9 2 5 NU35 Skowronek 1 1
9 3 4 NU36 Skowronek 5 5
9 1 10 NEV19 Lees 15 19
10 3 7 NU7 Skowronek 48 48
10 3 14 NEV34 Nagel 7 7
10 4 7 NEV27 Brown 8 0
11 3 6 NU6 Brown 10 0
12 1 10 NU25 Dickerson 5 0
12 2 10 NU25 Dickerson 3 6
13 3 4 NU31 Jackson 0 19
13 2 8 NU42 Dickerson 4 12
13 1 10 NEV46 Skowronek 9 15
13 1 10 NEV31 Skowronek 12 26
13 3 GOAL NEV4 Wilson 3 3
14 3 7 NEV44 Wilson 37 41
220 237
374 352

Here’s a rough spray chart of Thorson’s 38 attempts Saturday. As you can see, he was extremely accurate underneath, completing 20 of his 25 passes that were intended for receivers 9 yards or fewer down the field. Filled-in circles are completions. Blank circles are incompletions:

KEY: B.S. = Ben Skowronek, F.N. = Flynn Nagel, J.B. = Jalen Brown, G.D. = Garrett Dickerson, M.W. = Macan Wilson, K.M. = Kyric McGowan, J.J. = Justin Jackson, C.G. = Cam Green, R.L. = Riley Lees

In turn, his numbers, when split into 10-yard air yardage increments, look like this (the top row represents passes that travelled 40-50 yards in the air, and the bottom row shows passes that travelled 0-10 yards in the air; the zeroes in the middle are there because Thorson didn't throw a pass that travelled between 20 and 30 yards in the air):

Clayton Thorson by air yards

RANGE YARDS COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS/ATTEMPT YARDS/COMPLETION
RANGE YARDS COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS/ATTEMPT YARDS/COMPLETION
40+ 48 1 1 48 48
30-39 74 2 4 18.5 37
20-29 0 0 0 0 0
10-19 83 5 8 10.375 16.6
0-9 147 20 25 5.88 7.35

So what can we take away from this? A few things are noteworthy, particularly his use of the deep ball, and his ability to complete those shots downfield in crucial situations. Thorson threw one ball over 40 yards: a towering heave to Ben Skowronek out of the shadow of his own goalposts on 3rd and 7. It is a high-percentage play? No. But Thorson hung the ball up for his 6-foot-4 wide receiver, and Skowronek made a play on the ball. Northwestern has struggled significantly moving the ball when backed up near its own goal-line. Thorson’s bomb downfield was crucial, even if to only flip field position.

Thorson also threw four passes between 30 and 39 yards — two each to Macan Wilson and Jalen Brown. Though Thorson only completed his attempts to Wilson, both were important plays. The first was a touchdown to Wilson up the hashmarks. His second, on third down with just minutes remaining, effectively put the game on ice. That Thorson completed three of his five passes that went at least 30 yards in the air was not only important in the context of the game, but also showed his willingness to give his receivers a chance with catchable passes.

In the 10-to-19-yard range, Thorson again was reasonably accurate, and he made some key plays from this distance. All five of his completions in this range moved the chains, and one, a perfect toss to Riley Lees, resulted in a score.

Thorson’s lone turnover, a throw well over Brown’s head, also came at this level (10 air yards). Overall, though, Thorson was not only efficient at this depth, but he was aggressive, too. Of his eight throws between 10 and 19 yards, six came in the second half, and on those six throws he was four of six for 71 yards, for a score and a pick.

As mentioned previously, Thorson was smart with the ball underneath, if a little conservative to start, much like the offense as a whole. In the first half, 10 of his 17 throws were five yards or fewer down the field. In the second half those numbers dropped to just eight of his 21 throws.

Of course, Thorson has his line to thank for giving him ample time to both wait for downfield routes to develop and go through his reads. Thorson was sacked just once all day, and that takedown came very early in the game. Even if Wolf Pack pressure didn’t register a sack on a given play, it did impact Thorson’s play: Both his 4th-and-7 miss high to Brown and his interception over Brown’s head came against Nevada blitzes. Other than that, though, Thorson was able to operate as he pleased with time to spare.

Overall, it was an encouraging and impressive performance for the third-year starter. He found his targets on time and kept the ball out of harm’s way except for one throw. Though he didn’t stretch the field all too often — nearly two-thirds of his passes were thrown fewer than 10 yards down the field — when he did go deep, he was accurate. Whether McCall looks to push the ball down the field earlier and more often in the future now that his 2017 squad has its feet wet remains to be determined. But on opening weekend, Thorson was able to execute solidly at all three levels of the field when needed.