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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the quarterbacks

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Clayton Thorson’s injury throws the future at the game’s most important position into question.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2017 season with a Music City Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the 10-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2018. First up? The quarterbacks.

Northwestern entered the 2017 season, just like the year before, without any question marks at the quarterback position. And up until the 14:25 mark in the second quarter of the Music City Bowl, there was no reason to think that there would be any questions — at least not major ones — at that position heading into 2018, either. That was when Clayton Thorson’s right knee buckled against the Nissan Stadium turf, a torn ACL that turned the Wildcats’ QB situation for next year into a complete unknown. It was a shocking, heartbreaking injury for Northwestern coaches, players, and fans, and a tragically cruel one for Thorson since it came less than two weeks after he had officially announced he would return for his redshirt senior season. Now, Pat Fitzgerald is all but guaranteed to no longer have the luxury of trotting out a four-year starter at the game’s most important position when Northwestern takes the field at Ross-Ade Stadium on August 31.

Thorson, who will be undergoing surgery soon, will likely require at least nine months of healing and rehab before he can return to the field. Maybe he’ll be ready to play by mid-season, but I wouldn’t bet on it. This is merely speculation of course, but I think the more probable situation is that Thorson misses the whole season. From there, he’d have to decide whether to declare for the NFL Draft or to use a medical hardship waiver to come back for a sixth season. It’s an unfortunate situation for the winningest quarterback in program history.

Player grades

Clayton Thorson: B

Stats: 262 for 434 passing (60.4%), 2844 yards, 6.6 YPA, 15 TD, 12 INT, 121.3 rating, 8 rush TDs

Injury aside, Thorson had a solid, B-worthy season. Yes, he struggled in a couple games early on. Yes, his numbers regressed in a few areas. But his performance was admirable for a few reasons. First, keep in mind that Thorson lost the Big Ten Receiver of the Year, Austin Carr, last offseason. That he actually improved his completion percentage and saw only slight drops in yards per attempt and QB rating without a true No. 1 receiver speaks to undeniable growth as a passer. As far as the step back in touchdown production goes, that wasn’t necessarily Thorson’s fault. Northwestern scored 44 offensive touchdowns in 2016 with an even 22-22 rushing-passing split. In 2017, that number went up to 47, but 30 of those came on the ground.

We also saw growth from Thorson within the season. Early on, he was entirely hit or miss. Thorson looked polished while eclipsing the 350-yard mark against Nevada and Bowling Green, but looked like his freshman self in woeful outings against Duke and Penn State. He threw 3 touchdowns and led a comeback against Wisconsin, but that comeback was necessary in part because of his pick-six and came up short when he took an ill-advised safety. Through six games, he had thrown 8 TDs and 9 picks.

The rest of the way? 7 TDs to just 3 interceptions. That included a masterful 356-yard, 2-TD performance against a Michigan State team that finished 28th in pass defense S&P+. Thorson also had 6 rushing scores in the first five games of what turned into an eight-game win streak. As the play of his offensive line improved, so did Thorson. He has shown over the past two seasons that when given time, he can deliver strong, accurate passes, especially in the short-to-intermediate range. That ability, along with his prototypical size, is what allowed Thorson to become an intriguing NFL prospect. However, he still has things to work on. Thorson still tries to force too many throws into tight windows, leading to the 12 interceptions. But it was a very solid junior season for a player who we hope has a long career ahead of him, whether he takes another snap in a Northwestern jersey or not.

Matt Alviti: A

Stats: 11 for 22 passing (50%), 155 yards, 7.0 YPA, 1 TD, 0 INT, 124.2 rating, 13 carries, 142 rushing yards, 1 TD

Matt Alviti did everything he was asked to do this season — and then some. It wasn’t the career the former four-star recruit imagined, but in his senior year, Alviti was finally able to make an impact on the field. It started with his crisp garbage time touchdown drive against Duke (3-for-4 passing for 49 yards and a score). He ripped off a 68-yard run the following week, and performed admirably in a blowout loss once again against Penn State (4-of-7 passing for 56 yards, 20 yards and a shutout-ending TD on the ground). And as you no doubt know, it ended in storybook fashion as Alviti stepped in for Thorson and led Northwestern to a thrilling bowl victory with his right arm and his legs.

Looking ahead to 2018

As we go through each position group, this section will provide our first significant analysis of what that unit will look like next season. Well, at least that’s true for every position other than quarterback. Because of the nature of the position, we’ve already looked into potential replacements for Thorson, should he miss time. First, we broke down the options already on the roster, including guys like TJ Green, Aidan Smith and Andrew Marty. Then we provided a look into the grad transfer QB market, just in case that’s something Fitzgerald pursues. Go check those articles out if you haven’t already.

I personally don’t think Fitz will go after a grad transfer. That would merely be a temporary fix, and while Northwestern will have plenty of talent next year, it’s not like the Wildcats will be a senior-laden team that’s an experienced QB away from winning the West. Plus, what would that say to the current QBs and future QB recruits? I think it’ll come down to a competition between the aforementioned trio, unless true freshman Jason Whittaker comes in and lights the world on fire. Of course, it’ll be Thorson’s job if he’s able to get cleared at any point in the season. But if he isn’t, Northwestern will be hoping someone else can step up and lead the Wildcats to success.