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Thorson’s Throws: Sudden illumination

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Something breathed life into NU’s inert downfield passing game on Saturday. Let’s take a deeper look.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Thorson’s Throws is back. Each week, we’ll break down how No. 18 looked the previous Saturday, with attention to scheme and execution. We’re also logging every throw Thorson makes this year, which can be found in this document. Against Michigan State, the Wildcats responded to adversity and changed the narrative about their struggles. Here’s a deeper look at what went right on Saturday:

A lot to get to this week! We’ll talk about scheme, evaluate NU’s pass protection, and even do a mini-film room on NU’s go-ahead drive late in the third quarter. And yes, I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in class this week and the themes are sticking with me. But first, I hear the data’s music playing:

Here’s the breakdown, and linked here is the full play-by-play.

Clayton Thorson @ MSU

RANGE COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS YDS/ATTEMPT YDS/COMPLETION TDS INTS
RANGE COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS YDS/ATTEMPT YDS/COMPLETION TDS INTS
40+ 1 1 77 77 77 1 0
30-39 1 1 34 34 34 1 0
20-29 1 2 21 10.5 21 1 0
10-19 3 6 53 8.83 17.67 0 0
0-9 25 37 189 5.12 7.56 0 2
Totals 31 47 374 7.96 12.06 3 2

My word, look at that explosiveness! NU had nine chunk plays through the air on Saturday; before heading to East Lansing, they had amassed 21 chunk plays in four games. On throws that traveled 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage, Thorson was 3-of-4 for 132 yards and three touchdowns. The lone incompletion was a throwaway.

After the game Pat Fitzgerald talked about how NU was finally able to convert on some deep patterns, which is true. Thorson was throwing the ball deep about four times a game, but NU had registered only five catches on those throws thus far this season. The Spartans clearly blew a coverage assignment on Kyric McGowan’s touchdown, but Thorson’s TD tosses to JJ Jefferson and Cam Green were his two best throws of the season in terms of accuracy and timing. Jefferson and Green both made excellent catches, too. So in that sense, it was nice to see the Wildcats execute. Let’s look a bit more into Mick McCall’s scheme to identify some new things he tried on Saturday.

Screen passes

First, McCall used screen and swing passes to mimic the run. On the episode of Pound the Talk preceding the MSU game, we talked about how Northwestern would need to move the ball on first down so as to not get behind schedule and force Thorson into third-and-longs. Given MSU’s top-rated run defense, we thought screens could mimic the run game effectively.

Northwestern abandoned the run pretty early on, and lo and behold, the Wildcats ran a bunch of screens in standard down situations. Maybe Mick McCall listens to our podcast! I counted eight screen passes or swing passes over the course of the game; four of them came on 1st and 10 and one came on 2nd and 5. Those four screens resulted in an eight-yard completion, a 17-yard completion, an incomplete pass, and a 9-yard completion. That’s really good!

Here’s an example from the third quarter.

NU identifies and attacks a 2-on-2 matchup on the strong side of the field, and Tommy Doles does well to get downfield and levy a great block to spring Nagel free for nine yards.

It’s safe to say the Wildcats will not face a run defense as good as Michigan State’s for the rest of the season. But if the run game continues to struggle, using screens in standard downs seems to be a good way to chunk off yardage.

Moving the pocket

I think we were expecting to see Northwestern shift the pocket for Thorson earlier in the season, but perhaps lingering complications from his injury prevented the shift until last weekend. Either way, it was nice to see Thorson get out of the pocket after getting teed up and blasted for the entire second half against Michigan.

NU ran a couple different looks to get Thorson in motion. On the game’s second drive, the line shifted to the left, giving Thorson a naked rollout to the right. Cam Green ran a short underneath route to the sideline, while Flynn Nagel came across the field from the slot position on a drag route. Thorson found Nagel for a 16-yard gain:

Notice how the initial shift by the offensive line draws MSU’s linebackers a step to their right. They’re then a step too slow to cover Nagel, who is streaking across the field in the opposition direction. A simple misdirection that results in a first down for NU.

The more common look we saw on Saturday involved Thorson rolling left as Doles pulled from his right guard position. NU ran this variation on the McGowan touchdown late in the first quarter.

Green eventually releases to run that underneath route parallel to the line of scrimmage, but Doles is right there to pick up Green’s former assignment.

I’ll use this as an aside about the pass protection. I’ve used this space to complain about the offensive line and note how Thorson and the passing game is pretty much useless when No. 18 is under duress. Against Michigan State, Thorson got hit once on each of the first three drives, and sacked on the sixth drive. One of those hits resulted in Thorson’s first interception. But after that, he only faced pressure twice. That’s a great result for the offensive line, and more evidence that Northwestern can manage a competent offense when Thorson has enough time to throw.

The Drive

After Thorson got intercepted via Drake Anderson’s facemask and Michigan State took the lead with a short field, things were not looking good for Northwestern. They hadn’t showed the ability to respond offensively to adversity and they still hadn’t scored a second-half point against a Power Five team.

We turn our attention now to NU’s response, a nine-play, 75-yard drive culminating in a Cam Green touchdown catch. It gave the Wildcats some much needed momentum and a lead they would not relinquish. Here’s at some of the key plays:

After Thorson’s only incompletion of the drive, NU decides to get its quarterback out of the pocket with the pulling guard action they’ve been using all game. Doles gets over to the wide side of the field just in time to pick up MSU linebacker Brandon Bouyer-Randle, and Thorson finds a releasing Green for a modest four-yard gain. The play becomes a 19-yard gain when Michigan State lineman Naquan Jones is flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.

NU picks up one more first down before they face a 3rd-and-4 at the Spartan 39. This is one of the most important plays of the game — it’s four-down territory for the Wildcats, and they need to convert to ensure MSU doesn’t maintain its momentum. Here’s my very crude, Snapchat-edited look at the pre-snap alignment:

MSU is in a Cover Two look with press coverage from its cornerbacks. NU attacks this by sending Bennett Skowronek on a curl route in between the MSU corner and the linebacker, and having JJ Jefferson and Flynn Nagel run whip routes towards the strong-side boundary.

Nagel runs an excellent route from the slot, toasting Spartan linebacker Antjuan Simmons. He uses his speed to outrun his defender and rack up almost 15 yards after the catch. On the very next play, Thorson finds Cam Green for the go-ahead touchdown.

NU exploits a mismatch with a Spartan linebacker again. I’m an amateur film analyst, but it looks like Michigan State is in Cover One, with a single high safety and all of its underneath defenders in man coverage. On the strong side, Green and McGowan run a post-wheel concept, and the converted wide receiver gains a step on MSU ‘backer Tyriq Thompson. A perfect throw from Thorson hits Green in stride and gives NU the lead.

The upshot

We saw a lot of positive developments from the NU offense on Saturday. The offense made Improvements in the downfield passing game, the pass protection and the scheme. There are still things to clean up — finishing drives in plus territory and mitigating turnovers, first and foremost.

Yet the Wildcats will have a chance to get their running game going over the next two weeks against Nebraska and Rutgers. A credible run game beyond screens and swing passes could go a long way to opening up things further downfield. For now, NU has to do its best to make the MSU game a trend and not an aberration.

UPDATE:

I forgot to add in Thorson’s season-long breakdown. Behold:

Clayton Thorson Season Totals, Week 6

RANGE COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS YDS/ATTEMPT YDS/COMPLETION TDS INTS
RANGE COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS YDS/ATTEMPT YDS/COMPLETION TDS INTS
40+ 1 3 77 25.67 77 1 0
30-39 3 11 116 10.54 38.67 1 1
20-29 4 10 98 9.8 24.5 3 0
10-19 15 33 244 7.39 16.27 1 1
0-9 94 133 762 5.73 8.11 0 2
117 190 1297 6.83 11.09 6 5