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Thorson’s Throws: The Drive, Part Two

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A breakdown of how NU’s miraculous last-minute, 99-yard drive came to fruition

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Clayton Thorson blew his previous career high in passing attempts out of the water on Saturday, which means there’s a lot to cover this week. He made 22 throws before the half, which means Thorson attempted 43 (!) passes in the second half and overtime. (I included a “forward pass” to Flynn Nagel on a jet sweep.)

This week, we’ll look at a couple new wrinkles Mick McCall added and then spend quite some time on the 99-yard drive that No. 18 led to tie the game with seconds left.

First, the data. Here’s the breakdown, and the play-by-play:

Thorson’s Throws vs. Nebraska

RANGE COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS YDS/ATTEMPT YDS/COMPLETION TDS INTS
RANGE COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS YDS/ATTEMPT YDS/COMPLETION TDS INTS
40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30-39 0 2 0 0 0 0 1
20-29 1 5 27 5.4 27 0 0
10-19 9 14 208 14.86 23.11 2 0
0-9 32 44 219 4.98 6.84 1 1
Totals 42 65 454 6.98 10.81 3 2

Compared to the Michigan State game, Thorson had very little success throwing the ball downfield, going 1-for-7 with an interception on passes thrown 20 yards or more past the line of scrimmage. It is worth noting that Nebraska picked up penalties on passes Thorson threw 37, 21, and 30 yards downfield, so NU got some positive results on deep balls.

Still, most of Thorson’s success came in the intermediate and short ranges. He had his best game of the year in the 10-19 yard range, going 9-of-14 for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Flynn Nagel helped Thorson out a lot there with some excellent receptions and yards after the catch.

Let’s take a look at a couple schematic changes NU tried on Saturday.

New wrinkles

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When Northwestern lines up under center, you can be pretty sure they’re going to run the ball. Seeing Clayton Thorson under center is a great sign for a defense to put eight guys in the box and cheat their safeties up towards the line of scrimmage. On Saturday, we saw Northwestern run a pro-style play action set, which I don’t remember seeing at all this season.

Thorson rolls out to the weak side, which is conveniently where Nebraska is bringing a corner blitz from. This messes with the play — Thorson has to check down to Green instead of looking down the field to an open Nagel just beyond the sticks.

What’s also interesting about this play is the personnel. Usually when Thorson goes under center, NU goes with 13 (one RB, three superbacks, 1 WR) to run block. Here, they’re in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 SB, 3 WR), effectively telegraphing a pass even though Thorson is under center. To really throw off a defense, it’d be great to see a play-action pass out of 13 personnel, perhaps on second and short.

Against Michigan State, we saw Northwestern moving the pocket for Thorson, designing rollouts with a pulling guard. Thorson rolled left on all of those plays (if my memory is correct) as right guard Tommy Doles pulled, but on Saturday, we saw Thorson roll right with left guard Nik Urban pulling. Here’s a look.

The play works perfectly — Thorson has all day to throw, and the time he’s given allows JJ Jefferson to come all the way across the field on a drag. It’s a slow-developing play, but it goes for 15 yards.

Here’s an example of when not to run a rollout play, in my opinion. Northwestern is down 10 with second and goal from the 3-yard-line. McCall dials up a rollout right, with Bennett Skowronek coming across the formation to give NU trips right. The problem is that Nebraska is showing blitz.

Thorson probably didn’t know if Nebraska was going to bring seven guys or five, but the 7-on-6 matchup means someone is unblocked. A slow-developing play like a rollout loses its effectiveness when your receivers only have the end zone to work with and your quarterback is immediately under pressure.

The Drive

I wrote about “The Drive” last week, but now that Northwestern appears to be in the habit of scoring in the second half, I think this week’s iteration is more deserving of the title. The degree of difficulty is remarkable: 99 yards to go in just over two minutes of gametime, with zero timeouts.

The drive, of course, starting with Nebraska shooting itself in the foot; a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty brought NU out from the shadow of their own end zone. Two plays later, Thorson found Riley Lees on 2nd and 10 for a modest gain:

This is a pretty mundane play, but it keeps the drive going, which is the most important thing. Thorson feels some pressure in his face, but he stays cool and finds the open spot in Nebraska’s soft zone. The ball keeps moving. After two completions to Nagel for a total of 20 yards, it’s 2nd and 6 from the 36.

NU runs the same in-wheel concept that netted Nagel a 61-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter. This play isn’t really as much about Thorson as it is about Nagel. He absolutely toasts Cornhusker safety Aaron Williams. See that white object gently floating to the ground as the ball is in the air? That’s Nagel’s towel, that Williams tried to grab onto as Nagel flew past. NU declines the defensive holding penalty as Nagel picks up 32 and swings the game’s momentum.

Thorson’s next completion may have been his best throw of the day. The clock is all the way down to 32 seconds and NU’s only option is to get into the end zone. This throw helps them get close.

It looks like Nebraska is in a soft Cover Three, with four defenders about 15 yards shy of the three defensive backs manning the deep part of the field. Skowronek runs what looks like a post pattern into the teeth of the defense. Thorson effectively throws him open, finding No. 88 between the two levels of the defense by putting just enough air under the ball.

After Thorson spikes the ball, he finds JJ Jefferson for a touchdown on a well-designed play.

Nebraska opts to blitz six defenders (Why? Drop seven and make the receivers work for it...), leaving its four DBs in press man. There’s a single high safety over the top, but check him out standing in the middle of the end zone as Thorson is about to throw.

Not the recipe for defensive success

He’s totally useless. Meanwhile, Skowronek and Green fake a screen play on the left side of the field, while Jefferson runs a whip route and Nagel runs an out from the slot. Good luck defending Jefferson and Nagel one-on-one. Jefferson beats his man easily and makes a nice catch to pull NU within one. Solid play design in the red zone, plus a very confusing decision to blitz from Nebraska.

The upshot

NU will live with the mistakes Thorson makes, like his third quarter throw into double coverage that resulted in an interception. His play in the end of the fourth quarter more than makes up for that error. Saturday was also a great day for NU’s receivers — they won their one-on-ones and picked up tons of yards after the catch.

It’s clear the passing offense is clicking midway through the season. Like I said last week, the running game needs to find some credibility too, or McCall is going to have to get really creative with ways to simulate the run. This isn’t Texas Tech — Thorson shouldn’t need to throw the ball 65 times a game, and NU’s receiver depth isn’t such an advantage where the Wildcats can keep trotting fresh guys out there. I’d expect NU to run the ball a lot early against Rutgers, but something tells me McCall will abandon it again if it’s not working. That could be a big problem against better defenses.

Anyways, here are the season totals for Thorson:

Clayton Thorson Season Totals Thru Week 7

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 13 116 8.92 38.67 1 2
20-29 5 15 125 8.33 25 3 0
10-19 24 47 452 9.62 18.83 3 1
0-9 126 177 981 5.54 7.79 1 4
159 255 1751 6.87 11.01 9 7