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Thorson’s Throws: The passing game is horizontal

After picking apart the Michigan defense early on, Thorson and NU couldn’t get anything going down the field.

Michigan v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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. On Saturday, the Wildcats came charging out of the gates to take a 17-0 lead. For the rest of the game, Thorson was constantly under duress and there was really no downfield passing attack. Let’s dig in a bit deeper.

We’ve given the offensive collapse against Michigan a fair share of attention this week with two game stories. If you want the comprehensive breakdown of what went wrong again the Wolverines, check out Caleb’s story from Monday. We’ll get into some similar trends here, with some added statistical context.

Northwestern’s lack of a vertical passing attack hurt the offense on Saturday. As the second half wore on, Michigan dared Northwestern to beat it over the top, while teeing off of Thorson with four- and five-man rushes. Thorson had very little time to throw, and he was often scanning a defense dropping six or seven guys into coverage.

First, here’s the breakdown of Thorson’s Throws™. The play-by-play is available here.

Clayton Thorson vs. Michigan

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30-39 0 1 0 0 0 0 0
20-29 0 1 0 0 0 0 0
10-19 2 5 30 6 15 0 0
0-9 14 20 143 7.15 10.21 0 0
16 27 173 6.41 10.81 0 0

There are couple things to note here. First, the reliance on the short game. Twenty of Thorson’s 27 attempts came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. That’s 74 percent, a season-high for Thorson. (No. 18 has thrown 96 of 143 passes — 67 percent — within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage on the season.) He was only 2-of-7 for 30 yards on throws beyond 10 yards and didn’t complete a pass longer than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Thorson made a couple nice throws deep down the field that resulted in penalties on Michigan. Here, he gets a clean pocket and tries to find Ben Skowronek in the end zone.

NU picked up another big third down conversion when Flynn Nagel got held on a wheel route.

Northwestern wanted to let Thorson get the ball out quickly in the first half, and the plan worked to perfection. He started the game 9-for-10, with eight of those completions coming within nine yards of the line of scrimmage. The offensive line did its job. He was pressured twice and hit once in that period. Thorson made a couple very impressive throws to Nagel and Skowronek on slant routes, and NU playcallers did a good job to get JJ Jefferson and John Moten IV in space on key plays.

From then on, everything went awry. Thorson went 7-of-17 for 69 yards, or 4.06 yards per attempt. Only two passing attempts went beyond 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, and both fell incomplete. As Caleb noted, Michigan’s defense tightened up, getting to the quarterback with ease and playing press coverage to take away simple quick-hitters.

Michigan’s pass rush and Northwestern’s struggles with pass protection became a major problem. Over NU’s final nine drives, Thorson dropped back to pass 24 times. He was pressured, hit, or sacked 11 times. One would expect Michigan’s vaunted front seven to get home a couple times on NU’s struggling O-line, but no one would have pegged the Wolverines for six sacks on NU’s final nine drives. Five of those sacks came on third down, and five of NU’s six second-half drives ended in sacks.

The Wildcat offensive line looked overmatched on third down, getting beat at least three times by pass rushes of four men or less. Caleb pointed out this third down play where J.B. Butler got beat on Monday.

Time and time again, Thorson has shown he can make quick, accurate decisions when he’s given enough time to think. He’s at his best when he’s afforded enough time to find connections in the intermediate range, like when he went 8-of-17 for 137 yards and three touchdowns on passes 10 to 29 yards downfield against Akron.

Northwestern would do well to get Thorson out of the pocket more and buy him some time, but the point stands. Thorson needs a clean pocket to make good decisions, especially on third and long. NU’s success rate on third and long is 17.1 percent, which is 114th in the country.

MSU doesn’t have the All-American front seven that Michigan has, but the Spartans defend the run better than anyone else in the nation. There’s a good chance that Thorson and the NU offense will be in a lot of third-and-long scenarios if they struggle to establish the run. When MSU pins its ears back on third down, the offensive line will need to give Thorson a clean pocket, and Thorson will need to pick apart the defense, much like he did early in the game last week.

Here are Thorson’s season totals:

Clayton Thorson Season Totals

40+ 0 2 0 0 0 0 0
30-39 2 10 82 8.2 41 0 1
20-29 3 8 77 9.6 25.7 2 0
10-19 12 27 191 7.07 11.94 1 1
0-9 69 96 573 5.97 830 0 0
86 143 923 6.45 10.73 3 3