Saturday was a weird game for Clayton Thorson. He was held to under 200 yards passing for the second straight week, but accounted for three touchdowns. He had a career-high in interceptions but also made one of his best throws of the season on a touchdown to Kyric McGowan. He didn’t hesitate to scamper from the pocket after being hesitant to run nearly the entire season. And he got one of the biggest, if not the biggest win of his Northwestern career.
You know the drill. Here’s the play-by-play, and the breakdown:
Thorson’s Throws vs. Wisconsin
Pro-style running and subsequent wrinkles
For the second week in a row, Northwestern ran the ball a lot. Against Rutgers, NU ran the ball 44 times (excluding sacks) and passed 34 times. On Saturday, that ratio was 46 to 30. For reference, NU passed 44 times and ran 17 times against Michigan State. So Northwestern has its running back in Isaiah Bowser. They also have a new running style. The Wildcats adopted a downhill blocking scheme with Thorson under center, as opposed to their class shotgun set with pulling linemen. NU will go under center inside the red zone often; on Saturday we saw the scheme used between the 20s. Here’s an example of the new set:
I’ve written about how the personnel NU employs when Thorson goes under center often telegraphs run. The Wildcats often have two or three superbacks on the field and opponents can cheat towards in the line of scrimmage. NU showed a couple of play-action looks with Thorson under center on Saturday which is a welcome development.
First, with 21 personnel on fourth and 2:
This play works exactly how NU wants it to. Wisconsin is cheating towards the line, expecting a Bowser run. Meanwhile, Charlie Fessler sneaks towards the end zone as the entire Badger defense tracks Bowser.
This is the moment Thorson should have set his feet and thrown — Fessler would have had an easy touchdown. Instead, No. 18 waits a beat and Faion Hicks has enough time to recover. Fessler draws a pass interference penalty to extend the drive, but this should have been a touchdown.
Thorson’s three interceptions were a career-high and came as the result of a couple bad decisions.
On two occasions, Thorson locked on to his receiver, letting the defender read his eyes and anticipate where the ball was going. Thorson’s first quarter interception was more the result of Ryan Connelly making an incredible play on the ball, but Connelly got a great break on the ball because Thorson was locked in on his target, Bennett Skowronek.
Thorson’s second throw is one he undoubtedly would like to have back. As the second quarter wound down, Thorson was trying to make something happen. The problem was that Cam Green wasn’t really open at all. If you look at the tape, Green’s defender is always between him and the end zone. Not a great decision from Thorson to chuck the ball 45 yards downfield.
This was effectively an arm-punt, but you’ll see Thorson had Kyric McGowan open for an easy 15-yard out.
Finally, Pat Fitzgerald took the blame for Thorson’s third interception, citing a miscommunication. Apparently NU was supposed to run the ball given the look Wisconsin’s defense was showing.
“It’s one of those where I probably should have taken a time out to help,” Fitz said after the game. “It’s supposed to be a running play. But [Thorson] checked into something and he did exactly what the game plan was to do.”
Wisconsin brings a safety blitz from one side and drops a linebacker into coverage on the other side. Thorson doesn’t see Zach Baun and throws a dart right into the linebacker’s hands.
What’s remarkable about NU’s win on Saturday is that NU overcame Thorson’s three turnovers to win. Wisconsin ended up scoring 14 points off interceptions, but Thorson and the Wildcats did just enough offensively to win the game.
Clayton Thorson The Ball Carrier
We can’t say the days of Clayton Thorson, dual-threat quarterback, are back quite yet. Still, Thorson had his two best runs of the year against Wisconsin.
“You know, I have negative rushing yards on the year so I’m trying to make a dent in that,” he quipped after the win.
Thorson scored on a QB sneak on NU’s second possession of the game, but the more impressive touchdown came in the second quarter. After getting a short field following a Jonathan Taylor fumble, NU had been inside the Badger red zone for what felt like forever because of penalties (one on NU and one on Wisconsin).
On third and goal, Wisconsin dropped eight and covered NU’s five receivers well. Meanwhile, Rashawn Slater got beat off the edge by linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel, but the Badger couldn’t wrap up Thorson. A good block from Jared Thomas and a stunning cut by Thorson netted six points for NU.
No. 18 broke off his longest run since Oct. 29, 2016, a 27-yard scamper late in the third quarter. Facing 3rd and 5, NU chose to overload the offensive left side of the field and roll Thorson in that direction. Without an open receiver, Thorson didn’t hesitate to sprint towards the wide-open weak side of the field. Earlier in the season, we might have seen him take a sack or hurl the ball out of bounds. Not on Saturday.
Charlie Kuhbander made it 24-10 with a field goal four plays later.
Clayton Thorson 2018 season totals:
I did the thing where you have Google Sheets do the math for you. Sorry for the decimals.
TT thru Week Nine