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Thorson’s Throws: Just win, baby

Nothing about Clayton Thorson or the Northwestern passing game makes sense. Maybe it’s not supposed to.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll admit I didn’t watch Saturday’s game live, so my analysis may not be particularly insightful this week as I only had the luxury of watching the game once, on replay. I was in New Orleans with my family, and we were treated to a terrible Tulane-ECU game that made me miss the Big Ten a lot.

Anyways, here’s the play-by-play, and the breakdown:

Clayton Thorson at Iowa

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30-39 1 2 32 16 32 1 0
20-29 0 3 0 0 0 0 0
10-19 0 1 0 0 0 0 0
0-9 14 24 89 3.71 6.36 0 2
Totals 15 30 121 4.03 8.07 1 2

You’ll notice a couple of continuing trends. First, the limited success throwing the ball downfield. Thorson’s only completion beyond 10 yards past the line of scrimmage was his fourth-quarter touchdown throw to Bennett Skowronek. Over the past four weeks, he’s only 6-of-34 (17.6 percent) on passes thrown more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Three of those completions have gone for touchdowns, but the expected value on those passes just isn’t great at this point. After having a lot of success throwing the ball downfield against Michigan State and Nebraska, Thorson and his receivers are struggling to stretch the defense vertically.

Not all of it is on Thorson. Here, No. 18 throws an accurate deep ball to Kyric McGowan, who can’t hang on to the pass.

It would have been an incredible catch, but it’s another data point that proves just how much needs to go right for Northwestern to have success throwing the ball vertically.

The other thing to note is the completion percentage and the number of attempts. Thorson averaged 46 throws per game against Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska. He completed nearly 64 percent of those attempts. In NU’s last four games, Thorson has averaged 30.75 attempts and completed 52.8 percent of those throws.

Of course, NU has been riding the hot hand of Isaiah Bowser and a rejuvenated running game. With their success on the ground, Northwestern has been able to shorten games, which has worked in its favor. But it was also interesting to see the ball taken out of Thorson’s hands at critical junctures of the game.

After Thorson’s second interception, Northwestern ran the ball on three consecutive downs, then ran on 2nd and 1 and 3rd and 1. On 3rd and 7, they called a read option, and on 3rd and 6 deep in Iowa territory, Chad Hanaoka got the carry. That’s pretty much unheard of in a Mick McCall offense, especially one that’s helmed by a four-year starter who just broke the program record for most career completions. I’m not saying McCall did anything wrong — Bowser and Co. have been excellent. But NU is going to need more from Thorson if it wants to win the big games, and it’s troubling to see the ball taken out of his hands.

The disappearance of Flynn Nagel

Nagel had caught a pass in his previous 27 appearances before going reception-less against Iowa. The senior’s first seven games were remarkable, but Nagel has struggled to get going the past few weeks, catching seven passes for 51 yards since the Rutgers game. Teams have devoted a lot of attention to Nagel, and strong defenses like Notre Dame’s and Iowa’s have made things difficult for NU’s leading receiver.

Here’s an example of great communication and ball-skills from Iowa’s defensive backfield to break up a pass intended for Nagel.

These are the types of throws that get Thorson and Nagel into rhythm, and when Thorson gets off schedule, he can get jittery. Watch how he hurries through his reads before throwing the ball across the field to Nagel here:

The throw is late, and the Iowa defensive back is able to get a hand in there and knock the ball to the turf.

The improbable nature of The Catch

It’s pretty ironic that the play that lifted NU into the Big Ten Championship game was one of the deep shots that the Wildcats have struggled to complete all year. How many times have Wildcats fans seen a receiver and a defender in lockstep as the ball is in the air, only to see the pass fall harmlessly to the turf?

Skowronek is even with his defender as Thorson releases the ball, so Thorson is basically hoping Skowronek can win a one-on-one and make a play, something that rarely happens downfield for Northwestern, though Skowronek probably gives NU the best shot out of any receiver.

We already went in depth on Skowronek’s incredible catch, but give Thorson some credit for a perfectly-placed throw, too. I don’t think this play is predictive of NU’s future offense in any way, but we can appreciate it as an example of awesome execution.

The upshot

NU’s success in spite of Thorson’s struggles is another WTF in this remarkable season. The Wildcats have been propped up mainly by their defense, and to a smaller degree, Isaiah Bowser and the run game. But credit Thorson for finding a way to get the job done at key junctures. Bill Connelly went over this in depth at the mothership earlier this week, but it’s worth rehashing Thorson’s heroics in three key NU victories.

Against Nebraska, he led a 99-yard drive in under two minutes with no timeouts to tie the game. Against Wisconsin, Thorson led two touchdown drives of 70 or more yards and scored an incredible 5-yard touchdown on the ground on 3rd and goal. And against Iowa, Thorson overcame two interceptions and a woeful offensive game to lead NU on drives of 80 and 46 yards to clinch the division, capped off with a gorgeous throw to Skowronek.

I feel like I’ve been chasing my own tail by using this exercise to try to be predictive and draw meaningful conclusions. Clayton Thorson doesn’t make a whole lot of statistical sense, and neither does Northwestern. They’re still winners.

Clayton Thorson Season Totals, Week 11

40+ 1 4 77 19.25 77 1 1
30-39 5 22 180 8.18 36 2 2
20-29 8 25 203 8.12 25.38 5 0
10-19 25 61 465 7.62 18.6 3 1
0-9 186 267 1411 5.28 7.59 1 8
Totals 225 379 2336 6.16 10.38 12 12