Another week, another record for Clayton Thorson. On Saturday, NU’s signal-caller became the fifth QB in Big Ten history to surpass 10,000 career passing yards. He also tied the record for most career starts by a Big Ten quarterback. With three games remaining in his career, Thorson needs 468 yards to overtake Brett Basanez as NU’s all-time passing leader.
More proximately, Thorson had an excellent game on Saturday as Northwestern moved to 7-4. We’re here to break it down yet again.
Here’s the play-by-play breakdown, and here’s the data:
Clayton Thorson at Minnesota
Last week, I talked about NU has struggled to complete passes downfield over the past four weeks. Heading into the Minnesota game Thorson was only 6-of-34 on passes thrown more than 10 vertical yards beyond the line of scrimmage since Oct. 13.
That changed on Saturday, as we saw Thorson complete 7-of-9 intermediate-to-deep passes. From an efficiency standpoint, this was Thorson’s best game of the year. He completed a season-high 71.4 percent of this throws and averaged 11 yards per attempt. Baker Mayfield averaged 11.5 yards per attempt for Oklahoma last year. Thorson is at his best when the intermediate passing game is humming. Let’s take a deeper look into that.
The return of the mid-range game
Thorson has been most efficient when throwing in the 10-29 yard range. He’s 40-of-94 for 838 yards in that range this year, with eight touchdowns against one interception. The completion percentage is a bit low, but Thorson’s efficiency in the mid-range game is excellent. Thorson’s best games of the season (Michigan State, Nebraska, Minnesota) have coincided with excellent efficiency in the 10-29 yard range.
The Minnesota game shared some similarities to Nebraska and Michigan State. Thorson’s wide receivers helped him out with yards after the catch, and the offensive line did a good job in protection.
“[I was] just taking what the defense gave me,” Thorson said after the game. “I thought our receivers did a great job getting open, Riley stepping up, O-line, I thought they played really well and they have been all year, so credit to them.”
That’s a pretty classic Thorson quote, but it really says it all. Northwestern had a good gameplan to find the holes in Minnesota’s (often soft) pass defense, and the receivers and offensive line executed well to make Thorson’s job easier.
Here’s an example:
The offensive line picks up a four-man rush (easier said than done at points this year) and Thorson has a clean pocket to scan the field. He finds Riley Lees, who sits in the perfect spot between to Minnesota defenders. Thorson’s throw is right on time and NU gets a first down.
Thorson’s timing was on point on his longest completion of the day, to JJ Jefferson, as well. Watch how the throw gets to Jefferson just before the Minnesota defender comes soaring in.
No. 18 said he wished Jefferson would have scored, but credited the young wide receiver for a great release on the play.
Thorson stood tall in the face of pressure, too. Minnesota brings a blitz here, but Thorson shuffles right and delivers a dart to Lees for a third down conversion.
That’s Thorson at his best. Shoutout to Riley Lees and NU’s wide receivers for filling in for Flynn Nagel, too.
That drive before the half
Arguably the four biggest plays of the game came just before halftime. Minnesota had tied the game Mohamed Ibrahim scored to cap off a 11-play drive that lasted over five minutes. Time and time again, we’ve seen Northwestern play conservatively just before halftime, but the two-minute offense was in full effect on Saturday.
Of course, Northwestern might have run the ball three times had Kyric McGowan not returned the kickoff 39 yards to the NU 45, which saved Northwestern 20 yards of field position. Minnesota played awfully conservative on defense, but credit the Northwestern offense for executing.
First, Thorson found Skowronek, whose defender was trailing him by five yards, on a drag route for 23 yards. Then, NU got inside the Minnesota 15 on a deep in by Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman.
Again, it seemed like Minnesota was in almost a prevent defense as RCB had plenty of space to operate in. One play later, Thorson executed a perfect read option (on a great play call) as NU retook the lead and the momentum.
“That was huge to get some points before half,” Thorson said after the game.
NU’s jaunt down the field gave the Wildcat two-minute offense some credibility, too. We haven’t really seen a drive like that — NU chunking off plays through the air — since Thorson led the game-tying, last-gasp effort against Nebraska. Neither Thorson nor Riley Lees would admit that Saturday’s game gave the offense any added confidence, but the fact that NU executed a quick-scoring drive so perfectly is important. Northwestern has thrived on controlling the time of possession and tempo of the game. Still, it’s good to see the Wildcats can have it both ways, at least at times.
Clayton Thorson season totals, Week 12