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Thorson’s Throws: On the run

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The signal-caller was off his game again. NU’s struggles with pass protection didn’t help, either.

Notre Dame v Northwestern Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

These intros get shorter and shorter, I swear. On to what you came here for...

The play-by-play, and the breakdown:

Thorson’s Throws vs. Notre Dame

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 3 0 0 0 0 0
20-29 1 2 27 13.5 27 1 0
10-19 0 4 0 0 0 0 0
0-9 15 20 114 5.7 7.6 0 0
Totals 16 29 141 4.86 8.81 1 0

Saturday’s game brought back memories of Michigan for me. Against an elite defensive line, Thorson was under pressure from three or four man rushes for most of the game. The team had almost no success throwing the ball downfield. NU’s receivers struggled to get open against seven or eight defenders back in coverage.

Not a recipe for success — Thorson had his lowest passing yards total of the season, though he only attempted 29 throws.

“We knew coming in, after watching last Sunday afternoon, watching [the Notre Dame defensive line] get up there and force pressure, they’re special,” Thorson said following the game. “So you need to get the ball out, and those defensive backs are there waiting and they’re pretty good. I thought for the most part we handled them well. I knew I had to step up and make some throws, and I would’ve liked to make a few more plays here and there, but they’re a really good team so give them credit.”

I think Thorson is more-or-less accurate in his analysis here, aside from saying NU handled the Notre Dame pass-rush well. Still, No. 18 is going to need to play better down the stretch if NU wants to end up on top of the Big Ten West.

That starts up front. Let’s take a look at how Thorson fared under pressure on Saturday.

On the run

I think Young Thug enjoys being on the run more than Clayton Thorson.

Anyway, Thorson actually fared okay under pressure in the first half. He faced four pressures or flushes and ended up 4-of-4 for 30 yards including a key fourth down conversion to Bennett Skowronek. In my opinion, Thorson looked a little skittish, tucking and running a bit too early on a couple occasions, like in this clip:

The issues came in the second half. Thorson was pressured, hit, or sacked on nine of 17 dropbacks. He was never quite comfortable in the pocket and NU could do nothing to stop the pass rush, even when ND only brought three or four guys. In this clip, NU is effectively in max protect, with Cam Green and Chad Hanaoka in pass protection along with five lineman.

With four pass rushers, Notre Dame still flushes Thorson and eventually sacks him. Northwestern has to hold a clean pocket for Thorson with a three-blocker advantage, especially because NU’s three receivers are going to need time to get open against seven ND defenders.

Things won’t relent against Iowa — the Hawkeyes have four defensive lineman with 2.5 or more sacks. Allowing sacks with a two or three-blocker advantage is sure to stymie any signs of offensive life.

The misses

Yes, he was under pressure a lot, but Clayton Thorson did not play well Saturday. Something is up with his rhythm early on in games. Northwestern likes to get Thorson going with simple throws on the team’s first possession. Through the first seven games of the season, Thorson completed an average 4.28 of his first five throws to start each contest. Against Wisconsin and Notre Dame, he completed an average of 1.5.

I don’t like to speculate too much in this space, but I think there may be some weight to the theory that Thorson is “off” if he can’t get into a rhythm early on in the game. It might be a function of the team running more often on first down due to the emergence of Isaiah Bowser. It may be a function of the above average-to-excellent defenses NU faced the past two weeks. Still, something has to explain the easy throws we’re seeing Thorson miss.

It’s hard to imagine a more open Cam Green in this clip, and Thorson airmails a pass that Green somehow manages to get a hand on.

Slightly less troubling but still problematic is this miss to Kyric McGowan. Thorson has to execute on a more difficult timing route, but he has a clean pocket and McGowan runs a good route. No. 18 is wide left.

Notre Dame’s defensive backs did a great job in coverage all night long, sticking to NU receivers like glue. That made it even more important for Thorson to convert in the few occasions where his receivers got open.

Something nice

Here at Thorson’s Throws™, we try to highlight the good, or at least something nice in weeks like these where there isn’t a whole of it. I had a pretty easy job this week, because one throw stood above the rest. Here’s a look at Thorson’s fourth-quarter touchdown to Riley Lees.

It’s third and 1 for NU, who is down two scores. Four down territory, because of the game situation and the kicker debacle, so I like that McCall goes with a four-wide set — two plays to get one yard, basically, so NU can take a shot on third down.

Pre-snap alignments

Notre Dame is playing man coverage (press on the wide side) with a single high safety. I’m guessing they anticipated one of NU’s patented third and short mesh routes or quick slants, so both CBs on the wide side are lined with inside leverage on Lees and Skowronek.

Thorson had some issues with telegraphing his passes early in the game, but on this play he does a great job of looking left to draw the high safety a step in that direction. Blake Hance gets beat (this was a theme all night), but Thorson anticipates the pressure, steps up, and delivers a dime to Lees in the end zone.

Notre Dame’s safety had no chance to help out on the play, and Lees does a great job using his body to shield off his defender. More of this, please.

The upshot

Some of Thorson’s best games in an NU uniform have come on the road. He engineered big wins over Michigan State (2016, 2018) and Iowa (2016), and looked awesome at the Shoe back in 2016.

Iowa’s defense is nothing to scoff at — in fact the Hawkeyes boast the No. 21 unit in the country by S&P+. They limit big plays very well on the ground and through the air. It’s going to take great execution all-around, though most importantly up front, to put points up in Iowa City. Still, NU needs more of Dr. Clayton and less of Mr. Thorson (guess which book I read in Intro to Fiction this week) if they’re gonna come home with a win. Thorson is probably still the best offensive player NU has to offer. He hasn’t played like it the past three weeks, and he’ll need to Saturday in Iowa City.

Clayton Thorson Season Totals, Week 10

RANGE COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS YDS/ATTEMPT YDS/COMPLETION TDS INTS
RANGE COMPLETIONS ATTEMPTS YARDS YDS/ATTEMPT YDS/COMPLETION TDS INTS
40+ 1 4 77 19.25 77 1 1
30-39 4 20 148 7.40 37 1 2
20-29 8 22 203 9.23 25.38 5 0
10-19 25 60 465 7.75 18.6 3 1
0-9 172 243 1322 5.44 7.69 1 6
Totals 210 349 2215 6.35 10.55 11 10