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Thorson’s Throws: A tale of two halves

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The Wildcat offense looked much better during the second half, but they still left some points on the board.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference-Football Championship-Northwestern vs Ohio State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Clayton Thorson’s final Big Ten game didn’t go quite as he wanted it to, but I still think the Wildcat offense has some things to be proud of. I was pleasantly surprised that NU put up 24 points against Ohio State, even though the Buckeye defense isn’t especially good. Still, the game could have been a lot closer if NU had executed a couple plays and held onto the ball better. Alas.

Here’s the play-by-play and the breakdown:

Clayton Thorson vs. Ohio State

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 1 2 33 16.5 33 0 1
20-29 0 3 0 0 0 0 0
10-19 2 5 32 6.4 16 0 0
0-9 23 33 203 6.15 8.83 1 1
Totals 26 43 268 6.23 10.31 1 2

You can see that Thorson and the NU offense was much more successful in the second half, so we’ll split up the analysis between the two halves.

The first half

Last week, I watched about ten drives of Buckeye defense and concluded that NU should attack Ohio State with a lot of man-beating concepts and play action when the Buckeyes loaded up the box. I think that’s what Mick McCall and the offensive staff deduced from their film study too, because the Wildcats ran a lot of plays intended to put pressure on a man defense, like slants and mesh. Northwestern wanted to get the ball out of Thorson’s hands quickly in hopes of avoiding Buckeye pressure. The problem was that Thorson was pressured a lot, and that Wildcat receivers couldn’t find tons of space or make OSU defenders miss. NU’s longest pass play of the first half was 15 yards, and it came on — you guessed it — a mesh concept.

Berkeley Holman executes the rub route perfectly to give Trey Pugh a step on the defender.

After looking at the tape again, I think Northwestern just got out-athleted (that’s not a word) by Ohio State at times. We knew the Buckeye defensive backs were long, athletic and physical, and that NU’s pass-catchers would have their work cut out for them. In the first half, the Wildcats just lost several one-on-one battles. At the top of the screen, Bennett Skowronek struggles to deal with the physicality of Jeffrey Okudah and Thorson’s pass falls incomplete.

On Thorson’s first-half interception, the Wildcats employ a in-wheel concept intended to bust OSU’s man press coverage and give Flynn Nagel a one-on-one on the outside. Nagel initially gets a step on Shaun Wade, but the former top-20 recruit recovers quickly. Thorson tosses up what amounts to a 50-50 ball.

Given Wade’s pedigree and Nagel’s bum ankle (he would leave the game after this play), I’m not sure that’s a risk worth taking. While Dwayne Haskins threw a pick on OSU’s next possession, this turnover killed a promising Wildcat drive. Ohio State would score the game’s next 10 points.

The second half

In the postgame rush, I forgot to ask Thorson about the schematic things that helped NU out of the half, but he said the offense was confident even after scoring only seven points in the first half. He also mentioned the importance of coming out strong in the second half.

Northwestern did a much better job of execution in the third quarter. They were excellent out of the half, as well. The Wildcats averaged 10 yards per play on their first two drives of the second half, scoring touchdowns both times, including a lightning-quick 5-play, 75-yard drive to open the half. Thorson was 10-of-11 for 111 yards on those two possessions after going 3-of-11 with an interception to end the first half. Northwestern also played super fast, which didn’t give Ohio State time to adjust as the Wildcats marched down the field.

One of the bright spots in the third quarter was Kyric McGowan. The sophomore showed off his speed with two excellent plays to start the second half. Watch how he doesn’t allow Ohio State CB Damon Arnette Jr. to press him, leading to an easy completion on the slant and a 16-yard gain.

The key to gashing the Ohio State defense is winning one-on-one matchups, because the Buckeyes don’t have a lot of help baked into their man coverage scheme. In the second half, McGowan and other Wildcat receivers were able to pick up yards after the catch because they won their individual matchups.

I also loved the NU playcall that led to Cam Green’s 2-yard-touchdown. The Wildcats trotted out four superbacks, broadcasting a run on second and goal. You can see every single Buckeye defender go at least one step downhill as Thorson fakes a handoff to Isaiah Bowser.

Both Green and Trey Klock were wide open in the end zone. Credit NU for taking advantage of Ohio State’s aggressiveness here.

The Wildcats missed a couple key opportunities, though. I’m willing to discount the second Thorson interception because his arm got grabbed as he was going to throw and the Buckeyes fumbled four plays later. Still, NU could have put at least 11 more points on the board. First, Northwestern failed to get in the end zone on 1st and goal from the 6, instead settling for a field goal. The Wildcats ran it on 1st down, but then chose to pass twice from the 4-yard-line, resulting in two incompletions. I don’t mind trying to pass at least one, but I really disliked the 2nd down play call.

The Wildcats go with a designed rollout right from the left hashmark. First of all, this limits where the ball can go in an already-tight space. Unless someone blows a coverage, Thorson is going to throw the ball to the right corner of the end zone, meaning OSU really only has to cover that fraction of the field to earn a stop. That’s just making things easier for the defense. Moreover, Ohio State brings five defenders on the blitz, and NU has four receivers, so the Buckeyes are going to have a six-on-four matchup in that small portion of the field.

This play is almost doomed from the start.

Sure, Cameron Green gets grabbed and there’s no call, but he wasn’t going to score even if he could run free. This is more or less a wasted play inside the OSU 5-yard-line, and Northwestern has to settle for a field goal two snaps later.

The other missed opportunity came later in the game when NU was down 14 points. Ohio State had some trouble getting its defense set, and Marcus Sheffield is nowhere close to Bennett Skowronek when the ball is snapped.

Thorson has his eyes on that matchup just before the ball is snapped, and Skowronek gets three steps on Sheffield right away. This should be an easy touchdown. Instead, Thorson fails to lead Skowronek, who has to slow down for the ball. Sheffield is able to recover and make a nice play on the ball.

Two plays later, the Wildcats fail to convert a fourth down and the game is effectively over.

Playing the what if game isn’t always helpful, but if NU had scored when it had 1st and goal and if Thorson had thrown a good ball to Skowronek, the score could have been 38-35 halfway through the fourth quarter.

With one game to go, here are Thorson’s stats for the year:

Clayton Thorson season totals, Week 14

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 6 25 213 8.52 35.5 2 3
20-29 11 32 318 9.94 28.91 5 0
10-19 32 72 577 8.01 18.03 3 1
0-9 228 327 1760 5.38 7.72 4 9
Totals 278 460 2945 6.40 10.59 15 14