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Northwestern QB “series count” leaves more questions than answers

I’m not sure anybody really understands the quarterback situation.

Northwestern v Purdue Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

When Northwestern released its first depth chart of the season — a two-deep that listed Clayton Thorson OR TJ Green as the starting quarterback — Pat Fitzgerald said we’d get clarity on what that “or” meant at 8:06 p.m. ET Thursday. Well, Thursday night came and went, and that clarity never came.

Thorson trotted out with the first-team offense, and proceeded to lead two nearly flawless touchdown drives. He looked sharp and precise, and even flashed mobility on his surgically-repaired knee. But that’s where things got downright weird, and all logic seemingly disappeared.

It was Green, and not Thorson, who came out at quarterback on the third offensive series, setting off a firestorm of speculation and outcry on social media. When people within the program announced that Thorson was healthy, the confusion grew.

Asked after the game whether Thorson was on a “pitch count,” Fitzgerald said he would call the plan more of a “series count.”

“I think it was more that we had kind of a series plan that we were gonna go through, if that makes sense,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m being a little bit vague for a reason.”

Then asked if he inserted Green to get the junior quarterback some experience, the head coach laughed. “I wish we had that luxury,” he said. “This was the plan. We were going to play two quarterbacks, we were going to have a series count based on different thing and factors.”

Fitzgerald went on to say that team doctors, came to him and offensive coordinator Mick McCall around three weeks ago to lay out Thorson’s status, and the coaching staff formulated the plan from there.

There are several things to note here.

First, despite the program saying Thorson was healthy, he clearly had some limitations. Now, I still don’t really know what a “series” count is, or how it differs from a snap count, but it appears that doctors didn’t want Thorson on the field for too many snaps just over eight months after tearing his ACL. I’m not a doctor, so I’m in no position to really criticize the decision, but it’s at least a bit strange. Running backs often have carry limits to preserve their bodies, but rarely are quarterbacks subjected to similar limitations. From a health perspective, it at least makes some sense to have Thorson on the field for fewer snaps than more.

But, I think the logic goes awry when you insert Thorson in the middle of a series, like Northwestern did on the final possession of the game. Fitz said the medical team came to him midway through that final possession to tell him Thorson was available — for the biggest plays of the game. Why was Thorson cleared later in the series but not at the beginning? That’s a question we’ll probably never get answered.

Now, we shouldn’t forget that Green actually delivered the drive that won the game, even if a boneheaded penalty played a big role in that. But, in a series where the offense couldn’t afford to stall early, Green engineered a drive good enough to earn his team a win. Northwestern fans should feel much more assured about Green as a backup after his performance Thursday. The complaints about the two-quarterback system aren’t really complaints about Green.

But, the offense was firing on all cylinders in those first two drives under Thorson, and inserting Green disrupted that rhythm. And, when you have a 40-game starter under center, it’s difficult to comprehend taking him off the field if he’s healthy.

Fitzgerald called the situation fluid going forward, which could mean anything.

The only clarity we got Thursday? That the “or” on the depth chart for QB1 should’ve said “and.”