It’s the Friday of a sleepy bye week as classes are set to begin for NU students next Thursday. With plenty of time on my hands before heading back to Evanston, I rewatched NU’s first three games and charted every single one of Clayton Thorson’s throws.
Thorson’s Throws is back in a big way. Here’s what I learned:
If you want a TLDR, it would be this: Northwestern has struggled to pass the ball downfield when the offensive line fails to do its job or receivers can’t get good separation. That may seem self-evident— we’ll get into a lot of things that people have pointed out about NU’s offense, but I found it helpful to use numbers and film review to back up what are the biggest constraints within NU’s offense. Also, I spent a long time on this, so please read.
I’ll start with a game-by-game breakdown of Thorson’s Throws™, followed by some bigger-picture takeaways. If you want to take a look at the full data set I used, it’s here, but I would advise you read the neater, game-by-game sheets embedded in the article. They’re much cleaner. Also, my apologies if some of my back-of-the-napkin math is slightly incorrect. I may go to NU, but I’m a journalism major.
Thorson was obviously very closely monitored during the Purdue game. He attempted only 26 passes, and 17 of them came within nine yards of the line of scrimmage. Only three traveled more than 19 yards in the air. His longest throw of the day was a 38-yard-attempt to an open Bennett Skowronek, but the Purdue defender made an excellent play on a well-placed ball. Thorson and Skowronek hooked up for a 39-yard reception on another deep ball from No. 18, although Skowronek had to adjust to an underthrow.
For the most part, however, Thorson kept his reads quick and worked on getting into a rhythm. He started the game 9-of-10 and his first seven throws came within nine yards of the line of scrimmage. Given NU had the lead the entire game, Thorson didn’t really have to open it up and air it out as he would the next two weeks when the Wildcats were trailing.
Here’s the breakdown, and the play-by-play is here.
Clayton Thorson vs. Purdue
Thorson got the lion’s share of the reps at quarterback in Week Two, handling nine of 13 drives in NU’s 21-7 loss. He started the game strong again by finding his rhythm on short passes. Thorson completed his first seven passes, all thrown within nine yards of the line of scrimmage. He went 5-of-5 as NU stormed down the field on its opening drive to take a 7-0 lead. Of course, they wouldn’t score again.
Here’s the breakdown and the play-by-play:
Clayton Thorson vs. Duke
Thorson took a few more shots downfield against Duke, throwing six passes that traveled 30 yards or more in the air. None of them were completed, however, and one was Thorson’s major mistake of the day, an off-balance, underthrown ball into double-coverage that was picked off. A play later, Duke scored on a 52-yard touchdown. The other five deep balls Thorson threw were good passes. Two bounced off receiver’s hands, one was caught out of bounds, and one did not garner a pass interference penalty that it probably should of.
Nevertheless, the NU offense stalled in the second half when the offensive line suffered a couple injuries and Duke’s front seven began to dominate. It’s also worth noting that Cam Green was out of the game after being ejected for targeting. Thorson was under severe pressure in the second half — he was sacked, hit, or pressured nine times. He was 2-of-7 for nine yards on those plays. Give Thorson a clean pocket, and he doesn’t make a lot of bad decisions. But when pressure comes, Thorson and his receivers often struggle to improvise and create something positive.
What a weird game. Thorson handled 14 of NU’s 17 drives and threw the ball 35 times in the second half as the Wildcats scrambled to, you know, not lose to Akron.
Thorson actually had a great deal of success passing the ball beyond ten yards, although several intermediate completions came when Akron was playing prevent defense late in the game. On throws made ten yards or further past the line of scrimmage, Thorson was 9-of-19 for 180 yards, for an average of 9.47 yards per attempt. He tossed two touchdowns to Cam Green, including a beautiful throw up the seam to set the NU program record for career passing touchdowns. His longest throw of the day, a pass that traveled 38 yards in the air, was underthrown but caught by Kyric McGowan. Two throws Thorson probably wishes he could have back: a dangerous 24-yard pass into double coverage towards Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, as well as the pass that bounced off Bennett Skowronek’s hands and became an Akron pick-six.
The breakdown, and the play-by-play:
Clayton Thorson vs. Akron
Thorson had another nice day in the short game, helped by lots of yards after the catch from his receivers.
The trouble came, of course, on the three turnovers. Two of them, importantly, occured after Thorson was pressured or sacked.
A perfect segue into the first of three short sections on NU’s offensive limitations!
Northwestern has run into problems when the quarterback is pressured. Thorson is generally pretty good about making reads quickly and getting the ball out. When he has to contend with pass rushers bearing down on him, it’s a different story.
Thorson is 6-of-20 on passing attempts made under pressure, per my film review. He’s managed 73 yards, but turned the ball over twice under duress last weekend, leading to two scores. Notably, Akron took the lead on Saturday after J.B. Butler got blown up at the line of scrimmage and the Zips defender forced a Thorson fumble. Thorson also got sacked on fourth-and-goal against a four-man rush in the Duke game, unacceptable for a veteran offensive line.
The offensive line actually hasn’t given up a sack in a passing down or blitz down situation, per the stat profiles, but the NU offense ranks 97th in the country in blitz down success rate.
NU will continue to struggle in third-and-long situations if it can’t pass through a blitz.
A lack of separation
I was watching Jared Goff’s college highlights recently 1) because I’m an unashamed nostalgic Cal fan and 2) because I wanted to remind myself what a great college quarterback looks like.
I don’t want to draw any comparisons between Goff and Thorson, but one big difference I noticed when watching the two quarterbacks throw the deep ball was the difference in just how open their receivers were downfield.
Goff played with eight excellent receivers at Cal (Bryce Treggs, Chris Harper, Darius Powe, Chad Hansen, Kenny Lawler, Maurice Harris, Trevor Davis, and Stephen Anderson all made it to the NFL in some respect) and the Golden Bears broke off a ton of huge plays because Goff’s pass-catchers were excellent deep-ball threats and Goff was an able supplier of long-range bombs.
I suppose part of the success was due to the ineptitude of Pac-12 secondaries, but screengrabs like this show you just how much space Goff had to work with downfield.
Throwing the ball accurately 50 yards down the field isn’t easy, but the process is simpler if your receiver has two steps on his defender. Compare that window to the one Thorson tries to squeeze this pass to JJ Jefferson into:
Jefferson is open and the ball is thrown well, but it clangs off Jefferson’s hands as he’s blanketed by two defenders. Obviously, not every scenario looks like the one I laid out above, but I can’t remember a time when NU receivers were running three steps ahead of their defenders with nothing but green grass ahead of them.
NU doesn’t have athletes that can create separation from their defenders and stretch the field. They don’t get open as often, and when they are open, they aren’t as open as say, Goff’s receivers at Cal. Thorson’s window for success is much smaller.
Bennett Skowronek can use his body to gain leverage on smaller DBs down the field, but that’s about the extent of NU’s deep-ball threat, minus a blown coverage.
That represents a structural limitation in NU’s offense. The team just needs better athletes.
The issue with third down
The problems listed above come to a head on third down. The limitations of NU’s offensive line and pass-catchers make things really difficult on third down, and specifically, third-and-long.
By my count, Thorson passed on 26 third-down attempts over NU’s first three games. The Wildcats converted on ten of those opportunities for a percentage of 38.4, which would rank 78th in the country.
That’s not great.
A big problem is that NU puts itself in a difficult position when gets behind schedule by throwing a first down incompletion or running for no gain. NU’s offense is built on chunking off small gains and maintaining a reasonable yardage to gain. But early this year, it’s found itself in third-and-long too often. NU’s average third down distance is 7.2 yards and its third-and-long percentage is 51.8 percent, 83rd in the country.
Of Thorson’s 26 third down tries, 17 were 3rd-and-7 or longer. NU converted on four of those opportunities. NU’s 20.7 percent success rate on third-and-long is 96th in the country.
Thorson is an apt decision-maker, but he can be handicapped on third down. On his 26 third-down throws, he threw the ball to the sticks (meaning the line to gain) only ten times.
It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that stat logically. How can you expect to make a first down if you don’t throw the ball past or at least to where you need to get it to? You’re putting a lot of pressure on your receivers to make someone miss.
Yet I don’t think all of the blame rests with Thorson for dumping the ball underneath. You obviously don’t want to heave the ball deep if no one is open. Moreover, this is where the struggles of NU’s offensive line and receivers come into play.
Thorson has been pressured eight times on third down, with six coming against Duke alone. With limited time to make a decision as the offensive line tries to pick up a blitz, it makes sense for Thorson to find a safety valve.
Secondly, if receivers can’t get good separation on third and long, opposing defenses will be happy to sink into coverage and force Thorson to look underneath. If no one can blow the top off the defense, why not just let NU settle for dump-offs to Jeremy Larkin or Cam Green in the flats.
There’s not a lot of time to throw, and no one may be open past the sticks. Those aren’t great odds.
This clarifies the importance of Mick McCall’s offense staying on schedule. McCall loves to pass on first down, but an incompletion there could kill a drive before it gets started given the offense’s struggles with chunking off even seven yards at once.
Moving forward, establishing the run at the onset of both halves will be paramount to the offense’s success — if NU has to pass early and often, they could dig themselves into a deep hole on offense.
And, you know, maybe work on picking up those blitzes.