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Thorson’s Throws: One last ride

Here’s our final evaluation of No. 18’s passing performance

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Clayton Thorson broke one final record, helped lead a comeback win, and cemented his Wildcat legacy in his 53rd and final game.

Thorson’s performance against wasn’t anything to write home about, but you could tell the win meant something more to No. 18. The normally stoic Thorson joked around and cracked a big smile at the postgame press conference. He embraced his teammates, especially his senior linemen. He lingered on the turf after nearly everyone else left, finally slapping the “Trust Yourself” sign one final time.

All of this is to say a couple things: first, I don’t have much interesting to say in this intro, and second, this win had a lot more symbolic value than it did useful information about Northwestern’s offense.

Caleb captured the significance well, and I encourage you to read his piece if you haven’t.

Still, I’ve been doing this all year, and Thorson’s Throws™ would be incomplete without one more post, even if it’s full of useless ramblings about legacy and quibbles about playcalling.

First, the breakdown, and the play-by-play.

Clayton Thorson vs. Utah

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30-39 1 1 32 32 32 0 0
20-29 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
10-19 3 6 43 7.2 14.3 1 0
0-9 17 23 166 7.20 9.80 1 1
Totals 21 30 241 8.03 11.50 2 1

Northwestern’s offense was more or less inept for the majority of the first half. Part of that is because Utah’s defense is Actually Good and bottled up NU’s run attack and limited opportunities for an NU receiving group missing Flynn Nagel and Ben Skowronek for most of the game.

But we also saw the Wildcats shoot themselves in the foot with errors that recurred all season long. Thorson took a sack when he couldn’t make a hot read in the face of a blitz. He also had a couple missed throws, including this underthrow of Kyric McGowan.

NU’s lone turnover of the game also came in frustrating fashion. Thorson delivered an accurate ball to Berkeley Holman, but the freshman whiffed on the pass. The deflection wound up in the hands of Marquise Blair, and Utah kicked a field goal ten plays later.

When Northwestern did move the ball in the first half, it couldn’t convert on its one chance in Utah’s red zone. Isaiah Bowser was stuffed twice inside Utah’s 3-yard-line, bringing up 3rd and goal. Here’s the play Northwestern ran:

I don’t mind passing the ball here, but as Joel Klatt pointed out on the FS1 broadcast, using play action here sets NU up to fail because Thorson wastes valuable time faking a handoff. An ideal goal line pass play features a quick read and throw, but adding a play fake means Thorson has to wait a beat to throw, and that the receivers are one or two steps deeper into an already-small section of the field before Thorson can find them. This just makes the play easier to defend, especially because Utah had three DBs and one linebacker to guard NU’s three pass-catchers split out right.

Northwestern did a lot better on its second chance inside the red zone, after RCB’s huge 52-yard catch and scamper. The Wildcats dialed up the same exact play they used on Ben Skowronek’s touchdown catch against Illinois. Against Cover One defense, Cam Green and RCB run rub routes underneath, while Riley Lees and Kyric McGowan take their defenders to the end zone. The play design works because Utah’s lone safety is stranded in the middle of the field without anyone to cover. All NU has to do is win the one-on-one on the perimeter.

Lees is a lot smaller than Skowronek, but he does an excellent job of using his body to put himself in position to make the play.

Mick McCall got really creative in the second half, using designed rollouts, RPOs, the Wildcat, and obviously, the pass to Trey Klock. Nothing like a bowl game to unleash the full playbook.

It certainly worked. Thorson was an efficient 8-of-10 for 108 yards and two scores in the second half, and the Wildcats rode the momentum their defense created to a Holiday Bowl win.

Thorson’s Throws will *probably* return as the NFL Draft approaches, perhaps with some insights from Mick McCall or Thorson himself.

For now, here are Thorson’s final tallies for the season:

Clayton Thorson 2018 totals

40+ 1 4 77 19.25 77 1 1
30-39 7 26 245 9.42 35 2 3
20-29 11 32 318 9.94 28.91 5 0
10-19 35 78 620 7.95 17.71 4 1
0-9 245 350 1926 5.50 7.86 5 10
Totals 299 490 3186 6.50 10.66 17 15