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Clayton Thorson left Northwestern better than he found it

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No. 18 will be remembered as one of the program’s greats.

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

The week before the 2018 season began, I wrote a profile on Clayton Thorson. The feature’s thesis: Thorson is on track to be the most accomplished Northwestern quarterback since Otto Graham, but what will his legacy ultimately be?

He had won big games, and he had set records. He had grown tremendously as a passer and a leader, and he provided valuable stability to a program that needed it.

What he hadn’t done, however, was gotten Northwestern to the next step as a program. He hadn’t brought a division title back to Evanston.

Well, this season he did that. And won a third-straight bowl game, a program first. And broke the Big Ten’s all-time starts record for a quarterback. It was clear in August that this season would define Thorson’s legacy at Northwestern, and it did.

This season, Thorson cemented himself as a Northwestern legend.

***

Entering Clayton Thorson’s redshirt freshman season, Northwestern was a program in flux. Two seasons removed from a first 10-win season since 1995 and a first bowl win since 1948, Pat Fitzgerald’s teams had gone 5-7 in back-to-back seasons. There was talent on the roster, but another iffy season would’ve cast doubt on Fitzgerald’s slow build in Evanston.

There was uncertainty entering 2015, too. Deep into the offseason, a quarterback competition between Thorson, Zach Oliver and Matt Alviti lingered. Thorson’s recruiting pedigree, in addition to his size and promise as a younger player, made him the favorite, but there was still a question mark at the most important position on the field. Thorson won the job, though there’d be no easing into college football — a ranked Stanford team awaited in the season-opener.

Despite being double-digit underdogs, Northwestern won that game 16-6, and Thorson formally introduced himself as the new face of Northwestern football. The Wildcats were undoubtedly a defense-first team — Thorson threw for just 105 yards against Stanford and for under 100 yards five other times in 2015 — but Thorson proved he was ready to lead Northwestern. His 42-yard touchdown run sealed a win that early September day in Evanston.

In his 52 starts since then, Thorson has been an iron man. He didn’t miss a single start in four years. I said something similar after Northwestern clinched the Big Ten West this season, but it’s worth repeating: nothing kept Thorson off the field. After every big hit except one, he got up. After tearing his ACL in late December, he came back for a game in August. Before the most important game of the season this past November, he vomited before kickoff. Thorson didn’t always play well, but he always played.

For a program, knowing you’re set at quarterback every week is important. It’s that kind of dedication that prompted Pat Fitzgerald to call Thorson “a warrior.” It’s the reason J.B. Butler, who came into Northwestern in the same class as Thorson, Tweeted the following: “I would go through hell and back for Clayton Thorson.”

***

As Northwestern’s program has grown during the past four years, so has Thorson.

As a freshman and a sophomore, Thorson was reserved in press conferences after games, and he didn’t really look comfortable as the face of the team. This season, Thorson owns his role in similar settings. With Justin Jackson, Godwin Igwebuike and Tyler Lancaster gone, Thorson knew this was his team. Now, when a question is posed to a group of players at a press conference, Thorson answers. He is the definitive spokesman for the team.

Think about this — Thorson has dealt with all that comes with being a starting quarterback at a power conference school for four straight seasons. He’s always had a microscope on him, and he’s never slipped up. It’s clear he doesn’t care all that much about individual accolades; he has no discernible social media presence. Thorson’s media responsibilities are more than anyone else’s and his preparation is more consuming than anybody else’s. He always shows up, answers questions and says what he’s supposed to say as a leader of the team. That’s impressive for a seasoned veteran, let alone a college-aged person.

That consistency and even-keeled demeanor translates on the field too. Whenever Thorson throws an interception or takes a sack (which happened quite a bit), he comes back the next possession with a clear mind. Thorson wasn’t the most accurate thrower or the most aware in the pocket, but he didn’t get flustered.

After his freshman season, Fitzgerald said Thorson needed to be more present as a leader. He did that. He began to be more vocal with his teammates, telling his receivers where they needed to be and what he needed them to do. It worked because he expected the same from his teammates.

Thorson came to Northwestern as a quiet, highly touted prospect with potential. He leaves Northwestern as someone his teammates followed. He leaves a married man. He leaves as Northwestern’s all-time passing leader. He leaves with a legitimate shot at the NFL.

***

Since the year 1900, Northwestern has won 9 or more games eight times. Three of those eight have come with Clayton Thorson as quarterback.

With Thorson as quarterback, Northwestern won three bowl games in four years. In the other 119 seasons of Northwestern football (since joining a conference), Northwestern won two bowl games.

Thorson won’t go down in history as a surgical, precise passer who picked apart defenses with pinpoint throws. In fact, Northwestern’s offenses were never elite, or even good really, under Thorson.

In his time at Northwestern, more than anything else, Thorson was a winner. In close games, he did enough for his team to score more points than the opposition, more often than not. When he took over a program that had been losing, he stabilized the quarterback position.

When it was clear Northwestern was knocking on the door to win a division title and play for a Big Ten Championship, Thorson broke that door down. And he did it in incredible fashion.

In eight months, Northwestern will face Stanford again. A new quarterback will begin his college career as a starter against the Cardinal. That new quarterback will take over a program that now expects to win division titles. A program that doesn’t just want to get to the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis, but win it. A program that’s back to winning ways.

The reason the program is where it is, more than any other single player, is because of Clayton Thorson.