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Comparing Clayton Thorson and Hunter Johnson’s first career starts

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A vast difference in performance shouldn’t dissuade fans as much as they might think.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

As Northwestern football fans fret about Hunter Johnson’s performance in his Northwestern debut against Stanford this past Saturday, it might be helpful to compare his initiation to that of Johnson’s predecessor at quarterback, Clayton Thorson.

The biggest similarities between the two: both were highly-touted recruits who started their first games against Stanford. Other than that, the circumstances were vastly different, and may even help begin to explain Johnson’s struggles.

Against the Cardinal in Northwestern’s stunning 2015 upset victory, Thorson went 12/24 for 105 yards, while adding a touchdown and 68 yards on the ground. Nothing extraordinary, but mistake-free and enough to lead a defense-first team to victory.

This past Saturday at Stanford, four years and 36 wins later, Northwestern marked another new era at quarterback. Johnson, the Clemson transfer and former top quarterback in the 2017 high school recruiting class, started his Northwestern career on a disappointing note.

Johnson went 6/17 for 55 yards and two interceptions. Somehow Northwestern was in the game until the end, thanks in large part, like in 2015, to excellent play on the other side of the ball, but that performance is obviously nowhere near where it needs to be.

Thorson, meanwhile, showed many flashes of ability in his opener, but also possible issues. Importantly, he was able to rely on star running back Justin Jackson, who dominated against Stanford to the tune of 138 rushing yards. Overall, Northwestern’s passing attack was inconsistent all game, but Thorson’s timely throws and runs led NU to a gutsy week one victory. Two weeks later against Duke, though, Thorson’s QBR was 7.2.

While both Thorson and Johnson sat out their first year at NU, the 2019 iteration does not have the same advantages as the current Dallas Cowboy did in his first season. After transferring to NU from Clemson, Johnson was ineligible last season, and served as Northwestern’s scout team quarterback. He spent the majority of last season learning opponents’ systems. And, perhaps most unlike Thorson, he entered his opening game with a bit of uncertainty.

The Northwestern coaching staff did not give Johnson the luxury of being the team’s lone quarterback. He faced stiff competition from T.J. Green for the starting job in the offseason and played the game with the expectation that the senior would come in at some point/

Clearly, Johnson did not play his best game on Saturday. He struggled with accuracy, overshooting his receivers and using poor footwork during various parts of the game. He also displayed poor ball control, turning it over three times (with one being directly attributable to him, one to a wide receiver/lack of PI, and one due to a bad play call creating a backfield mauling).

But despite the ugly stats, he raised his level of play and became more comfortable within the offense as the game progressed. Johnson used his legs to pick up significant yardage in key spots after Isaiah Bowser suffered a knee injury that would take him out of the game. The backup running backs combined for only 16 rushing yards, leaving him bereft of the quality option that Thorson had in 2015.

In addition, when the offense was finally opened up for him in the fourth quarter, Johnson did manage a few key throws that helped put Northwestern into position to have a chance at stealing a win.

Down ten, Johnson hit Bennett Skowronek on the run for a 17 yard completion on second-and-long late in the third quarter. Minutes later, on Northwestern’s penultimate offensive possession (excluding the meaningless final play of the game), he helped draw a key pass interference to set NU up at midfield.

It took all four quarters, but Johnson finally started to settle into the game and Northwestern’s offense was moving. A few plays later, Northwestern would have been at Stanford’s 38 yard-line if it were not for an offensive holding penalty from backup left tackle Ethan Wiederkehr, after Rashawn Slater departed due to cramps, that stalled NU’s possession, resulting in a punt.

Without the penalty, it felt as if Johnson had the momentum to lead NU down the field for a game-winning touchdown or game-tying field goal. If he could have completed the task, the narrative surrounding his debut would have been at least somewhat different.

While Thorson faced struggles throughout his freshman season, he still finished his career as one of, if not, the best quarterbacks in Northwestern history. Johnson was less accurate than Thorson, and, perhaps most crucially, more turnover-prone, in his opening start. But he’s got plenty of time this season and, hopefully, across the rest of his career, to make up for it.

Hunter Johnson may have struggled his way to a disappointing loss in his first Northwestern start. But he looked to be, finally, putting the pieces together at times down the stretch. It’s much too early to pass definitive judgment one way or the other, but in flashes, Johnson emulated what Thorson was in his first season. He still has the potential to be that and more.