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What we learned from Northwestern Wildcats’ 54-40 win over Michigan State Spartans

Austin Carr, Northwestern Wildcats, Michigan State Spartans

The Northwestern Wildcats scored a landmark 54-40 win over Michigan State that seemed to fly in the face of everything we knew about the Wildcats before.

Clayton Thorson threw an interception that Justin Layne took to the house for 43 years. Michigan State was rolling up 14-0 behind its freshman quarterback. Northwestern’s offense looked as anemic and frustrating as it always had. A 14-point deficit to this offense, compared to the last few years, was seemingly insurmountable.

It was not a miserable Saturday though.

Thorson and Justin Jackson went on a tear. The offense awoke. The defense pushed freshman quarterback Brian Lewerke out of the game. And the offensive fireworks were just beginning.

Northwestern’s offense produced offense in a way it has not since Kain Colter was quarterback. The Wildcats scored back-to-back 30-point games for the first time since C.J. Bacher was quarterback. This from a quarterback that for the last two years has seemingly been spinning circles.

When Michigan State cut the lead to two, Solomon Vault returned a kick for a touchdown and Flynn Nagel took a bubble screen for a touchdown. The Wildcats had an answer for everything.

Northwesterned recorded a surprising 54-40 win at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich. And now their path to bowl eligibility and their identity seems much more settled. The team used the bye week extraordinarily well and came out firing.

It left everyone asking: Who is this team?

Austin Carr is a stud too

The offensive talk has always centered on Justin Jackson and how Clayton Thorson and the rest of the offense does not give him much help. The playmakers that need to step up are always Jackson or Thorson. The game falls on their shoulders.

Very quickly, defenses are going to have to focus more and more on Thorson’s favorite target, Austin Carr.

Carr caught 11 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns. The Spartans defense was draped all over him and Carr rose up for a catch or found himself open.

On third downs, Thorson faced the pressure and threw blindly in Carr’s direction. And Carr was there, open and ready to catch the ball. This is becoming a regular occurrence.

Carr leads the Big Ten in receiving yards, seemingly impossible for a team that has had so many difficulties on offense and at quarterback. Carr has scored a touchdown in each of the last five games. Again, this is a team that struggles on offense and has for the last two years.

Matt Millen on the broadcast on Carr’s second touchdown — a fourth-down score at that — was telling the Spartans’ defense to make sure they covered Carr first. They did not, and he scored.

The idea that Northwestern’s offense now has two options everyone knows the team will use (Justin Jackson rushed for a career-high 188 yards on 34 carries) and neither of them can get stopped. . . it is like Northwestern has an offense now.

The secondary still a piece of work

Before the season, Northwestern touted its secondary as one of the best in the country. There was some youth, but Matthew Harris, Kyle Queiro and Godwin Igwebuike were good enough to warrant preseason praise. The Wildcats felt firm with their defensive capabilities.

That has not come to fruition.

Harris has been out with an injury. Queiro just returned from an injury. And the rest of the secondary was incredibly young. They have given up some big plays and the Wildcats have had to give a cushion to be comfortable with their defense.

That was still the case and much more even with Queiro back (wearing a club on his hand) and the secondary rallying to the ball better.

Igwebuike got burned on several occasions and the secondary still looked a mess.

The Wildcats gave up two long touchdown throws to Tyler O’Conner. While they were able to keep everything under control underneath, the Spartans found a weakness and exploited it.

Northwestern’s secondary is good not great and still susceptible to giving up a play over the top.

Clayton Thorson is Northwestern’s quarterback

There was doubt. Seriously, there was.

Thorson was not showing progress, was throwing balls into the dirt and was not leading an offense that had anything near the definition of efficiency.

Since the Nebraska game though, Thorson has begun to put together solid games, building up yards through the air and gaining confidence. The Iowa game especially was a coming out party for him. A solid, efficient game where he scored a big win from ahead.

The Spartans defense was not the shining example it once was (last year). But Thorson ripped them up following that interception at the beginning of the game.

Thorson threw for 281 yards on 27-for-35 passing. He threw under pressure and found his safety valve, Austin Carr, time and time again. He looked like a confident and strong veteran quarterback.

Thorson made some incredibly difficult throws too. He hit receivers on the opposite hash on multiple occasions and got the ballinto tight windows. That was extreme trust in his receiver — particularly Carr.

This is everything Northwestern wanted to see from Thorson. This is the growth they needed from him. He has begun to grow and take steps forward offensively.

This game was a big game for Thorson and cements his leadership role with the Wildcats.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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