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Clayton Thorson answers Northwestern’s biggest question

Clayton Thorson, Northwestern Wildcats

The opening drive for Northwestern was sublime.

All the questions and concern over the offense and the sophomore quarterback were seemingly answered or showed their promise in those first few plays. Thorson commanded the offense. He got rid of the ball quickly, Completed passes accurately. And, most importantly, scored.

The Wildcats were one yard from scoring 22 points, something they did just six times last year. That is not a high hurdle. The Wildcats only cleared it half the time last season.

The offense was abysmal, last in nearly every important category in the Big Ten. Having a competent offense promised to make the team a much more threatening and dangerous team. And the way Thorson played that opening drive in getting to a 7-0 lead was promising.

He went 6 for 8 for 54 yards in the 15-play, 75-yard drive. He controlled the offense’s pace and picked apart the Western Michigan defense, including completing a 14-yard pass to Austin Carr on fourth down. Thorson was making some big throws.

He finished the game 15 for 22 for 196 yards. That mark was the second highest of his career (he threw for 256 yards against Ball State).

That was a low bar to climb but Thorson had control of the game. It was literally in his hands as he came a yard short of giving Northwestern the lead and the likely win Saturday.

The fumble into the end zone certainly stands out. Thorson put the blame on himself after the game. That is not a situation any player can make that kind of mistake in.

That was a moment where Thorson showed his age. The sophomore quarterback still is not a complete player, as much as he improved in that one showing. He still missed on some throws. He took three sacks, which the coaching staff attributed to him. He failed to recognize and account for blitzes from the Western Michigan defense.

When Thorson had the time though, he largely made the right decision. Even the fumble was a good decision to keep the ball and a good play to get to the goal line. He just got a little greedy trying to stretch the ball over and score on that play with two more downs to burn. Those kind of veteran, intangible decisions will get better.

There were other hiccups too. Thorson would throw short of the sticks on occasion. The sacks put the Wildcats behind the chains. He was playing from behind.

But Thorson is no longer going to be the quarterback with kid gloves on. He can — and was — leading an offense that was moving efficiently.

Northwestern scored on three of its nine drives in Saturday’s game. One of those was a kneel down to end the first half and another was the fumble at the one-yard line. That is five potential scoring drives in eight drives. That included two touchdowns in the final three drives, with that last drive ending in the fumble at the one.

The team had some incredible balance too. The Wildcats had 31 rush attempts to 22 pass attempts. The Cats rarely had that balance last season offensively. It was a big step in the direction the team wants to go.

It shows Northwestern’s offense was suddenly very efficient.

The Wildcats got a reliable performance from Justin Jackson — 124 carries and three touchdowns — but Thorson was a big difference for the offense. If the defense could have gotten some stops and helped Northwestern control more of the time of possession, it is unclear where the Wildcats could have gone.

Thorson’s development was the big question entering the season. Northwestern knew it would need that balance to be successful this season and take the next step in its development.

Except for one play, Northwestern saw the offense it needed to see. It bodes well for the rest of the season as the Wildcats continue to improve.

Of course, now Northwestern has to do it again. Thorson has to create consistency. His first challenge of the year though proved to be a success for the young quarterback.

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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