The calls were coming from all corners of the Internet as Northwestern struggled out of the gate. The team’s offense looked as lost and frustrated as it did throughout its 10-win season, where the team won in spite of its offense more than because of it. Northwestern did not have the defensive dominance it had the year before in 2016.
It needed Clayton Thorson. And as Northwestern got off to an 0-2 start, the team did not get what it needed from its quarterback.
In the Wildcats’ first three games last year, Thorson completed just 52 of 102 passes (51.0 percent) for 707 yards. He completed just four touchdowns.
In the process, Thorson fumbled the ball at the goalline on Northwestern’s go-ahead drive against Western Michigan. And then the following week was Northwestern’s infamous 9-6 loss to Illinois State. That should have been a game where the experienced Thorson dominated an overmatched defense.
No one on Northwestern took over that game.
These early season struggles — leading into the Big Ten opener against Nebraska, even — led plenty of people to question Thorson. It seemed like his spot as the starting quarterback was somewhat in jeopardy.
Pat Fitzgerald is not someone who was going to jump to conclusions. As he said at Big Ten media days this year, he put the blame for that slow start on himself and the poor preparation the coaching staff gave the players.
There might have been something to that.
Throughout Thorson’s freshman year, Northwestern seemingly kept some kid gloves on him. They made sure he was in positions to succeed, limiting him to a game manager role. Northwestern started last year with that approach too.
It was not until they unleashed him and trusted him with the offense more that things began to change.
Against Michigan State, he threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns. In fact, he threw for three touchdowns in three games last season. Austin Carr certainly helped and that security blanket is gone in 2017, but Thorson was strong in his own right. There were games he took over and his play in the passing game helped Northwestern gain distance and win comfortably.
It is safe to say Northwestern does not reach a bowl game without Thorson taking that leap. And it is also probably safe to say Northwestern does not win the Pinstripe Bowl without Thorson’s 214 passing yards and 23-for-36 passing.
Thorson ended last year with a 58.6 percent completion percentage and 3,182 passing yards. After throwing just seven touchdowns as a freshman, he threw for 22 last year. It was enough to get Thorson an invite to the Peyton Manning Passing Academy and some early NFL Draft buzz.
Justin Jackson still carries the heavy load and is the feature of the offense. But Thorson’s growth and development is what could turn Northwestern from also-ran team to potential Big Ten West contender.
It is safe to say, Northwestern fully trusts its three-year starter. And he truly holds the key to the Wildcats taking the next step. He has to become the consistent passer and leader necessary to make Justin Jackson more effective and turn Northwestern into a stronger offensive power.
The Wildcats undoubtedly will rely more on their offense this year with shifting on the defensive end. The team is reworking its front seven this year after losing team leader Anthony Walker.
Of more concern is the uncertainty on the offensive line. Northwestern returns several starters from the line, but the whole group seems in flux. The Wildcats gave up the most sacks in the Big Ten last year. Some of that is a product of Thorson holding onto the ball too long and some of that was poor pass blocking.
A shifting and uncertain offensive line puts more pressure on Thorson to perform. So too does the Wildcats’ need to replace Austin Carr and find a consistent wide receiver option. Northwestern has a lot of position the team needs someone to step into.
Thorson will be the catalyst for all of it. It will require his leadership and his skill to allow a receiver to emerge. It will also require him managing the offensive line and getting rid of the ball quicker.
A lot of this comes with maturity as a quarterback. As a third-year starter, leadership is almost a requirement. It goes double for the quarterback.
And so everything for Northwestern this year will center on Thorson and his development. Can he elevate the players around him? Can he provide a pass game and help manage a game to get the most out of Justin Jackson’s senior year?
These are the questions that become central to Northwestern’s season.
Thorson has all the talent. He showed it last year with some of the throws he made to Carr throughout the season. Thorson’s development as a sophomore was exactly what Northwestern wanted to see. It just may not have come as quickly as the team would have liked.
In the end, Thorson had a successful season and Northwestern accomplished several of its yearly goals — including winning that bowl game and building a lot of goodwill for the offseason.
For the Wildcats to repeat that success and build on it, he cannot slide back. He has to improve. For Northwestern’s offense to work, Thorson has to play a critical part. Just as any quarterback would.
Thorson has grown from the game manager he was for his freshman year and early parts of his sophomore year into the playmaker he was at the end of the season.
Northwestern can feel confident to some degree Thorson is that player to end the year. He is something the team should be able to trust. The Wildcats will need to rely on Thorson more to reach their goals this year.