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Clayton Thorson is the puzzle Northwestern cannot solve

Clayton Thorson was supposed to be the centerpiece of a Northwestern Big Ten title run. Instead, he has struggled to find consistency and is the wild card for this team.

Clayton Thorson had an undeniable buzz entering the season. This is a quarterback that somehow was both getting talked about a lot in football circles, but was still under the radar. The Northwestern Wildcats are not exactly at the forefront for anyone in the college football landscape. It is easy to sweep them under the rug.

Thorson was under the radar in the national picture, but had plenty of people perked up.

He was rated as the top quarterback in his class and a potential NFL Draft pick in the summer. He went to the Peyton Manning Passing Academy in the summer too. He was building off a stellar sophomore year where he threw for 3,182 yards and completed 58.6 percent of his passes. Not to mention a bowl win.

With Thorson entering his third season as Northwestern’s starter and the team having so many key¬†contributors at skill positions had Northwestern poised to compete for a Big Ten West title.

A look at Clayton Thorson’s numbers through five games for Northwestern reveals he is playing fine. Thorson has completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 1,496 yards. He is not on pace for the same yardage he had last year, but Thorson is spreading the ball around.

Or so it would seem.

A closer examination of Thorson’s season shows a puzzling picture. A quarterback who in one instance seems like he has complete command of the pocket, patiently going through his progression and firing a pass through a tight window. But then in the next, he is rushing and trying to avoid pressure, stepping into more pressure or throwing off his back foot to avoid a bad hit or force a play.

It is true, Northwestern’s offensive line play has been horrible. If Thorson has happy feet, there is a reason. Even star running back Justin Jackson has had trouble finding running room. Saturday’s win over Maryland was the first time the Northwestern offense was able to start clicking on all cylinders.

Thorson’s 27-for-49, 293-yard performance Saturday was far from perfect. Thorson threw two picks in the game, including one in the red zone. He let pressure get to him, having him fall back into his bad habit of throwing off his back foot. The ball sails on him and it leaves the ball open for turnovers.

But, once the Wildcats established their run game and got into a rhythm, Thorson was brilliant. When his team gets into a rhythm and can pick up the pace, Thorson is smart distributing the ball and making difficult throws. Thorson in rhythm is as dangerous as any quarterback in the conference.

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This is especially because of how he has improved in the pocket. His pocket presence is better. He reads through his progressions and moves around when the pressure gets to him while keeping his eyes downfield. The work Thorson put in over the summer at that passing academy has paid off.

Yet, it still feels like Thorson should be so much further. He should be better at avoiding sacks and negative plays. His safety given up in the loss to Wisconsin was inexcusable. Thorson was trying to make a play but almost certainly could have thrown the ball out of bounds to preserve another chance for the Northwestern offense. That was simply

His safety given up in the loss to Wisconsin was inexcusable. Thorson was trying to make a play but almost certainly could have thrown the ball out of bounds to preserve another chance for the Northwestern offense. That was simply not a play a third-year starter should make.

The number of plays like that this year have been puzzling from Thorson. He has shown greater command in the pocket. His play at quarterback singlehandedly delivered Northwestern a win over Nevada in the season opener — 28 for 38 passing, 352 yards. That felt liek a turn the corner game.

Then he laid an egg at Duke — 11 for 29, 120 yards. With an inconsistent offensive line and few running options because of it, Duke brought constant pressure on Thorson. He crumbled as he tried to force everything.

Seemingly snap by snap, Northwestern cannot be too sure what kind of throw Thorson will make or what kind of player they will get. When he is on, he is as good as anyone in the conference. But he has not put everything together.

Just like Northwestern, he has fallen well short of expectations. And yet that great burst of talent is still there.

Any week — like this week against Iowa — Thorson could explode for a big game and make defenses look foolish. Then again, any week, he could look like a freshman trying to force throws and make a play, spraying the ball around and creating turnovers.

Thorson is not the game manager he was his freshman year. He has grown leaps and bounds since then. But he is not quite the confident third-year starter Northwestern needed to win in the Big Ten.

This is all the frustrating puzzle that is Clayton Thorson this year.

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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