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Clayton Thorson comes of age as Northwestern’s future looks brighter

Clayton Thorson, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes

Northwestern fell to Ohio State, but continued to gain confidence and comfort as Clayton Thorson took ownership of his team.

The Twitter warriors were out for blood as Northwestern watched a field goal clank off the upright and in for a brutal — and embarrassing — 9-7 loss to Illinois State at Ryan Field. Clayton Thorson was not the right quarterback for Northwestern.

Thorson went 17 for 41 that day, for 191 yards. He took three sacks. More importantly, he only scored seven points with all those passes against a FBS defense (not a good one at that, as the season has proven — the Redbirds are 3-5 entering Saturday’s game). And those seven points came late in the fourth quarter as Northwestern tried desperately to take the lead.

The Wildcats were seemingly dead in the water. Everyone was abandoning ship and there did not seem a good place to turn sitting at 0-2.

The best plan, in any case, was to take the ball out of Thorson’s hands as much as possible.

Saturday at Ohio Stadium, Thorson was perhaps the one reason Ohio State had to sweat it out for a 24-20 win. The Buckeyes would bring pressure and blitzes at the sophomore quarterback and he would turn and fire to his receivers or step up into the pocket and run into the vacant field.

It was Thorson who nearly led Northwestern to its first win at the Horseshoe since 1971. He was the one who had the Wildcats facing 4th and Goal at the 15 with a chance to tie the game.

Thorson is not perfect, of course. He still has his moments where he looks young. His offensive line still puts him in trouble on occasion. His 3rd and Goal throw was sailed out of the back of the end zone. Pat Fitzgerald elected to go for a field goal with about four minutes left hoping his defense would get the ball back and give Thorson another chance.

He never got that chance. The senior, J.T. Barrett, made the plays he needed, completing a third down pass and then running for 35 yards on another third down to ice the game.

Still, Thorson left the field looking the better quarterback. He threw for 256 yards on 22-for-42, adding in a touchdown. He rushed for 44 yards on six carries. He found Austin Carr for eight catches and 158 yards, even with so much attention put on the Big Ten’s leading receiver.

Thorson has developed into a solid quarterback for the Wildcats, sparking their offense.

He has come a long way since that afternoon at home in September against Illinois State. That game early in the season seems like a lifetime ago.

In Thorson’s last four games, he has completed 91 for 150 passes (60.7 percent) for 986 yards and 10 touchdowns, against two interceptions. He has thrown for three touchdowns twice and more than 30 pas attempts in all four games.

That was simply unimaginable back in September for him. Minimizing Thorson was the goal. He just needed to do enough to give Justin Jackson the time to run.

Instead now, Thorson is slinging passes across the hashes, putting pinpoint passes along the sideline to Carr and weaving the ball through tight windows to his receivers. This is a quarterback in complete control of things.

Thorson still has his moments where he looks young. Passes get tipped at the line. He will throw the ball away or too hard for receivers to catch. His mistakes do not kill his team — save for a pick-six against Michigan State. And he still largely plays smart.

But even with the leading rusher in the Big Ten, this is quickly becoming Thorson’s team. He has gained a lot of trust. And, most importantly, he gives Northwestern a chance to beat any team.

The result was ultimately the same between the lowest point in Thorson’s career and, maybe, the highest point (so far). The Wildcats lost. But the feeling was so different.

The Wildcats did not get the win over the Buckeyes on Saturday. But they stood toe to toe and their confidence continues to grow.

And Thorson still has four more games this year, and two more seasons at Northwestern to continue maturing and owning this team.

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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