Northwestern was hoping for a program-record 11th victory on the season as it took on the Tennessee Volunteers in the 2016 Outback Bowl. However, many believed Northwestern’s offense would be the hinderance to that goal.
Those who thought that were proven right, as the Wildcats were trounced 45-6 by a game Tennessee Volunteer side that could do no wrong on the ground or on defense.
Northwestern was held to 261 yards of total offense, and redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson was a big issue for the Wildcats on the day. He completed just 8 of 20 passes for 57 yards and two interceptions on the day.
That kind of performance left a lot of the offensive lifting to the run game, and Justin Jackson was bottled up to the tune of just 74 yards and an average of 5.3 yards per carry. He did come up with the lone Northwestern touchdown on the day though.
However, he 45-6 scoreline demonstrated just how far Northwestern still has to go to compete with the upper echelon of college football. Most importantly, the butt-kicking illustrated the need for Clayton Thorson to be more than just a nice prospect for the future.
Northwestern and Tennessee started the game off trading punts, and basically playing a game of chicken with each other. The first team to blink just so happened to be the one with the B1G on its jersey — as Thorson threw an interception on the first play of NU’s third series of the game.
Tennessee was set up at the Wildcats’ 22-yard line and set up a lucky series of events for the Wildcats. A celebration penalty after the INT put the Vols in a tough situation and they missed a 49-yard field goal as a result. Northwestern traded that for its own missed field goal.
From there on, the Vols simply dominated Thorson and showed that he has a lot of growing up to do as a quarterback.
With Tennessee holding a 24-6 advantage in the third quarter, Thorson led Northwestern on to the field for a critical drive to keep his team in the game. Instead, the freshman put up his second interception of the day and hope for a NU comeback were dashed with the INT.
Northwestern’s formula for 2015 was to win with its defense and squeeze every last ounce out of its offense in hopes of dragging itself across the finish line. That wasn’t going to cut it against a team like the Vols, and Thorson did nothing to help the situation at times.
The NU battle plan worked 10 times this past season, but the 2016 Wildcats aren’t going to look much like this version and that means there needs to be a lot more from Thorson or this team is in for a serious slide backwards.
Northwestern’s defense will miss its best overall player, defensive end Dean Lowry, along with five other senior starters on the defensive side of the ball. No Nick VanHoose or Traevon Henry in the secondary and no Deonte Gibson opposite of Lowry either.
It means that the 2016 Northwestern football team will need its offense to step to the plate, and that means Thorson has to go from a hinderance to a helping hand this offseason.
Thorson clearly needs to work on his passing game, completing just 50.8 percent of his passes on the season. He also threw for just 1,465 yards and only seven touchdowns through the air.
He also wasn’t a home-run hitter in the run game at times either. Instead, Thorson will end the year with 397 yards and five touchdowns on 100 carries.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald also won’t have a security blanket to fall back on at quarterback in 2016 either, as Zack Oliver will graduate as well. Which means Thorson doesn’t have much of a choice.
He has to become a competent passer, make smarter decisions with the football in the passing game and work hard to find chemistry with his revamped wide receiver group.
Luckily, the areas of need are easily identifiable in Thorson’s game (mainly delivery, confidence and reading defenses). Should he fix those issues, look for him to be a staple of this offense for his full career. If not, the sophomore version of Thorson may find himself on the bench and wondering what happened.