Northwestern has one of the toughest defenses in the country, but their offense, not really up to par. There have been flashes of potential from underclassmen, but they never had to win the Wildcats a game. That all changed on Saturday during Northwestern’s 24-19 win over Ball State.
Freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson had his worst game as a Wildcat – completing 18 of his 31 passes for 256 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and two fumbles. While the passing yards and touchdowns make it look like he dominated Ball State’s defense, his turnovers were extremely costly.
Ball State scored 10 points off two Thorson turnovers, with a chance to make it 13 if kicker Morgan Hagee could convert his 43-yard miss. While there were tons of mistakes by Throson, Northwestern’s wide receivers are deserve part of the blame.
Its no secret Northwestern has an offense lacking a truly dynamic playmaker. Taking a look a the roster you see a bunch of players capable of having good games, but it is really a team effort to score enough points for the defense to win the Wildcats the game.
But when there is a big play to be made Northwestern needs its players to do everything they can, like completing the catch. Miles Schuler is Northwestern’s down field threat, but has dropped a couple of big yardage throws. On Saturday, against Ball State, Schuler had a step on his defender and had a perfect pass from Thorson bounce off his hands. Those are the types of incompletions that is going to cost Northwestern a game.
It is important to complete that pass for numerous reasons. The first reason is to stretch out the defense. The book on scouting Northwestern is to load the box to shut down running back Justin Jackson and short throws. Defenses are going to scheme to stop the run and make Thorson beat them by throwing deep. A completed Schuler pass makes the defense change their game plan and have to be mindful of the deep ball.
Thorson was able to complete a big pass to superback Dan Vitale for a touchdown because the defense was crowding the box and once Vitale got over the defense there was no one within five yards of him. That touchdown pass changed the course of Northwestern’s offense. Ball State had to go man coverage on the outside giving Thorson the chance to pick the defense a part.
Thorson was able to hit Austin Carr on a fade route in the end zone in one-on-one coverage. Just a few minutes after Carr’s touchdown, Jackson broke out for a 66-yard run, the longest of his career. Before the snap on Jackson’s run the defense is spread out making sure they have the receivers covered, so when Jackson breaks the line of scrimmage there is no one around and a pursuit to the end zone begins.
Prior to the week four win, Northwestern had a hard time figure out what their identity was on offense. They knew Jackson was a candidate for the First Team All Big-Ten, but what about everything else?
Successful teams in football are the one who have a focus, but can also burn a defense in another way. For example, a team with athletic wide outs and a strong-armed quarterback will want to throw the ball, but they will also need an effective running game to keep the defense honest.
Northwestern is a team who needs to run the ball to win with the capability to throw the ball. So far this season they have won games with their stout defense and squeaking out enough points. As conference play comes begins there are going to be games where the opposing defense is playing just as well as Northwestern’s and the offense will need to win the game.
In the third quarter against Ball State Northwestern unleashed an offense no one has seen before. Thorson was standing in the pocket looking off defenders, delivering accurate throws to different receivers and a stellar run game. The defense had no clue what was going to happen next.
With the speed of Schuler and Carr Northwestern has players who can get down field in a hurry. Cameron Jones’ tall frame, good hands and route running give Thorson a huge target in the middle of the field. Vitale’s sure hands and ability to put his shoulder down to break tackles give the redshirt freshman quarterback a pressure release valve.
With a receiving core built like the ones Northwestern has no one player is going to be the highlight, and it seems like the coaches have figured out how to use them. A mixture of short to middle range passes combined with the run sinks the defense in lulls the defense and then the Wildcats can hit them with the bomb down the field.
Getting all the receivers a touch of the ball makes the defense have to think, and when that happens it is usually a good thing for the offense. Spreading the ball around forces the deep safeties and the zone corner backs to make a decision on how to double. If Thorson can take his time and see where the secondary is going he can make huge plays.
At the start of the season it seemed like Northwestern was just trying to out smart their opponents and worried about what would be going on in their film sessions. Not letting Thorson really show what he can do in the pocket and giving the ball to Jackson upwards of 20 times.
Trailing in the game and not playing well Northwestern didn’t have time to outsmart and just needed to worry about winning the game at hand. The coaches called plays that just allowed their players to play and that opened up the scoreboard.
With conference play opening in the upcoming weekend Northwestern will need to continue to give their offense freedom and allow Thorson to grow. If the defense can continue their dominate ways with the offense playing like they did in the second half of the Ball State win, Northwestern can make a run in the Big Ten West.