Northwestern Bowl Preview: Quarterback

It has been a season full of surprises for Northwestern football, the latest being their invitation to play in the Outback Bowl on New Years Day against Tennessee. The Wildcats, who finished the season 10-2, found their identity in their running attack and crippling defense.

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After an open off-season competition at quarterback, Clayton Thorson, the red shirt freshman, emerged as the opening day starter. With the exception of an early game exit due to injury and a brief benching, Thorson was under center every step of the way to one of the best season records in the program’s history.

While he was mostly counted on for his ability to run, handing the ball to Justin Jackson and limiting his turnovers, Thorson’s struggles were not entirely his own fault. A constantly bruised up offensive line and a group of inconsistent wide receivers who struggled to get open and make catches for their quarterback might have kept him from showing us the best of his abilities.

Joshua Dobbs is a junior coming off his best season as Tennessee’s quarterback. At 6’3”, 207 lbs, Dobbs is a duel threat who averaged 64.1 rushing yards per conference game, the most of any quarterback in the SEC. He doesn’t have one stand out wide receiver target, but rather three different players who reached over 300 yards for the season, and nine different players he found in the end zone, though had trouble staying up at times, getting sacked 19 times on the year.

For the season, Thorson threw for 1,465 yards with a 51.6% completion percentage. He had seven touchdowns to go with seven interceptions, ran for five touchdowns, and finished the year with a 99.7 QB rating.

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Dobson threw for 2,125 yards with a 59.9% completion percentage. He threw for 15 touchdowns with only five interceptions, and added nine rushing touchdowns for a QB rating of 128.2.

Thorson played his best overall game against Nebraska, where he threw for 177 yards and ran for 126, with one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown. His box score rarely looked very impressive, but his ability to gain yards on the ground and keep his team in games made him effective.

Dobbs’ best performance this year came against Georgia, where he threw for 312 yards on 25-42 passing, with 3 touchdowns. He also added 118 yards on the ground for an additional two scores.

The best comparison we’ve seen for Northwestern’s defense has been Duke’s Thomas Sirk. Sirk is the only other true duel threat with a similar build that Northwestern saw this year, and they were able to limit his production. They held him to 150 passing yards, zero touchdowns and one interception, as well as 16 carries for 61 yards and one score. His QB rating in that game, 88.7, was his second worst performance of the season.

While Northwestern will have the better defense on the field, Tennessee features more offensive weapons for Dobbs. Stopping him will rely heavily on their linebackers, led by Anthony Walker. Walker, Drew Smith and Nate Hall will need to be able to read Dobbs while counting on the DB’s to keep the receivers in check. Dobbs doesn’t make many mistakes so it’ll be up to Northwestern’s defensive line to keep him off balance.

You beat Thorson by forcing the ball into his hands. If Tennessee can get off to a fast start and take Jackson out of the game early, that might be their best chance. Thorson has not had to carry this team yet, and does not have wide receivers skilled enough to bail him out of tight coverage or bad throws.

Thorson is playing in the biggest game of his young career, and it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the pressure. He has only thrown two interceptions over their last five games, and will need his improved decision making to follow him into this game. The game plan will likely revolve around Jackson but everyone in the stadium will know that, so it’ll fall on Thorson to make sure he can be a threat just enough to keep the defense honest.

Advantage: Tennessee