The Northwestern passing game wasn’t very good in 2015.
And that’s a pretty big understatement.
Statistically, there weren’t many passing attack in the FBS worse than the Wildcats’, an ugly 138.5-yards-per-game average that ranked 119th out of 127 teams. Only two Power Five conference teams — Georgia Tech and Boston College — fared worse through the air.
Of course, Justin Jackson’s sensational rushing ability and one of the best defenses in college football allowed Northwestern to win 10 games in a single season for just the fourth time in program history.
But leading up to the 2016 campaign, Pat Fitzgerald and his team know for certain that getting the passing game — and by extension the Cats’ offense as a whole — back on track is one of the main priorities when it comes to keeping that success going.
“That’s definitely what needs to happen in order for us to take the next step,” Fitzgerald said last week during Northwestern’s media day. “We need to have more balance, we need to be able to throw it better, we need to be able to catch it better, we have to have to have more explosive plays in the passing game, we’ve got to get people out of the box, and that gives us an opportunity to run the ball cleaner and better.
“You can say what you want about last year, and it’s over, but everybody in the country including my 7-year-old son knew we were running the ball. And we still ran it. I don't think our offense gets enough credit for that, I don’t think our offensive line gets enough credit for that. We should have more balance, and if we can have that, we can be more explosive.”
And there are signs that things could certainly get better. While the wide receiver position still remains a bit of an unknown, there’s positivity at quarterback surrounding Clayton Thorson, who’s back as the clear-cut No. 1 quarterback after starting as a redshirt freshman last season. Thorson now has a year of experience under his belt, and perhaps one year of age and wisdom can pay off in the form of more consistent play. Last season, he showed why the hype exists for his long-term prospects, particularly with his legs, flashing dual-threat ability a season after Trevor Siemian was pretty immobile. But there were plenty of head-scratching moments, too, and Thorson ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in many statistical categories.
Unsurprisingly, the guy who famously repeats the mantra “stats are for losers” doesn’t care about those numbers. He cares about one: 10, or the number of games his redshirt freshman quarterback won.
“When you look at the success he had as a redshirt freshman, it’s truly remarkable,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s very few that have had the kind of success in college football that he was able to have as a redshirt freshman. I’m not talking about numbers and yards and touchdowns and quarterback rating. I’m not talking about all the stats. I’m talking about success, I’m talking about winning. Ultimately, that’s how a quarterback should be judged: Did we win football games because of him? Sometimes it has to be in spite of him, and we saw both of those a year ago from our quarterback position. But he’s really grown, and I’ve seen a confidence level that is totally different than this time last year.”
The work has been there for Thorson & Co., the quarterback saying that he and his receiver teammates have been in the film room two or three times a week and hit the field to throw three or four times a week. His crop of pass-catchers might not be exceptionally experienced, but guys like Austin Carr, Flynn Nagel and the recently converted Solomon Vault — who was quietly one of the conference’s best return men last season — could put what has been a weakness over the past two seasons on more solid ground.
“We’ve gotten to the film room two or three times a week with the receivers. So we’re kind of talking the same language now and going out and throwing three or four times a week, getting timing down with all the guys,” Thorson said. “So once you have those two things together, once you get on the field and everything starts hitting the fan, then you can refer back to timing. ‘I want it this way,’ and it’s like, ‘Yeah, I got you.’ I think that’s really helped. Last year, with three (quarterbacks) coming into camp, we didn’t have the luxury of having that, so I think this year it’s been much better.”
All eyes will be on Thorson again this season, and as plenty have said about the position, quarterbacks seem to get too much blame when things go wrong and too much praise when things go right. Last year a lot went right for Northwestern, but the quarterback position and the passing game certainly did not. If the Cats — who have some real tough games on their schedule — are going to make another run at a double-digit-win season and contend for a Big Ten title, then the passing game is going to need to be much better.
“We’ve won with top-rated offenses for a long time and defenses that needed to be better, and the last few years it’s been a little bit different," Fitzgerald said. "Whatever it takes to win. But if we can ever put it all together, that’s when we’re probably going to put ourselves in a position to challenge for the Big Ten West. That’s the goal.”