A highlight-reel run. A bunch of iffy throws. But the most important thing about Clayton Thorson’s debut as Northwestern’s starting quarterback: The Wildcats won.
The end justifies the means in college football, meaning that a win is a win and who cares how you got there.
Thorson’s first career game was undoubtedly a mixed bag, but Northwestern’s 16-6 win over Stanford was a statement game for the Cats as they embark on a journey to get back to the winning ways that had them in the postseason just three seasons ago.
Thorson accounted for the game’s lone touchdown in what turned out to be the game’s biggest play. He scampered 42 yards for a score against a vaunted Stanford defense that was one of America’s best last season. That play was all the rage on the highlight shows and a prime topic of discussion after the game.
"Our O-Line had a huge gap, and I just took it," Thorson said. "It's pretty easy when you've got about half the field to work with. Our O-Line did a great job on that play."
“He’s fast,” running back Justin Jackson said. “When he gets in the open field, he can move, he’s got those long strides. He can go, so that’s a big weapon for us on offense.”
Thorson’s welcome-to-college-football moment, though, came in the celebration, when he wasn’t exactly expecting the way his teammates were going to treat him.
“They really hit your head hard when you score,” Thorson said to laughs. “But that’s what being a team is about, celebrating with the guys. They made that big hole for me. It was a great moment.”
But aside from that game-changing play, Thorson was not exactly accurate with his throws and not exactly wise with his decision-making, at least not on a consistent basis. There was a beautiful strike down the sideline to Miles Shuler on a third down that kept a second-half drive alive and led to a field goal. That throw shows you why Thorson won the starting gig this summer. But there were plenty of other throws that reminded you that he’s a redshirt freshman, more than a couple near interceptions and passes too far to either side of a receiver. A drive that should have ended in a touchdown ended in a field goal because of a poor throw into the end zone on a third down and goal.
Those are things that will surely be corrected, and Thorson can’t be torn apart for what happened in his first career game, especially when he led his team to an upset victory over the No. 21 team in the country.
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What’s been apparent leading up to this game and was even more so after it is that Thorson has the complete confidence of his head coach and of his teammates. Wide receiver Christian Jones raved about Thorson after the game, high praise from a senior heaped upon a redshirt freshman.
“He did very well. It’s good to have Clayton out there,” Jones said. “He’s got a lot of talents. I know he wouldn’t tell anybody because he wanted to keep it a secret. Now the cat’s out of the bag: Clayton’s a great quarterback. And even with him playing such a great game, he feels he can do much better, which is a really good sign.
“He’s a great quarterback, and Clayton works extremely hard. It’s nowhere but up from here.”
Remember, too, that Stanford played well defensively in this one. While the length and effectiveness of Northwestern’s drives were as inconsistent as could be, a lot of that had to do with Stanford. Few defenses will present that kind of challenge to Thorson in his first season. Maybe Minnesota, maybe Wisconsin, maybe Penn State. But all three of those teams lost their Week 1 matchups. Northwestern did not.
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As Jones said, it’s nowhere but up from here. And whether that proves to be the case or not, it’s certainly mighty believable given that Thorson is just one game into his collegiate career.
“From a standpoint of who he is as a young man, I think that’s what you all saw today. He made some really good plays. He made some decisions he’d really like to have back. And he’ll learn and really grow from this. I thought he played outstanding,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I talked to him earlier in the week about not trying to out-play a fifth-year senior (Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan) by just doing what we do. And through that, he out-played a fifth-year senior.
“That’s what I saw today. I thought he stayed within a framework of our offense. I don’t think he tried to do too much. And I think that’s a great win for him.”