Point/Counterpoint: Will Thorson cost the Wildcats in the Big Ten?

Redshirt-freshman Quarterback Clayton Thorson has had highs and lows early in his first season. But will he be able to find consistency?

Daily file photo by Luke Vogelzang

Redshirt-freshman Quarterback Clayton Thorson has had highs and lows early in his first season. But will he be able to find consistency?

Alex Putterman and Bobby Pillote, Web Editor and Gameday Editor

Putterman: QB play could sink the Cats

Entering the season, one of the primary reasons the Wildcats were expected to lose as many games as they won was their inexperience at the quarterback position. And through four games, redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson has been about as good as expected, which is to say, not so great.

Thorson has shown he can run and throw, but decision-making has been a problem over the past two weeks. The quarterback is lucky his five turnovers against Duke and Ball State didn’t cost the Cats at least one game.

Thorson (and the rest of the offense) has again and again been bailed out by NU’s defense, which has often erased the offense’s miscues by stuffing opponents in the red zone.

But relying on the defense to compensate for the offense is no reliable long-term blueprint for victories, as Pat Fitzgerald pointed out last week. Duke’s only touchdown against NU came on the heels of a Thorson interception. Ball State scored 10 points off Thorson turnovers and would have had three more but missed a field goal.

Maybe Thorson can get away with mistakes against Ball State, but if he turns the ball over three times against Minnesota on Saturday (or in any subsequent conference games) NU will not likely leave the stadium with a win. Defense will win the Cats some games, but not even the ’85 Bears could pitch shutouts if the opponent is gaining possession on the wrong side of midfield.

It’s hard to blame Thorson — freshmen often make mistakes as they struggle with the speed of the college game — but his youthful inconsistency might not be the right fit for a team otherwise built to win.

Unless Thorson can prove his turnover-heavy stat lines of the last two weeks were an aberration, NU might struggle to maximize what has potential to be a special season.

Pillote: The QB won’t hold NU back

Quarterback play won’t sink Northwestern in the Big Ten — it’s exactly the thing that will turn potential conference losses into conference wins.

Yes, the numbers for Thorson aren’t great right now. Statistically, he’s arguably the worst pass thrower in the Big Ten West, having completed just 53 percent of his passes for 583 yards and four touchdowns to go along with three interceptions. Add in his two fumbles against Ball State, and it doesn’t seem like he’s helping very much.

But Thorson excels as a runner. He has game-changing speed, as he showed off on a touchdown run against Stanford in the Wildcats’ opener, and is actually averaging more yards per carry than sophomore running back Justin Jackson. That mobility has also helped compensate for Thorson’s still-developing pocket presence, as the quarterback has been able to elude defenders and take just three sacks this season.

Those offsetting skill sets have led to Thorson’s most important statistic: He’s 4-0 as NU’s starter. Quarterback wins can be a misleading number given how much of a team sport football is, but in every game the Cats have played so far, Thorson has managed to be good enough to earn a victory.

Despite going 12-for-24 against the Cardinal, Thorson scored the only touchdown of the game and succeeded in not turning the ball over. Against Duke, he failed to protect the ball, but it didn’t matter in a game where the defense and special teams did all the heavy lifting. And against Ball State, he rebounded from a disastrous first half to lead a 17-point rally in the third quarter thanks to some picture-perfect throws.

It wasn’t always pretty, but Thorson managed to get the job done each time. For a player as talented as he is, there’s no reason to think he won’t continue to do so.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @AlexPutterman

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @BobbyPillote