Football: Wildcats’ offense forced to go pass-happy against Illinois State


Zack Laurence/The Daily Northwestern

Justin Jackson gets tackled for a loss. The junior running back only managed 39 rushing yards in Saturday’s loss to Illinois State.

Tim Balk , Managing Editor

Northwestern could not seem to run the ball Saturday, so instead it went to the air.

The Wildcats called pass after pass for sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, who fired 41 attempts, the most by an NU quarterback since November 2014. Thorson threw on first and second downs, on the move and in the pocket, as Cats departed from their typically run-heavy persona.

And, on a day when little went right for NU, few of the passing plays proved fruitful. Thorson completed only 17 of his attempts — a touch over 41 percent — and finished with a modest 191 passing yards. In the Cats’ opening week loss to Western Michigan, Thorson threw for five more yards on 19 fewer attempts.

The aggressive air attack was not the plan for the game coming in. NU won 10 games last fall with a ground-and-pound offense featuring then-sophomore running back Justin Jackson, who ran the ball 312 times for 1,418 yards, the third-most carries in the nation. Against Illinois State, the Cats were forced to abandon that offensive blueprint.

“Our inability to run the football today is why we had to throw the ball so much,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “There’s no way I could have predicted that our offensive line would be as inefficient as they were today.”

NU handed the ball off to Jackson 11 times but the junior was able to muster just 39 yards, and sophomore back Auston Anderson, who filled in behind Jackson after he left with a lower-body injury, had four carries in a supporting role. The running backs could not overcome the offensive line’s struggles.

“One man breakdowns, holding plays — I mean our O-Line got outplayed,” Fitzgerald said. “We beat ourselves. And they beat us up.”

Jackson was almost a complete non-factor in the second half, and the Cats abandoned the run as they attempted to claw back from a 6-0 halftime deficit. He ran the ball just four times for 11 yards after the break.

Thorson passed 21 times in the second half, completing just a third of those passes but setting a career high for attempts along the way.

Thorson’s previous career high for attempts came in last year’s tilt with Iowa, when the signal caller threw the ball 35 times. That was also one of two games last year that Jackson failed to reach 40 yards on the ground. He was also quieted in NU’s road loss at Michigan.

But Illinois State lacks the vaunted front seven of an Iowa or a Michigan, and senior left guard Connor Mahoney stressed that the line’s performance against the Redbirds was not good enough.

“We didn’t come to play, and we got our butts kicked up front,” Mahoney said. “They came out, punched us in the mouth, and we’ve got to be better.”

Meanwhile, Thorson could not find enough open receivers.

Senior wide receiver Austin Carr finished with a career-high seven catches, and was on the receiving end of NU’s lone touchdown, but it wasn’t enough for NU.

“Winning isn’t easy in college football,” Carr said. “It doesn’t matter what division. It’s hard to win.”

It’s especially hard when a team has to rely on an inconsistent passing game. On Saturday, NU was forced into that position.

“I thought we’d be able to move the ball better on the ground,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought we’d be able to, obviously, pitch and catch better.”

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