Football: Why Northwestern is missing Clayton Thorson and the winningest class in program history


Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Former defensive lineman Jordan Thompson takes down Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke. Thompson is one of many seniors whose presence the Wildcats have missed this season.

Charlie Goldsmith, Reporter


Pat Fitzgerald actually looked under the podium during his press conference Monday, pretending he might find a way to end Northwestern’s worst start to a season since 1992.

There wasn’t anything there.

As the Wildcats (1-5, 0-4 Big Ten) have been outscored 151-75 through six games, they’ve clearly missed Clayton Thorson and the winningest class in program history. In addition to the school’s leading passer, NU lost three starting offensive linemen, its top pass catcher and three of the best players on defense.

One of them –– graduated defensive tackle Jordan Thompson –– said he’s noticed the Cats missing the resolve that led them to the Big Ten Championship game last season.

“We had guys on the team last year who just stood up,” Thompson said. “It was to a point where a group of guys would circle together and be like ‘if we’re going to win, it’s up to us.’”

Even when it was bad last year, particularly after losing to Akron, Thompson said the team’s leaders prevented the situation from turning as poorly as it has now. The other big difference, he said, was how NU trusted Thorson to execute the offense and come up clutch in the fourth quarter.

After he drove 99 yards against Nebraska and scored again to beat them in overtime, Thorson led the team to five consecutive Big Ten wins. When the team hit adversity, Thompson said he knew Thorson would be able to lead the team forward.

“Clayton was our quarterback,” Thompson said. “He was the quarterback for so long that he just made things easier. When you have a new guy, especially a person who hasn’t played, you’re going to have some growing pains with whoever you want to lead with.”

Fitzgerald has said junior quarterback Aidan Smith’s advantage over sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson is his superior understanding of the system. But neither of them know it like Thorson did, and as a result, the quarterbacks have already thrown ten interceptions.

The defense is having a similar issue replacing leaders in Thompson, safety Nate Hall and defensive lineman Fred Wyatt. Twice against Ohio State on Friday, the defense allowed Buckeye receivers to be wide open in the endzone because of a mistake in coverage.
Fitzgerald said he has no idea what will come first for this new-look roster –– talent or experience.
“They’re panicking because they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “Some teams, you can push their DNA harder, and some guys from a confidence standpoint are fragile. We’re working on the A, B, C’s and the 1, 2, 3’s.”

But the Cats won’t have an easy test Saturday, facing an Iowa (5-2, 2-2) team with a top-five defense and a four-year starter at quarterback. Nate Stanley is the Hawkeyes’ version of Thorson, and he’s led them to 25 wins over the 38 games he started.

Ten upperclassmen lead Iowa’s defense, and they’ve limited opposing offenses to an average of 12 points per game. The Hawkeyes would be undefeated had their offense not struggled so much in losses to No. 19 Michigan and No. 10 Penn State.

NU has played some of its worst football in recent memory over the past few weeks, losing the last three games by an average of 25 points. Senior defensive lineman Alex Miller said he recognizes the team has a lot of work to do.

“We just have to trust ourselves,” Miller said. “We had some guys that were sometimes trying to do too much and that’s what’s hurt us.”

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Twitter: @2021_Charlie