Well that was… that was certainly something.
Northwestern’s offense was in a state of malaise, with Clayton Thorson having one of his worst games as a Wildcat. Through a little less than 3 quarters, Thorson was 7/16 for just 69 yards and an interception.
And so, with the game tied at 14 and 2:40 left in the 3rd quarter, Pat Fitzgerald turned to his backup, Zack Oliver.
When asked about why he made the switch, Fitzgerald said, “[Mick McCall and I] just felt like we wanted to take [Thorson] out, let him take a breather for a second. When you got a rookie quarterback…sometimes if you take him out and give him a series, he gets a chance to take an exhale and then go back in and just go play.”
It didn’t start off great, as Oliver stared down his man and threw a gimme interception.
It didn’t get better. A three-and-out later and Oliver was back on the bench. Would Oliver have stayed in the game had he led a touchdown drive? “Maybe,” said Coach Fitzgerald.
Either way, Clayton Thorson strode back onto the field. After a holding penalty (and probably a facemask), Northwestern found itself in a 3rd and 13. And then Thorson showed why he is Northwestern’s best quarterback. He juked, jived, and shimmied for a 16-yard scramble to move the chains. Then he hit Purdue for another 16 on a designed run.
“I just saw a hole,” Thorson said, “everyone was covered on the play and I just ran it. I drove my feet on contact, we had a few yards to go there, and we were lucky enough to get it.”
Did Clayton Thorson have his best game? Assuredly not. Did he play an average game? No, it was probably worse. But what Clayton Thorson does do, better than any quarterback on this roster, is create things on his own when things go wrong. His ability to tuck, run, and make people miss in the open field is unmatched. And it dug Northwestern out of a hole, even if he dug part of it himself.
Pat Fitzgerald said that he will “never apologize” for winning a game in the Big Ten, but it was pretty clear he wasn’t happy about how the team played. He wasn’t happy with the efficiency of the offense. He wasn’t happy with the 1-on-1 breakdowns up front. He wasn’t happy with the consistency.
Whatever it was, scheme or execution, Northwestern was fortunate that the team that was across from them was, well, Purdue. When your opponent’s offensive coaching staff dials up a 2-yard drag route on 3rd and 11 with the game on the line and then surrender-punts after coming up short, you should win those games.
It’s hard to overstate just how bad Purdue is. This is a team firmly in the bottom 30 in the FBS, a team that needed 5 Nebraska turnovers and 2 fluky big play TDs to beat the Cornhuskers, and a team that lost to Bowling Green earlier this year. And while at times their offense looked pretty competent when nickeling and diming the ball down the field, it’s bizarre that a top 20 team, which Northwestern is, struggled so much with such an inferior opponent.
Perhaps some of it can be ascribed to the whole “trap game” idea. Northwestern was fresh off of an emotional victory against a good Penn State team, and the Wisconsin game next week is an even bigger contest. But the players sure do tell a very different story. Traveon Henry said, “we were real excited for this game. There was a huge emphasis on it being senior day, so we really just all wanted to buy in to what we had going this week for the seniors that were playing this game.”
“When you get to the Big Ten, there is no such thing as a trap game.”
Lucky or not, let down or not, Northwestern is 8-2, and the dream of the winningest season in Northwestern history is still alive. But if Northwestern wants to run the table, they’re going to have to improve from what they showed today.