Northwestern Is In Control Of The West For The First Time In Forever

The best football team in Chicago isn’t the Bears. No, it’s the Northwestern Wildcats, who have sometimes been an alright team and have sometimes been an afterthought, but haven’t often been a contender. Northwestern is an academics school, they say. Not one of the Big Ten’s football schools, where sports are just as important as classes and where big time recruits end up every summer.

Somehow, though, this academics school is in the first place in the Big Ten West, and thanks to the results from this latest Saturday of action, they have fewer losses than anyone. Only one loss, while Wisconsin and Iowa both have two. They could have held the position with Iowa right at their heels, or lost it depending on how things went, but Penn State helped the Wildcats out big time by holding on and avoiding another fourth quarter collapse.

Their win over Iowa dealt the Hawkeyes their second loss of the season and gave Northwestern some room to breathe. The Wildcats, though, had their own game to worry about. One against a nationally ranked team, Wisconsin, while Northwestern entered without a rank.

At the beginning of the season, Clayton Thorson was projected to be one of the make or break players for Northwestern. Maybe even the make or break player that would decide whether they were mediocre or whether they made noise on the national scene. Thorson was quietly one of the best quarterbacks in the conference last season but didn’t get attention because he didn’t play for one of the more successful teams. Now, however, Thorson took the spotlight.

Northwestern went down with the first score of the game but it was Thorson who used his legs to give them the lead with two touchdowns on the ground. The first came after three straight quarterback sneaks finally moved the ball into the end zone, and the second one was a longer scramble where Thorson carefully juked around a Wisconsin defender before running the rest of the way and getting across the goal line.

Pretty impressive for a quarterback that entered the season after an ACL tear brought his starting status into question. His legs weren’t the only thing that helped Northwestern win the game, however. Thorson connected with his receiver in the end zone for a deep pass in the third quarter that extended the lead from the four points it was at when the pass happened. The deep pass was nearly ruled as out-of-bounds and had a very low margin for error, but Thorson was able to place the ball well enough to keep it just inside the lines.

The Northwestern defense held Wisconsin to 17 points, linebacker Blake Gallagher having the biggest day with seven tackles and three assists. Wisconsin was, admittedly, missing quarterback Alex Hornibrook. But Wisconsin has never relied entirely on their quarterback and their best player on offense this year is running back Jonathan Taylor, who Northwestern impressively held to 46 yards on 11 carries. That’s a big deal for a player that was one of the Heisman favorites in addition to being one centerpiece of the opponent’s offense.

Northwestern is in a position to play for the Big Ten title if they win out, but their next challenge isn’t against a conference opponent. They face Notre Dame next, the number three team in the country. Winning or losing here doesn’t put them out of the hunt for the Big Ten, but it is a major test against a highly ranked team that will help to prepare them for the stretch. Other than Notre Dame next Saturday, they still have to face Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois.

Win out, and they shock everyone and get a shot at the East winner. Lose a conference game, and things get dicey. If that happens, the division is back to a four team race.

The Big Ten West might not be the best division in college football, but it sure is one of the most interesting this year. And somehow, despite being unheralded coming into the season, Northwestern is the team that’s jumped out in front of everyone with four games left to play.

Northwestern Defeats Purdue After Sindelar Throws Three Interceptions

The first Big Ten game of the season happened on Thursday night, when Northwestern traveled about two and a half hours south to face Big Ten West foes Purdue. The game was close fought, but the Wildcats would be the one to come out with the victory. That doesn’t mean that the result was clear-cut, though. Between both teams, four quarterbacks received playing time, and Purdue had both some highs and some lows over the course of the game.

How did Northwestern steal the road win?

Clayton Thorson is the man at Northwestern. That wasn’t clear heading into the game, but Thorson started and had the most passing attempts, with 26. He also managed to complete 58% of his passes, and threw for 172 yards. Despite Thorson starting, however, T.J. Green entered the game off the bench at one point and had the only touchdown.

That touchdown didn’t come via Green’s arm, however. A one yard run gave him the score, and Green’s yard total came to 63. Not quite the numbers that Thorson, who was the undisputed number one before his injury at the end of last year, was able to put up. Then again, Green had less attempts to work with. He only threw 11 passes compared to Thorson’s 26.

The position players were the stars of the game, though. Three of Northwestern’s touchdowns came from the running backs, and on the Purdue side, Rondale Moore was a standout. Moore is a true freshman, and despite having a slow start where he had a couple of drops, he had his first big reception in the first quarter and didn’t look back. Moore wasn’t just a threat in the passing game, either.

He only had two rushes, but one of them was a 76 yard touchdown that brought the crowd to their feet near the end of the first quarter. That’s not to say that Moore wasn’t one of the top players in the receiving game, though. His eleven catches led the game, as did his 109 yards and one receiving touchdown.

Purdue was within grasp of the win, but in the end, it was their quarterback performance that gave Northwestern the win. Elijah Sindelar played more of the snaps rather than David Blough, but had three first half interceptions compared to his one touchdown. His QBR was only 28.0, compared to 58.1 from Blough. That, combined with the pair of touchdowns on the ground from Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin, gave the Wildcats the win.

“We’ve got to figure out what gives us the best chance to win. I think both guys will respond and be ready to go,” said Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm, on the subject of who will be the starting quarterback. He decided against making an immediate decision in reaction to the result, claiming that the call hadn’t been made yet.

Sindelar had one of the quotes that sums up the situation the best. “At the end of the day, this is Purdue football and if we win, then we both win. Regardless of if he’s in the game or I’m in the game, like if I get pulled out, that’s my chance to be a leader and a captain and show the guys that I am a teammate and I am going to be there at the end of the day to help him. It’s not about jealousy.”

Big Ten: Purdue vs Northwestern Preview & Prediction

Before conference play begins for some of the bigger names in the Big Ten, Northwestern and Purdue will kick things off with an 8:00 PM night game that should be an interesting matchup. These schools are only divided by roughly two and a half hours, and their game on August 30th will take place long before any of the scheduled conference games this year.

Who has the edge in this battle of neighbors?

It’s somewhat hard to judge Northwestern without knowing who will start at quarterback. Clayton Thorson overperformed last year and threw for 2,844 yards, as well as 15 touchdowns, but was injured just as the season was coming to a close. As such, he’s not the guaranteed started on day one despite being the most talented quarterback on the roster.

Either Thorson or T.J. Green will be the starter, but unless Green has made big improvements during this offseason, Thorson is the better player by a decent margin. Green doesn’t have as much experience entering the season, and he hasn’t even received playing time as a backup. Last season, he only played in one game and had five passing yards total.

The two could end up evenly matched at the QB position regardless of who wins the Northwestern job. Purdue has their own quarterback battle, between redshirt senior David Blough and redshirt junior Elijah Sindelar. Both have had their moments, and both received enough time in the spotlight last year to throw for more than 1,000 yards. Sindelar, though, just about doubled Blough’s production.

Purdue could even use each quarterback in different situations. “We know what coach Brohm is thinking, the plays he wants to call and how he wants it to be different if I’m in, if Elijah’s in,” Blough said recently, praising head coach Jeff Brohm’s communication skills.

Brohm hasn’t just gotten the most out of the quarterbacks that he inherited upon joining Purdue. His tenure has also improved the defense, which became one of the top 25 scoring defenses in the country last year after previously ranking closer to the bottom in defensive scoring.

Junior linebacker Markus Bailey returns after some big performances last year, to man them middle of the linebacker group. They also have a clear-cut leader in their secondary, redshirt senior safety Jacob Thieneman. Just like the rest of the Purdue defense, Thieneman had a big improvement last year and finished with 73 tackles compared to 14 from 2016, in addition to two interceptions.

Northwestern’s defense, on the other hand, will have more of an advantage in the trenches and will look for sacks. They bring back reliable pass rushers Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller, which should give them an advantage over Purdue in the pass rushing department.

Going back to the battle in the trenches, though, you have to consider that Purdue has more running back depth than a Northwestern team that lost top rusher Justin Jackson and may not have a replacement that’s as good. So who pulls out the win in the end? Both teams are around the same level, but it looks like Purdue could win the coaching battle and they also have less uncertainty about their quarterback situation.

They also play at home. It won’t be an easy game by any means, but their home crowd should give them enough energy to boost them to the victory.

Prediction: Purdue defeats Northwestern 31-24

Big Ten: A Look At Northwestern Quarterback Clayton Thorson

Quarterback is arguably the most important position in football. As such, this is the first in a series of articles looking at the starting quarterbacks of the Big Ten this year, as well as the ongoing quarterback competitions. To start off, we’ll look at a quarterback playing in one of the conference’s largest markets, but for a team that hasn’t turned the corner.

Looking into Ben Ten QB, Clayton Thorson:

This is, of course, Big Ten Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson. Let’s look at the basics. At 6’4 and 224 pounds, Thorson doesn’t immediately look like an NFL pro style quarterback but isn’t small either. He’s a senior this season, and he played 13 games in all three of his past years.

He only made 295 passing attempts in 2015 as a freshman, but was given more chances in the resulting years and threw 478 and 434 attempts in 2016 and 2017 respectively. His sophomore season was undoubtedly his best one. In addition to having the most attempts this year, he threw for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns.

Thorson was still productive last season, getting 2,844 yards through the air, but he had seven less touchdowns than he did in the 2016 season. However, to realize what’s behind the dropoff, one needs to look at the percentages of each play type for the Wildcats last season. They ran the ball more and threw it less, making the drop in touchdowns and yards less alarming.

What is alarming, however, is the ACL injury that struck Thorson at the end of last season. He was injured in the Music City Bowl in what should have been a routine trick play, and missed out on spring football because of the injury. Which Thorson will we see, next season? The one that’s smooth in the pocket, able to evade pressure before placing the ball exactly where he wants it? Or a slower one that’s a shadow of his normal self?

It’s impossible to know completely at this point, but from early reports, things are going well. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald also revealed that the team will make a decision two weeks out on who their August 30th starter is. Thorson, of course, is the option that everyone wants. But if he’s not fully healthy by then, the Wildcats might have to use a starter with little experience, which is not ideal for the Big Ten.

TJ Green, for example, is a junior but only has two pass attempts in his career. Northwestern’s other options are freshmen, redshirt freshmen, or sophomores. The Wildcats have the pieces to pull off some upsets this year, but that hinges on the quarterback not losing games for them. And really, they don’t have any depth at that spot at all.

Will it hurt them this season? Well, we’ll find that out a couple of weeks out from the Purdue game, when we find out whether or not Clayton Thorson will be Northwestern’s quarterback for the entire season.