- How did Northwestern go from a 1–3 start to being in the driver's seat for reaching the Big Ten title game? Getting QB Clayton Thorson healthy has sure helped.
EVANSTON, Ill. — On Sept. 29, Northwestern was 1–3, with a quarterback still recovering from a torn ACL and down a No. 1 running back after Jeremy Larkin was forced to medically retire from football.
Barely more than a month later, the Wildcats are 5–4. Quarterback Clayton Thorson is healthy, and they’re in a position to win the Big Ten West. No stranger to slow starts—Northwestern pulled off winning seasons in 2016 and ’17 despite being under .500 in October—Pat Fitzgerald’s team is three wins away from making school history. Northwestern has never played in the conference title game, and if it makes it to Indianapolis next month, it’ll be fitting: In a chaotic Big Ten West, the Wildcats have won this year by leaning into their own uncertainty—and trusting it will resolve itself.
In retrospect, the beginning of the season doesn’t look quite so disastrous—but isn't that always the case from the other side of .500? Still, a Week 1 win over Purdue that looked meaningless as the Boilermakers struggled in September appears better each week, especially considering Purdue toppled Ohio State last month. Losing to Duke for the second straight year stings; getting trampled by Akron is a gut punch. The Week 4 near-miss against Michigan is frustrating, sure, but now it’s fuel: Get to the title game, and Northwestern will likely get another crack at Harbaugh and company. Get to the title game—it’s still a wild thing to consider in Evanston, and if Northwestern can get through a game at Iowa this weekend, the division will truly seem within grasp.
How, then, have the Wildcats engineered this quiet turnaround? In part, it’s mundane stuff. “We haven’t done anything special,” senior offensive guard J.B. Butler says. “Nothing jumps off the page. We’ve played harder. We’ve been more consistent.”
But Butler knows he can thank one player for lending the team stability over the past month, and that’s his close friend, Thorson, whose knee injury is now more than 10 months behind him. “He’s a big part of the reason we’ve righted this ship and turned it around,” Butler acknowledges. “The healthier he’s got, the less he’s gotten hit, the better he’s been.”
Thorson tore a ligament in his right knee in Northwestern’s Music City Bowl win—which marked the first time in program history the Wildcats have won back-to-back bowl games—and had surgery in January. He was able to stand stationary and throw when the team began spring ball in late February, a symbolic move that galvanized teammates as much as it spurred Thorson on. At one point, Butler says, the quarterback had been so frustrated with his progress that he’d confided in his friend that he thought he might not play football again. He’d gone through weeks of early wakeups and excruciating hours spent doing as little as flexing and straightening his knee, all in the dead of the Chicago winter. Standing that day, tossing the ball, was one of the first signs that it was all for something, those hours of rehab.
“Your knee can take it,” Thorson says. “Your knee can take more than I ever thought. What was pretty cool for me was learning how much more my body can do when I was in a bunch of pain. What they explained to me is that pain in some certain things is good when you’re in this rehab process.”
As Thorson was inching back toward health, NFL chatter built. On the afternoon he tore his ACL, the quarterback was just days removed from announcing he’d return to Northwestern for his senior year rather than take his chance with the draft, and even as he rehabbed and doubted, prognosticators debated his stock: First round? Third round? The 23-year-old managed to channel the predictions—which seemed to point toward outcomes eons away from his recovery—positively, though. “The only way I could stay on their radar and improve was if I actually played,” he says. “I had to focus on actually playing first. If I was just thinking about playing in the NFL—well, I can’t really run.”
For the first three games of the season—the Purdue win and losses to Duke and Akron—Northwestern rotated between Thorson and his backup, junior T.J. Green. (The decision to play Thorson at all in Week 1 wasn’t made until a few days before the season opener.) The goal was to get Thorson acclimated, and to ease him toward the point where he might not think about his knee at all. To that end, the team devised a rule: When No. 18 is on the sideline, only one person is allowed in his ear—athletic trainer Kevin Kikugawa. Kikugawa joined Northwestern’s staff in April, and he and Thorson had a brief but intense getting-to-know-you process. By the summer, the trainer was comfortable enough to put the brakes on Thorson when he needed to, even as the quarterback seemed resolved to play Week 1, no matter what. “At the very end of the day, it depended on Clayton’s confidence,” he says. “I kept telling him, listen, if you’re 95% confident, I don’t want you to go in there.”
Fortunately for Northwestern, confidence wasn’t an issue, and Thorson’s offensive line gave him a clean week vs. Purdue. It wasn’t until Week 2 against Duke that the quarterback took his first hit—"I stepped up, threw a ball, and I got high-lowed,” he explains. “It was like one guy came on my knees, another guy came up top.”—which was ultimately satisfying. “I remember getting up,” Thorson says, “[and thinking], I’m good. I moved on.”
Still, settling back into the game wasn’t as easy as that. Against Akron, Thorson threw two pick-sixes, and in only one game this season in which he’s attempted 30 or more passes has he managed not to toss an interception. The turnovers are the biggest knock against the senior, who still has the NFL in his sights and is attempting to play more like the guy he’ll be once he turns pro: a pocket passer who only occasionally scrambles. Despite his 6’ 4”, 226-pound frame, Thorson is quick on his feet, but in the past, he’s broken outside of the pocket too quickly and relied on that mobility. Even as his sure-footedness has returned this year, he’s emphasized pocket presence and patience, rather than scrambling for an ill-advised throw. “It’s weird that I want to work on [getting hit] even when I was coming off an injury,” Thorson says, “but I think that’s becoming a strength of mine.”
Against Iowa on Saturday, Thorson and company will face a top-15 defense. Their bout with Michigan prepared them for the Hawkeyes’ stingy front, but Iowa is notably tougher against the run—leaving ample opportunity for Thorson and his big arm. With three games to go, Northwestern controls its destiny in the Big Ten West, with a chance to make school history and solidify Thorson’s legacy as the school’s winningest quarterback on the line.