When ranking the top ten quarterbacks of all time in Northwestern's program history, there are many variables to take into account. Stats, wins, and overall impact on the school and culture are just some of the few things to look for when forming a list of this magnitude. It can be argued which one of those metrics holds more weight, but that is a conversation for another day. Before we get started, a couple names deserve to be listed as honorable mentions who were very close to cracking the list: Mike Kafka, Kain Colter and Mike Greenfield. Now without further ado, here are the top ten quarterbacks in program history...
10. Sandy Schwab (1982-1985)
Starting things off is Sandy Schwab. While Schwab might not be the sexiest name on this list, his freshmen and sophomore seasons certainly deserve to be recognized. Schwab rewrote the Wildcats' record books in just his first two seasons. He owns the eighth most career passing yards (5,679) and the eighth most in a single season (2,375). While his last two seasons were certainly years to forget, he ran into some disciplinary issues and eventually got benched, one can't help but wonder what if he stayed focused and on the straight and narrow path.
9. Trevor Siemian (2011-2014)
Taken in the seventh round by the Denver Broncos in 2015, Siemian impressed during his four year career at Northwestern. He owns the fifth most career passing yards with 5,931 and the ninth most career passing touchdowns with 27. In 2012, Siemian led the Wildcats to their first double digit win season since 1995, going 10-3 and capping it off with a victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats would finish the season ranked 16th in the Coaches' Poll and 17th in the AP Poll, due to a large part of Siemian's play.
8. Otto Graham (1941-1943)
How can you have a list of the ten best quarterbacks in Northwestern history and not include the great Otto Graham? Well the answer is, you can't. While his career is more known for what he did at the professional level, Graham's career as a Wildcat is nothing to slouch at. While at Northwestern, Graham earned All-American honors in football (and basketball) and in 1943 was awarded the conference's most valuable player, the Big Ten MVP. He finished third in the Heisman voting and went on to set several conference records that stood for a long time. Add in the fact that Graham was able to lead his squad to victory over Ohio State twice in his career, and there is no doubt that Graham belongs on this list.
7. Len Williams (1990-1993)
Looking back on Len Williams' career in the early 90's the one thing that stands out the most is how consistent he was from his freshmen season all the way to his senior season. While Williams wasn't able to capture many wins leading the Wildcats from 1990-1993, he was able to lift himself in the upper echelon of the record books. Williams ranks third all time in career passing yards with 7,487 and is tied for second all time in career passing touchdowns with 44. Again, the wins might not have been there for Williams, but those two records speak for themselves.
6. C.J. Bachér (2005-2008)
When looking back on C.J. Bachér's career, the 2007 season is one most fans will remember vividly. The QB set a number of program records—some of which remain unbeaten. Bachér torched his way through defenses on his way to a single season passing record of 3,656 yards that still stands today. Who can forget Bachér lighting up Michigan State for 520 yards (second most all time) in a breathtaking 48-41 win? Bachér ranks fourth all time in career passing yards with 7,319 and fourth all time in career passing touchdowns with 43. Bachér followed up his excellent 2007 season with another solid season in 2008.
5. Dan Persa (2009-2011)
If you ask Wildcat fans who they enjoyed watching the most for a single season, you will get a lot of people reminiscing on Dan Persa's year in 2010. While the team as a whole did not see that much success, it was not because of Persa. He waited three years to get the starting job and his patience definitely paid off. Persa didn't have the most electrifying supporting cast around him, but he sure made it count. He completed an unreal 73.5% of his passes during the 2010 season along with setting other multiple single season records that still stand to this day. Unfortunately Persa ruptured his achilles tendon and missed the last three games, although returning for the following season, he was never the same. Persa has the sixth most career passing touchdowns (34) in Northwestern history, along with being tied for the seventh most touchdowns of all time in a single season, with seventeen.
4. Zak Kustok (1999-2001)
Coming in at number four on the list is the electrifying dual threat, Zak Kustok. In the early 2000's Kustok brought life to the Wildcats' offense using both his arms and his legs. A transfer out of Notre Dame, Kustok led Northwestern to a share of the conference championship during the 2000 season, throwing for nineteen touchdowns and rushing for nine more. Kustok owns the second and third most passing touchdowns in a single season with 21 and 20, respectfully. Kustok has the sixth most career passing yards (5,822) and the fifth most career passing touchdowns (42) in Wildcat history. It would be easy to put Kustok higher on this list, but the four men in front of him did just a bit more.
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3. Brett Basanez (2002-2005)
Who did Kustok pass the torch to once he left? None other than Brett Basanez, who checks in at number three. One quick glance at the Northwestern record books and you will quickly figure out as to why Basanez is ranked so high on this list. Basanez ranks second all time in career passing yards with 10,580 and is tied (with Len Williams) for second all time in career passing touchdowns with 44. Basanez had a magical 2005 season where he was named First-Team All Big Ten at quarterback. He threw for 3,622 yards and 21 touchdowns, both second on the single season passing yards and passing touchdowns list. Basanez also rushed for 18 touchdowns over the course of his career.
2. Clayton Thorson (2015-2018)
It all but came down to a coin flip choosing between who was number one and who was number two. Clayton Thorson owns just about every record in the book. He is first all time in passing yards (10,731) and first all time in passing touchdowns (61, with the next closest being 44). Thorson owns the record for most passing touchdowns in a single season with 22 and has three out of the top six most passing yards in a single season. Thorson has won more games (36) and bowl games (3) than any other Wildcat quarterback in history. He ranks fourth all time in career passing yards in Big Ten history! Thorson was a four year starter who was simply as steady as they came. He finished his career in 2018 by winning the Big Ten's West Division and leading his team to victory in the Holiday Bowl over the Utah Utes.
1. Steve Schnur (1993-1996)
Admittedly, the margin between between number one and five on this list was razor thin. However, there can only be one quarterback on top, and that crown belongs to Steve Schnur. In 1995, what is arguably the most successful season in Wildcat football history, Schnur led his team to the Rose Bowl, coming up just short against the USC Trojans, falling 41-32. The Wildcats finished 7th in the Coaches' Poll and 8th in the AP Poll. The following season in 1996, Schnur led the Big Ten in passes, attempts, yards and touchdowns and was named the consensus First-Team All-Big Ten quarterback. Schnur is the only quarterback in Northwestern history who has won two Big Ten championships and owns the highest win percentage in Wildcat history, going 19-8 (.704) as a starter. If you ask longtime fans what their favorite memories are of Northwestern football, chances are they will point to the 1995 and 1996 seasons. While Schnur was never the fastest or the biggest, he was the man for job and led Northwestern to heights they had only dreamed of.
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