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Inflection Point: Northwestern 2018

Clayton Thorson and the Northwestern offense bombarded Don Brown’s defense for 17 first-half points. However, Kwity Paye stepped in late in the half to turn the tide.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

For about 20 minutes Saturday in Evanston, Clayton Thorson and the Northwestern offense looked more like a Big 12 outfit than the one that threw the game away against Akron.

This defied analytical precedent, as well as previous eye tests. S&P ranked the Wildcat offense at No. 97, trailing just behind Louisiana-Monroe and Middle Tennessee State. Thorson was two weeks removed from three turnovers returned for touchdowns in a 39-34 defeat to the Zips.

What a difference a bye week makes.

Regarded as an NFL Draft prospect by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. ($), he directed pin-point accurate passes en route to a 10-of-12 start for 103 yards. By the 12:56 mark of the second quarter, the Wildcats led 17-0.

Despite losing starting running back Jeremy Larkin to medical retirement, they sustained drives of eight, 10 and nine plays for a total of 145 yards. It wasn’t big plays. Michigan’s defense simply couldn’t get Northwestern off the field.

After Karan Higdon’s touchdown slashed the deficit to 17-7, Thorson started creeping the offense down the field again, aided by a defensive holding call on Lavert Hill. With one play, though, backup defensive end Kwity Paye seized momentum for the defense.

Offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s unit mustered only 76 more yards after that, failing to score again in a 20-17 defeat.

With Thorson getting the ball out of his hands quickly on slants to his receivers, the Michigan pass rush hadn’t reached him once to that point. Paye’s first of two sacks started a pattern for the rest of the game:

  • Thorson hits Flynn Nagel or Bennett Skowronek on a quick slant for sizable yardage. The secondary adjusts with tight coverage. Needing more time to throw now, Thorson absorbs a sack. Punt.
  • The following drive outputs (in yardage) after the sack: nine, six, 16, 13, 11, two, -10, 29.

Overall, the defense finished with six quarterback takedowns, including the two from Paye, two more from Josh Uche and one each from Chase Winovich and Michael Dwumfour.

This also anchored the Wildcat rushing production, as they limped towards 28 yards on 34 carries. The defense allowed just 202 yards on the afternoon.

The cherry? Don Brown and Greg Mattison have added silver bullets in the chamber on the defensive line for 2019.