Sept. 8, 2017


In a masterful matinee performance last Saturday afternoon, Northwestern Wildcat Junior QB Clayton Thorson, playing the part of resident conductor emeritus fronting the Purple Pride Orchestra that is the Wildcat Offense, exhibited fearless leadership and exacting precision in what was the first of a three movement score constituting NU’s out-of-conference slate of 2017 opponents.  Thorson’s brilliant quarterbacking of the ‘Cats’ passing attack wasn’t only instrumental, but was an absolutely necessity to resuscitate a ‘Cat O that was choking early & often throughout H-1 in its attempt to execute OC Mick McCall’s original rush-centric game plan.  And thankfully, it didn’t take long before HC Past Fitzgerald and his OC arrived at the undeniable realization that the ’Cats’ opening game opponent, the Nevada Woof Pucks, had implemented an effective counter game plan of their own geared specifically to shut-down NU’s overhyped rushing attack by loading the box with defensive numbers that very easily could have replicated the disastrous OOC failures of 2016.  The ‘Cats were getting beat to the punch incessantly in H-1, and with 2016 season’s Illinois State debacle still rattling around in their memory banks, a “Come To Jesus” moment was warranted.  When the ‘Cats trotted-out onto Dyche’s Ditch for H-2, it was abundantly clear that Fitz and OL coach Adam Cushing had issued their offensive linemen a clear and unambiguous message: “You Better Get Hot or Go Home.”  The Wildcat Big Uglies showed that a roaring fire was lit directly under their collective nether regions.  

But before I expand on Thorson’s career day as the Wildcats’ primary aerial delivery vehicle, allow me to explain how in the hell the Wildcats found themselves squarely behind an eight ball of their own making for much of H-1 and headed into their halftime locker room after having been unceremoniously thrown down a 17-7 hole by the thoroughly prepared and fired-up Nevada D.  In the weeks leading up to this contest, it was no great secret that NU’s offensive brain had established a well-advertised 2017 priority to showcase their prolific rushing attack behind their marquee asset, Junior RB Justin Jackson The Ball Carrier (from this point forward to be referenced via the acronym: “JJTBC”), toting the bean into, around and through holes created by NU’s newly revamped OL against whatever formation(s) their opponent’s D might muster.  However, it’s one thing to dream about rushing the ball at will against one’s opposition and quite another to actually do so.  And against the supposed rush defense-challenged Pucks from Reno, who in 2016, garnered the ignominious distinction of having been ranked 117th among 128 FBS teams at season’s end, it appeared to most casual observers, including NU’s coaching staff, that the rush D that Nevada HC Jay Norvell and his defensive coaching staff trotted onto the manicured lawn of Dyche’s Ditch couldn’t or wouldn’t offer much more than similar token resistance when facing the impending juggernaut of the Purple ground game in 2017.  But as reality would have it, the Pucks’ D was more than ready, willing and able to meet that on-paper challenge and they did so with dogged determination, executing a craftily conceived 3-3-5 base defensive formation – aided greatly by very poor blocking techniques by the ‘Cat OL specifically throughout H-1.

First, a brief Xs & Os explanation of Nevada’s base 3-3-5 defensive set is necessary.  Its fundamental objective is to create blocking mismatches and/or confusion primarily by presenting a “plus-1” defensive formation to an opposing offense.  The intent of a “plus-1” defense positions an extra defender “in the box” against the current blocking formation (read: the offensive wall) it faces.  In its base form, a 3-3 defensive set, when fronting a standard 5-man OL, provides that extra defender (6 on 5) just prior to the snap of the ball.  If a TE (read: NU’s  superback), is positioned originally at the end of the OL or if he motions from his initial slot receiver location to a new position off the outside shoulder of an OT, becoming a 6th potential blocker in the OL formation’s wall, then one of the Puck’s 5 DBs originally positioned in the 3-3-5 defensive secondary, would step-up into the defensive box as an extra LB before the snap of the ball - maintaining the “plus-1” numerical advantage of defenders-to-blockers (7 on 6).   Bottom line: the “plus-1” front is essentially a strategic over-commitment – a sell-out, if you will – to counter an opponent’s superior rushing attack, in which the relative physical/skill-level advantage(s) of the individual 1-on-1 defender-to-blocker matchups along the LOS have been predetermined to rest with the O-lineman.  Mind you, this “negative” assessment is not necessarily an overt criticism of the competitive competency of one’s defensive personnel; it’s merely an honest valuation by a coaching staff that the individual defender has a physical or skill-level disadvantage against the lineman he faces across the LOS.  If such a disadvantage is identified, then it becomes a defensive priority to game-plan for that shortfall as a measure to neutralize the recognized advantage.  The “plus-1” 3-3-5 defensive formation is one such neutralizing strategy.  Nevada’s defensive brain trust employed this “plus-1” D to near perfection against OC Mick McCall’s O, confusing and/or neutralizing the bigger, stronger ‘Cat linemen with numbers in the box.  Throughout much of H-1 and continuing into H-2, this strategy bottled-up JJTBC in the NU offensive backfield, forcing him to search for the running play’s intended hole or seam for a critical fraction of a second instead of driving into & through that point-of-attack straightaway.  In that moment’s hesitation, when JJTBC danced or made a hop-cut behind his blocking wall instead of blasting through a created seam, the pigskin was never advanced with much authority more than a token yard or two beyond the LOS.  Consequently, Nevada’s “plus-1” defense routinely dictated limited yardage production gains and compromised the ‘Cats’ expected offensive field play control via their rush attack.  In other words, the “plus-1" worked like a charm.

Next, it must be stated that Nevada’s 3-3-5 D didn’t assume a passive read-&-react profile at the snap of the ball, but attacked the LOS with reckless abandon – underscoring the “all-or-nothing” sell-out profile of this stuff-the-run defensive strategy.  Even a cursive viewing of BTN game replays verified that it was the Woof Puck defensive brain trust’s intention to shoot a defender into either the A-gap (between OC & OG) or the B-gap (between the OG-OT) – and frequently into both – on virtually every down from game’s opening whistle to its final gun.  Regardless of whether it was a LB blitz, DB red-dog or a DT slant-shooting into an assigned target gap in the OL wall, the defensive objective remained the same: get penetration into the NU backfield and disrupt offensive flow, especially on expected rushing downs.  When coupled with their “plus-1” in-the-box defensive numbers tactic, Nevada’s aggressive “shoot-the-gap first; ask-for-forgiveness later” profile consistently stymied the Purple OL’s charge off the LOS and subsequently kept any RB who attempted to lug the bean into the face of this sell-out D second-guessing where to advance the pigskin when it was deposited in-hand by QB Clayton Thorson.  The frustrating thing was… Fitz and OC McCall kept trying to utilize their ground-n-pound rushing attack throughout H-1 despite witnessing the much less-than-expected yardage gains allowed by the Woof Puck’s sell-out D, especially on 1st & 2nd downs – which positioned the Purple O right into the crosshairs of Nevada HC Norvell’s defensive game plan.  If only Norvell & his feisty D could capitalize on the reputed arrogance/obstinacy of NU’s offensive brain trust to entice their home team foe to continue exercising this rush attack-first offensive mindset, the path would be paved for the Woof Pucks to deliver a similar final game result that was laid on the Wildcats in their first 2 games from 2016.

Last but not least, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a 3rd major factor that contributed heavily in how the Nevada Woof Pucks, a 24-point “on the road”’ dog, nearly pulled-off a monumental upset against a “full of themselves” NU Wildcats squad.  And that factor was: the totally craptastic Wildcat OL’s initial charge technique off the snap of the ball.  To say that the technique was merely “lacking” would be, at the very least, pointedly ignoring the obvious; and at the worst, blatantly delusional.  Speaking bluntly, they S-U-C-K-E-D.  As a matter of fact, the unit sucked eggs BIG TIME; and provided an enormous assist in the efficacy of the combined “plus-1” and “shoot-the-gap” strategy utilized by Nevada’s D.

Basically, the initial movement of every ‘Cat OL, to a man, at the snap, was to come-out of his initial 2 or 3-point stance and lift his head straight up – essentially to stand upright – which exposed his chest & neck to the defender across from him on the LOS.  Conversely, every Nevada DL, to a man, was coached to shoot forward “low-&-hard” across the LOS either into his designated gap-responsibility area or straight into his target OL to neutralize his opponent’s charge.  A fundamental football mantra of “correct” 1-on-1, defender-on-blocker engagement that is drummed-into every football player at any level by his coaches, from pee wee ball to the pros: “The low man wins the one-on-one.”  Period...  End of story.  When NU’s OL initial stand up motion met the Nevada DL’s shoot low-&-hard motion… guess who won the battle of the trenches?  Simply stated, the Wildcat OL got stuffed with head-scratching regularity, and, with it, NU’s ground game was stuffed summarily in the process.  Observing this mystifying piss-poor technique through my binoculars while seated in the West stands, all I could do was ask myself: “Does any NU line coach teach correct “off the ball” drive technique at Northwestern anymore?”   From watching NU football program videos like “The Foundation” I know for a fact that Fitz and his coaching staff, indeed, do.  Then a second, related Q drifted into my head: “But was any of the Big Uglies listening?”  Given the OL’s overall field play that I witnessed firsthand from the stands in H-1 and what was confirmed via viewing multiple BTN game replays, the gut-wrenching answer was: “Not often enough.”  

And this dog-lay “off the ball” drive technique wasn’t limited to the OL, but plagued every Wildcat DL as well. Emulating what their OL teammates had done on their side of the LOS, Doc’s DL constantly stood upright right out from their initial stance and likewise, got stuffed by their lower-positioned Nevada blockers.  Once again, when viewing game replays, it wasn’t difficult to notice what was happening (or not happening) with the DL’s so-called off-the-ball “drive.”  By standing straight up, ‘Cat DL failed to shed their blocker or to merely take the fight to the Nevada side of the LOS with any regularity.  Consequently, they never were able to initiate much of a push into the Nevada offensive backfield to either pursue the visiting team’s ball carrier or pressure their QB.  Virtually every one of Doc’s “Big Dog” DL personnel (I refuse to mention individual player names, but you can view replays and identify the guilty parties on your own with ease) resembled a whooped puppy rather than a starting B1G defensive linemen.  Throughout most of H-1, Nevada’s OL pushed ‘Cat DL off the LOS on rushing plays or locked horns with the Purple linemen on passing downs and never allowed them to get viable separation until the play was near over.  It was painful to observe.  In particular on Nevada pass plays, after having stood straight up on their own, Wildcat DL could be seen hand fighting and belly-bumping their OL blockers instead of shedding them, giving Woof Pack QB Ty Gangi all the time necessary to scan NU’s secondary for an open WR target.  Thankfully, Gangi’s passing acumen was relatively piss-poor in its own right and, therefore, he never made ‘Cats’ D pay the full price for their collective failure to get into his grill whenever he dropped back to pass behind his pocket protection.  However, it must be noted that both of Gangi’s TD passes in H-1 were completed with little to no pressure because the ‘Cat DL couldn’t get their pass rush going specifically due to this horrible “off the ball” initial drive.  Video replay of the game does not belie this fact.    

Thank Gawd for halftime locker room “discussions” and adjustments…

How the ‘Cats Collared the Woof Pucks

“Jesus Is Just Alright”
As stated above, IMHO, a “Come To Jesus” moment was needed to rattle the cage of the collective Wildcat O in order get their heads right (read: out of their moons) and their competitive juices free flowing again after a disturbingly mundane (or “less than average”) H-1 performance.  Of course, I don’t know what was said during NU’s halftime locker room respite, but it sure made one hellova impact, so I’ll just describe it with the phrase: the ultimate spiritual revival encounter.  Whatever may or may not have happened or was said, one thing was abundantly clear…  the ‘Wildcat team, as a whole, returned to the green grass of Dyche’s Ditch for the start of H-2 and began to truly play “En Fuego” or as Fitz has been quoted in prior post-game pressers, “Like Your Hair is On Fire.”

The result: On NU’s first two consecutive offensive possessions of Q3, Clayton Thorson and Co. scored 10 points to even the score at 17 apiece.  In addition, a similar competitive resolve was reestablished on the ‘Cats’ defensive side of the LOS, with Doc Hankwitz’ troops keeping the Woof Puck O at bay and forcing them to turn the ball over on downs to the ‘Cat O on Nevada’s first 4 possessions in H-2,  The only true scoring threat mounted by Nevada in this 2nd stanza was the direct result of a hand-delivered brainfart INT at the 11:31 mark of Q4 during which a badly miss-thrown Thorson pass from deep in his own territory was picked-off, giving the Puck offense starting field position at the Purple 17.  Undaunted by this turnover, the ’Cat D went right to work and administered a 3-&-out stoning of this crucial Nevada possession, limiting its potential damage to a 26-yard FG that gave the Woof Pucks a brief 20-17 lead that lasted all of just under 5 minutes.  With that chippie FG registered on the scoreboard, Nevada’s point production was over for the remainder of the contest.

Apparently, Fitz and his coaching staff got the full attention of their entire team over the 20 minutes of that halftime locker room skull session.  ‘Nuf said. 

Band of Brothers
Throughout the winter months and extending into the preseason, collegiate pigskin pundits and amateur evaluators alike questioned who would step-up to fill the graduated field play shoes of NU’s surprise 2016 All-B1G WR Austin Carr.  Those Qs were answered with definitive conviction during last Saturday’s grapple against the Nevada Woof Pucks: the entire Wildcat receiving corps.  Many a casual observer most likely would have proffered that claim to fame to NU’s Super Soph WR, Bennett Skoronek, owning to his 8 receptions that reaped an admirable 123 yards to the Wildcat’s total pass yardage production.  However, Mr. Skowronek wasn’t flying solo on the WR stat sheet, but was just one of many among the Purple receiving corps who made substantial pass reception contributions over full 60 minutes of the season opener.  Macan Wilson’s 3 grabs for 77 yards & a TD, coupled with Riley Lees’ 2 completions for 35 clicks & his own TD, Flynn Nagel’s 29 yards off 4 receptions and Garrett Dickerson’s additional 4 snatches for another 29 yards provided a pass receiving conglomerate that was instrumental in NU’s effort to dispatch the very game visiting team from Reno.  Of course, none of this would have been possible if not for QB Clayton Thorson’s vastly improved passing game.  The superior skillset of OC Mick McCall’s primary playmaker sealed the deal, especially in H-2.

Maestro, Take A Bow…
To say that Clayton Thorson had a career best day is nothing less than pure understatement.  Combine his 28 pass completions off 38 attempts (just south of 75%), which collected 352 total yards and 2 TDs, with his 2 TDs off QB sneaks at the Nevada goal line, then one can readily recognize Clayton’s highlight reel 4 TD afternoon.  The only other B1G offensive playmaker with comparable game stats during the conference’s 2017 season opening weekend was Da BuckNuts Senior QB, JT Barrett, who collected 304 passing yards & 3 TDs along with another 61 rushing & a 4th TD.  As a result, the media pundits shunned Thorson’s epic offensive day and presented the B1G’s Co-Offensive POW laurels to Mr. Barrett, along with State Penn RG Shaquan Barkley.  I guess one might expect such a pass-over when your team is a 24-point home team favorite over your season opener opponent.  So be it.  NU and Mr. Thorson have another 11 contests in 2017 to make the appropriate impression that will get acknowledged by those usual suspect evaluators.  

One factoid that might be overlooked among Thorson’s gaudy statistics against Nevada is that he distributed the bean across 8 individual receiver targets.  In addition, his overall body language, his recognizable composure under fire and his projected field play presence of mind as he calmly scanned the Nevada secondary for open receiving targets, either from behind his pocket protection or off a designed roll-out motion (as seen through my binocs) showed that the Junior QB was in complete control of himself and the Wildcat O as NU’s primary ball handler for the entire game. It was downright impressive.  Although one might take the pragmatic perspective that it’s too early for any definitive prognostication to be made following this opening game performance, I’ll take a giant leap of faith to declare…  In 2017, Clayton has raised his real time QB command-of-the-game to the next level of collegiate competency.  Usually, the most substantial improvement in field play for either a football team or an individual player during a single season is realized over the week from game No. 1 to game No. 2.  Hopefully, Mr. Thorson will continue this upwardly mobile trajectory as this fall’s pigskin campaign progresses.   I can’t wait to see what the near future holds. 


Although one might have considered the 2017 Nevada Woof Puck team a Twinkie primed & ready to be served-up for a thorough noshing, they proved themselves a game and competitive opponent.  Kudos must be given to Nevada HC Jay Norvell and his coaching staff for their outstanding work at getting this team prepared as well as it was for the road test of battling Fitz and his ‘Cats in their inaugural season as a newly installed coaching regime.  In my mind’s eye, they proved themselves worthy of further positive consideration from college football media types and they most certainly were not a true 24-point underdog.  Make no mistake, Nevada WILL make some noise in their Mountain West conference campaign this fall.  Which means NU was challenged and rose to the meet & defeat it, as opposed to what happened in their opening game foibles of 2016.  It’s all a very good thing. 

So now the ‘Cats hit the road to face the Dookie Blue Imps in a hot, hostile and, most likely, rainy environment in Durham, NC.  The Blue Imps are currently full of themselves after having thoroughly thumped a hapless and hopelessly over-matched North Carolina Central team once again – this time by a 60-7 score, a margin of victory that bested the Imps’ thrashings over these NCCU weak-sisters from the previous 3-4 seasons by an average of 30 or more points on each occasion.  Over the last 2 seasons, Fitz’ Wildcats have taken the measure of Dookie HC David Cutcliff’s Blue Imps in a 9-point roadie and an 11-point home “W,” respectively,  Now, in 2017, the Dookies feel that they are as prepared as they could ever be for some long-overdue payback.  All I can say is: “Bring it on, Dog!!!”  Frankly, I truly don’t think that those “off the ball” drive technique failures from last Saturday’s grapple against Nevada will carry-over to this weekend and be evident in the field play of either Wildcat OL or DL squad.  This Saturday will tell the tale for certain. 

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

He’s a Lumberjack
This week’s Lumberjack Trophy has been postponed because there wasn’t a true notable slobber-knocker kiss laid on any Nevada player by a Wildcat player at on any down last Saturday.

 I had given some token thought towards giving this award to the entire Wildcat receiving corps for their overall outstanding field play in NU’s efficient passing attack against Nevada.  But then again, their job as WRs is to avoid the big hit, identify and sprint to the open area in one of the zones in the opponent’s secondary and snag the bean as it is delivered by QB Clayton Thorson.  Theirs is a unique and profoundly valuable skillset to be sure, but certainly it’s not one of slobber-knocker variety.  So no, the executive decision has been made that ‘Cat WRs don’t get this week’s award. 


The Waterboy is a former football player and a Northwestern alumnus.  Aside from these facts, he has no affiliation with Northwestern University.  The commentary he posts here is his own, and does not necessarily reflect the views of

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