Blackshirts know they can’t let Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson break free again

Blackshirts know they can’t let Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson break free again
Photo Courtesy: World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — Of all the game tape that was hard to watch last season for the Nebraska defense, two snaps in particular against Northwestern might have tempted Husker players to turn away.

Two runs by quarterback Clayton Thorson produced 117 of the Wildcats’ 333 total yards that Saturday — and either some or most of the yards could have been avoided.

To recap:

» In the first quarter, Thorson takes a brief look from the pocket, then takes off through a gap on the right side and makes a move on linebacker Josh Banderas about 5 yards downfield. Two other Huskers get tied up by the same receiver, and Thorson goes 68 yards before getting pushed out at the Husker 2.

» In the second quarter, the pocket collapses, but Thorson escapes, and this time makes safety Nate Gerry miss in the open field. One linebacker loses containment, another defender takes a bad angle and a 49-yard run moves Northwestern to the 11.

Ever blunt and often humorous, NU defensive coordinator Mark Banker didn’t bother sugarcoating either play this week as the Huskers prepared to see Thorson again.

“We gave up an early quarterback run with five people chasing him, and we looked like Moe, Larry and Curly plus two,” Banker said. “And then later on, we did the same thing. We had a nice right rush, and two of the linemen kind of banged each other off the play, but we were loafing on the back side of the play.”

Northwestern converted the two Thorson runs into 10 points, contributing to its 30-28 win at Memorial Stadium.

Thorson finished with 126 rushing yards and a touchdown — and has the Blackshirts’ attention for Saturday night’s rematch at Northwestern’s Ryan Field.

“I think everybody just has to do their job and not try to overcompensate,” NU safety Kieron Williams said. “I’m not saying that’s what happened last year, but I think we’ve been best this year when everybody’s just done their job and everybody’s been focused.”

Nebraska got some practice for a running quarterback last Saturday against Oregon senior Dakota Prukop, who had 20 carries for 97 yards. His long run was a 22-yarder on a zone read.

But Thorson hurt the Huskers more last year when plays broke down.

“He’s a good scrambler,” NU linebackers coach Trent Bray said. “He’s smart when he takes off, and he’s got some elusiveness that is surprising. You wouldn’t watch him run and go, ‘Well, that guy’s a good runner,’ but he finds a way to make guys miss and get there.

“We’ve got to do a better job than we did last year of, one, keeping him in the pocket, and two, taking better angles to go get him when he does leave.”

Thorson ran for 397 yards and five touchdowns last season as a redshirt freshman, but the Nebraska game stood out to him for obvious reasons.

“I think it was just taking advantage of opportunities,” Thorson said. “I just kind of found a hole and just took it, and kind of the pieces fell into place. Some guys missed tackles, I had some good blocking downfield, and those were two huge plays in the first half.”

Both plays followed Nebraska scores, swinging momentum back to the Wildcats. On his second run, Thorson went out of bounds with just eight seconds left, and Northwestern nearly had a touchdown pass before kicking a field goal.

The Wildcats have struggled to find a rhythm offensively to start the season — ranking last in the Big Ten in total offense — so it’s an emphasis for Nebraska not to let Thorson ad-lib for yardage.

“Obviously it’s a weapon he has, and last year we just didn’t make any plays on him,” Husker defensive end Ross Dzuris said. “We missed a lot of tackles, so obviously just contain the pocket and just make tackles when he gets out in the open.”

#20 Nebraska at Northwestern

When: 6:30 p.m. (Pregame: 1:30 p.m.)

Where: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill

Radio: B103 (103.1 FM)