EVANSTON – He first stepped onto the field on a warm day in September three years ago, with many wondering if the redshirt freshman would be the one to lead Northwestern back after a rough two seasons.
After a bowl win in 2012 and a great start in 2013, the Wildcats missed the postseason in back-to-back years entering the 2015 campaign. The team was looking for someone to lead to the offense, and restart the program’s momentum from earlier in the decade.
Fifty starts, three bowl appearances, and a few records later, Clayton Thorson has done just that as he prepares to step onto Ryan Field one more time on Saturday afternoon in a Northwestern jersey.
It’s been quite a journey from start No. 1 to No. 51 Saturday at Ryan Field against Illinois. From victories to a major injury and a division title, one that’s reaching the end for one of the Wildcats’ greatest quarterbacks.
“It’s definitely weird saying it will be my last game at Ryan Field, especially with two more games coming after this,” said Thorson of this Saturday’s game with the Illini. “I’ve got a lot of great memories, I’ve got a lot of great memories here, especially this year. It will be a pretty cool day.”
While a number of seniors will be saying the same, the end of Thorson’s home career brings a close to one of the greatest in program history. He’s second in Northwestern history in passing yardage, passing the 10,000 yard mark in a win over Minnesota on Saturday (10,113). That’s sixth in Big Ten history, and his 51 start on Saturday against the Illini will set the conference record in that category.
“That type of toughness and durability is almost unheard of in our game,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald of Thorson. “I’m just really proud of him and the rest of our senior classmates. They’ve really taken our program to new heights and I’ve very thankful for them.”
What makes this last year especially remarkable for Thorson is the fact it came after a torn ACL in the Music City Bowl last December threatened that start streak. Yet he worked his way back to start the opener against Purdue, trading reps with the backups the first few games as he continued to work on a “pitch count” to get his knee back to full strength.
The statistics have been a little lighter for the quarterback this season. Thorson has had a career-low 295 pass attempts with 1,522 yards and seven touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. Yet his biggest games came when Northwestern needed him after a 1-3 start to the season, as the quarterback threw for 373 yards in an upset win at Michigan State, then 455 in a comeback win over Nebraska at home.
Those performances jump-started a six-game winning streak in the Big Ten for the Wildcats, which helped them to their first Big Ten West title in program history. It’s also helped Thorson cement himself among the best and most durable signal callers in program, conference history.
“It’s a testament to a lot of guys who have caught a lot of balls from me. Guys like Austin (Carr), Dan Vitale, Christian Jones, and Garrett (Dickerson), and Ben (Skowronek), and Flynn (Nagel), all those guys,” said Thorson of his achievements. “I’ve had some great playmakers around me. That’s helped me.
“A guy like Justin (Jackson), who will take everyone with him, and that allows me to throw it around. So we’ve had a lot of good players around me and our ‘O-Line’ has done a great job of keeping me healthy for 50-straight games. Credit to those guys.”
Credit to Thorson, too. It’s been quite a journey since he stepped on Ryan Field in September of 2015 for the first time.