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Scouting Report: Northwestern Offense

What did the Wildcats do on offense last year vs Purdue?

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Hi guys, I went back and watched every Northwestern snap from last year’s game so you don’t have to put yourself through the abuse, and this is what I found out.

Base Formation: Ace (1 back), Spread

Base Personnel Package: 11 personnel

Base 11

Yellow: Boundary Receiver

Green: Tight End

Blue: Slot Receiver

Red: Field Receiver

Northwestern runs a basic spread, primarily out of their 11 personnel package. This is similar to Purdue’s base formation and base personnel package.

Other Packages:

Northwestern will be in Ace spread 95% of the game, with the exception of an occasional short yardage (1 yard or less) jumbo package.

The most common formation deviation comes from their personnel packages. They go with 10 personnel (1 back, 4 Wrs) on 3rd down a good bit.

Key Player:

QB - Clayton Thorson: 6’4, 220

General Scouting Report:

Thorson is a prototypical West Coast offense quarterback. His style is interesting because it’s more associated with the NFL than college football. I keep trying to come up with a comparison, and I just keep coming back to Alex Smith before he figured out how to throw the deep ball.

He is an athletic quarterback, but he’s not your typical college dual threat. He’s at his best when he is able to move the pocket and throw the ball. He uses his legs as a part the passing game more than he uses them in the running game. When he does run, it’s because the defense has lost outside containment. It’s not his first option, but he will take a first down or a touchdown with his legs if a defense gets stuck inside. He put up 8 rushing touchdowns last season.

He has a quick trigger on short and intermediate routes. He excels at going through his progressions and finding the receiver. He does not lock on to his primary, and this makes him difficult to stop once he finds a rhythm. He spreads the ball around, utilizing all his targets.

While Thorson does most things well, his arm strength is average at best. He struggles with the deep ball and often badly under throws his receivers. If the ball is on a hash mark, he tends to work to that side. I’m not sure he has the arm strength to make the long throw from one hash to outside the opposite hash.

Key Plays:

Spread Buck Sweep

The Wildcats love pulling their guards in the run game. It’s rare to see a Northwestern run play where at least one of their guards isn’t on the move. In their version of the buck sweep, they pull both the back side and play side guards around the play side tackle, and the tight end attempts to kick out the defensive end. It looks something like this:

Note: You’ll have to forgive me if this isn’t exactly a buck sweep. It sure looks like one, but it’s hard to tell because Purdue does a great job of bottling it up.

Purdue stuffed this play on the front side, with DT #44 Anthony Watts doing a great job of refusing to be pinned and continuing to work down the line of scrimmage, clogging things up. Strong side linebacker #6, T.J. MCcollum attacks the pulling guard, and closes the rest of the hole. The RB is forced to try his luck back side, and runs into MLB #4 Ja’Whaun Bently. That’s never a good thing for a running back.

Here’s a still from the play:

You can see from the still where this play is supposed to go. The tight end (green) is trying to kick out the defense end. The left tackle (red) is blocking down on the defensive tackle. The play is designed to hit the gap between the tackle and the tight end. The play side guard (blue) is the first through the hole, looking to pick off the play side linebacker, followed by the back side guard (yellow) looking to clean up the middle linebacker. The running back is supposed to follow the back side guard into the hole.

Northwestern loves to pull their guards and they ran a few variations of this play. Purdue’s defense did a great job of stuffing this play last year, and they will need to be just as sharp this year. Norhtwestern counts on plays like these for big gains.

Seam Route:

The Wildcats gashed Purdue with this play last year. This is a seam route to the tight end.

You can see everything pretty well from this view. Purdue is in man coverage with a deep safety (Cover 1). The tight end beats the linebackers jam at the line of scrimmage and Thorson throws a strike, leading the tight end and and keeping the safety from closing on the pass.

Northwestern worked this route all night against Purdue. They threw it to the tight end, the slot receiver, and even got the running back involved in a weird looking seam route. Thorson loves these intermediate throws where he can get the ball out quick. Expect to see several seam routes Thursday night.

Mistake To Avoid:

Losing Contain

Thorson doesn’t run much, but last year he killed Purdue with his legs twice in crucial situation. He picked up a 4th down with his legs when Purdue lost outside contain on a roll out and he scored a touchdown on another play where Purdue lost contain.

This is the 4th down pick up

Purdue only rushes 3 on this play, but #45 Austin Larkin gets sucked inside and gives Thorson the edge.

Initially Larkin’s in good shape. He rushes the tackles outside shoulder and sets a nice edge. It all falls apart when Thorson rolls out to his right. Larkin jumps inside instead of continuing to set the edge and now it’s a foot race between Thorson and DT #7 Eddy Wilson. That’s not a race Wilson is ever going to win. Thorson picks up 1 block from his outside receiver and scampers for a 1st down.

Thorson is a smart runner. He’s not looking to run, but if you give him an open invitation, he’ll take it. Purdue must remain disciplined in their pass rush, especially on 3rd and 4th down, where the natural inclination is to go find the quarterback.


Northwestern’s offense is tough to contain with Thorson pulling the strings. His ability to extend plays hurt Purdue last year and the quick passing game killed the Boilermakers. Purdue will look to shrink the field, muck things up in the middle, and try and make Thorson throw it over the top.

Thorson is coming off an ACL tear he sustained in Northwestern’s bowl game and may not be 100%. If Thorson can’t use his legs, I like Purdue’s chances of slowing down the Northwestern attack.

In an interesting turn of events, Thorson is listed as “questionable” on the injury report. If he can’t go, TJ Green will start. Green is more of a classic drop back passer. The run game will look similar, but the passing game may look to stretch the field a little more. That said, If Green is the starting QB, I like Purdue’s chances even more.