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In first Big Ten Championship Game, Northwestern will lean on QB Clayton Thorson

The senior has started in more consecutive games than any QB in conference history.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

This is what (midwest) dreams are made of. For either the Ohio State Buckeyes or Northwestern Wildcats, a win—at a minimum—will slot them for the Rose Bowl. Urban Meyer’s program in Columbus, however, has the added benefit of being in the running for the College Football Playoff—and may slip (again) into the No. 4 slot if the Scarlet and Gray can secure a decisive victory in Indianapolis.

On the flipside, the Wildcats are playing for their first trip to Pasadena since the Gary Barnett-coached season of 1995. And on top of that, Pat Fitzgerald, the current NU coach, is searching for his first win against Meyer’s OSU squad in three tries; the previous two games were within 10 points, and the last meeting in Columbus came down to just four points.

Ohio State, however, has been in this neck of the woods before. The Big Ten Championship Game has hosted the Buckeyes three times before, and has concluded twice with the confetti raining down on the Bucks as they lift the trophy. Northwestern, on the other hand, has wandered into a place they haven’t been before—and may have never dreamt of being here after the month of September. After beating Purdue in Week 1, the Wildcats lost three in a row before rattling off four straight victories. Then after a hiccup to Notre Dame, they closed off with three wins—two of them on the road—before holding off rival Illinois in the regular season finale.

Through all of this, they’ve had a steady hand at quarterback. Scratch that. They’ve had a steady hand at signal-caller for the better part of four seasons. Fifty-one straight games has featured Clayton Thorson under center for Northwestern.

And game No. 52 will be his biggest yet.

Much like David Blough at Purdue, the poise (and composure) of a QB is the main ingredient if you want to topple Ohio State. TCU, Michigan State, Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota and Michigan all missed that ingredient, and unsurprisingly, they all took an ‘L’ from the Buckeyes.

Thorson doesn’t have spectacular numbers in the air, but he’s able to make the plays. Against Illinois, he threw a modest 12-of-18 for 110 yards a 2 touchdowns. Against Nebraska and Michigan State, he eclipsed 370 yards in each contest. He didn’t throw an interception against Michigan, however, he only had 174 yards in the loss. (But that was back when the Wolverine defense was still considered “vaunted.”)

This season, Thorson has thrown for 2,675 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions on 251-of-416 passing.

What are some good examples of Thorson’s work?

Hitting receivers on the money is a necessity against Ohio State. Passes that are thrown behind, short, or get caught in the air will lead to momentum stifling incompletions, or interceptions. If you give the Buckeyes turnovers, the game is pretty much over. A Brendon White pick here, or a Jeffrey Okudah pass deflection on third down there is all it takes for Meyer’s squad to regain composure.

When his feet get set, Thorson is able to deliver the dime to his receiver. Whether it be a receiver in the flats or streaking down the sideline, he’s made the throw work. An area of note is on the screens. Ohio State will bring the house against him, and he won’t have much time to throw. That becomes especially true if Chase Young or Dre’Mont Jones are breathing down his neck. Off-balanced throws on the screen will lead to a) an incompletion or b) the receiver going toward the ball, but momentarily losing his stance to turn and cut up field. That momentarily lag turns a chunk play into, potentially, negative yardage because OSU’s defenders have insanely good closing speed. If Malik Harrison does what he did against Michigan this weekend in Indianapolis, then it’ll be all Thorson and company can do to get away from him.

This is where experience comes in. We’ve seen it already this season from Ohio State’s opponents: forcing plays to work. In my opinion, OSU escaped with wins against Nebraska and Maryland because of it. Cornhusker freshman QB Adrian Martinez got way too cute in the red zone early against the Bucks, and forced an errant throw to the sideline that led to a fumble. Nebraska ended up losing by five points; score on that drive instead of turning it over, and it’s possibly a win. Maryland ran a trick play that was busted from the start, but Jeshaun Jones tried to make something out of it. Instead it was a fumble—and loss of possession. Any points on that drive may have been enough to derail the Buckeyes.

The one game where inexperience didn’t show up was against Purdue. David Blough steered the Boilermakers’ offense, and unsurprisingly, everybody played well. Granted, when you have an electric playmaker in wide receiver Rondale Moore, life will always be easier. But Blough could’ve been forcing throws. He didn’t do that, and made the right reads en route to a 383-yard, 3 TD performance.

Is Thorson going to have 350-yard performance against Ohio State? Probably not, especially since the status of Flynn Nagel is still up in the air. He missed the Illinois game, so that’ll be something to keep an eye on all the way up to (and into) the game. Nagel is the leading receiver on the team, hauling in 746 yards. Help on the ground will go a long way in making the passing game take flight. Running back Anthony McFarland had a breakout game for the Terps and nearly had the single-game record for most rushing yards against a Buckeye team. But Wolverine RB Karan “Mr. Guarantee” Higdon was held to 72 yards on 15 carries last Saturday. The Wildcats’ freshman Isaiah Bowser will have a tough task finding space against the Buckeye frontline, but all it takes is a little lightning in the bottle to have a great game.

These kinds of games are weird. Someone always finds a way to step up and make the plays needed to win. Just look at what Ohio State had from Chris Olave against the Wolverines. He grabbed 2 TDs on the receiving front and blocked a punt that, arguably, changed the whole game.

We know Thorson will lead the way, but he’ll need help to get the win. If he’s Mr. Cool against the Buckeyes, others around him will be cool, too. But will that be enough to topple the mountain of talent Ohio State has assembled? We’ll see on Saturday night in Indiana’s capital city.