Stop what you’re doing right now and go look up the receiving statistics in the Big Ten this season. Here, I'll even give you the link.
Who’s at the top of the list? Your eyes do not deceive you: Northwestern’s Austin Carr. The senior captain and former walk-on leads the conference with 283 receiving yards, is tied for first with 18 receptions and also has two touchdowns.
But if you were to predict that Carr would be the Big Ten’s leading receiver in Week 3, most people would have looked at you like you had two heads. That’s because Carr had just 16 catches, 302 yards and two touchdowns all of last season.
When asked about Carr’s success, however, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said “no one in our program is surprised.” Fitzgerald raved about Carr’s work ethic, his maturation from walk-on to captain and called him a “rockstar” off the field, where Carr acts, sings, performs and helps out in the community. Still, there is more to Carr’s uptick in performance than just his own hard work and impressive musical talents.
Last year, the Wildcats rode the reliable Justin Jackson to a 10-3 record, relegating an inexperienced Clayton Thorson and his unpolished passing game to mostly an afterthought. With the return of Jackson and the graduation of two top receiving options, Dan Vitale and Christian Jones, NU’s ground and pound style seemed likely to continue. But against Illinois State, Thorson threw the ball 41 times. Against Duke, Thorson had 38 pass attempts and 320 passing yards – numbers that simply were not seen last year.
Jackson has still been used a lot (he had 28 carries against Duke), but he hasn’t always been effective because most of NU’s opponents have learned to clog the run by stacking the box, forcing the Wildcats to try and beat them through the air. NU knew it needed to expand on its one-dimensional offense, and wide receivers coach Dennis Springer has keyed in on his unit.
“We know we have an extremely good runningback and run game, but we have to be more explosive on the outside to achieve our goals,” Springer said. “An emphasis was placed on getting the ball down the field a little bit more to complement our run game.”
The increased focus on the passing game explains the bump in Thorson’s pass attempts, which has led to more opportunities for NU’s receiving corps – a unit that was inexperienced and untested in Week 1. Through three games, it’s actually turned out to be one of NU’s more impressive units: Carr is a legitimate No. 1 receiver, transformed running back Solomon Vault has shown the ability to make big plays, superback Garrett Dickerson is emerging as a threat through the air and Flynn Nagel, Macan Wilson and Andrew Scanlan are all proven options.
It’s important for NU to take deeper shots and stretch the field, making its offense less predictable and more dynamic. The better offenses in college football are able to make big, momentum-shifting plays that decide games. The Wildcats saw that first-hand last week when a 58-yard TD pass solidified their victory.
Unfortunately, the deep passing game isn’t exactly NU’s forte. With an inconsistent offensive line and no real jump ball threat, NU’s aerial attack is limited. Duke brought extra pressure almost every play last week, and if opponents continue to blitz heavily, Thorson won’t have much time to throw it deep. He’s not going to be efficient – he was a combined 35-for-80 against Illinois State and Duke – but he will convert on some of those chances, and the risk might be worth it.
Offensive coordinator Mick McCall stressed converting a higher percentage of those deep shots, saying, “we hit some of them last week, but we have to hit more.” McCall explained that teams will continue to stack the box against Jackson, and NU’s ability to stretch the field and become more consistent down the field will be key during Big Ten play.
NU’s passing game will continue to be tested this week against No. 20 Nebraska, a team that has scored 130 points through its first three games. Against more dynamic teams like Nebraska, Ohio State and Michigan State, NU will have to convert on big plays just to stay in the game. But if the Wildcats can create a consistently effective deep aerial attack with Thorson, Carr and their new trusty receiving corps, then Big Ten play could get a whole lot more interesting.