The progress from David Blough and Clayton Thorson is a good sign for the future of B1G quarterbacks

Nov 5, 2016; Evanston, IL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) completes a pass during the second quarter of the game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, guys just have that “aha” moment.

A single performance, one big play, maybe even a tongue lashing from a disgruntled coach. It can come in a variety of ways and it always comes unexpectedly. When something starts clicking, though, guys begin growing into the player they were expected to become.

David Blough and Clayton Thorson have each had that moment this season.

Both quarterbacks entered their sophomore campaign with mixed expectations and a very specific set of looming questions.

The biggest concern for Blough was his shelf life. Purdue hadn’t stuck with one quarterback since 2009 when Joey Elliott was under center. The starting job was going to belong to the three-star prospect from Texas, but would he show enough improvement to stay on the field for the 12-game duration? Considering the relatively short leash for Danny Etling and Austin Appleby, how much time would Hazell allow another struggling quarterback to get things on track?

For Thorson, the questions were a bit different. the decision for a four-star prospect to land under center at Northwestern was somewhat of a surprise anyway. And after starting the entire season as a freshman with mild success – throwing for just over 1,500 yards, seven TDs and nine INTS while completing 50 percent of his passes – would a smash-mouth style of offense be able to accommodate a passer who still needed to develop?

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Blough’s chain wasn’t as tight as his predecessors. Northwestern made some tweaks to the offense. And after shaky starts in September, both quarterbacks are now flourishing thanks to those adjustments.

Purdue is leading the B1G in passing offense after 10 weeks in the year. The Wildcats aren’t far behind, sitting in third. The jump isn’t that significant for the Boilermakers, who ranked fifth in the conference last season, but the improvement is huge for Northwestern, which was the league’s worst passing team in 2015.

Just how good have the sophomores of the West been this year?

Season stats Blough (B1G ranking) Thorson (B1G ranking)
Passing yards per game 304.1 (1st) 246.6 (3rd)
Passing TDs 20 (2nd) 16 (3rd)
Interceptions 13 (T-13th) 6 (T-10th)
Attempts per game 45.1 (1st) 37.9 (2nd)
Completion rate 58.1 (7th) 56.6 (10th)

The numbers for Blough are slightly inflated. In several games this season, the Boilermakers have been down by large margins early in the contest. Purdue’s offensive scheming turns from a pass-heavy plan to a “throw it until his arm falls off,” mentality.

Against Iowa, Purdue fell behind by 28 points before scrapping and clawing back to a respectable 14-point defeat. Three of Blough’s five TD passes that afternoon came in the final nine minutes of a contest that had already been decided much earlier.

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He continues to struggle with interceptions, but eliminate the five-pick performance against Cincinnati in the second week of the season, and the Texas-native only has eight picks to his name.

Thorson’s numbers may not be quite as eye-popping. With Justin Jackson in the backfield, Northwestern has the ability to provide a little more offensive balance. Still, his numbers have drastically improved from last season and appears to be more trustworthy with the football than he was a season ago. Arguably his biggest area of improvement has been his downfield vision. Last year, Thorson completed just six passes that netted the Wildcats 3o or more yards. Through nine games, that total is up to 13.

Again, both quarterbacks opened the year with some questionable performances. Since September eneded, though, both have really started to blossom:

Last 5 games Blough Thorson
Passing yards per game 331.8 252.6
TD/INT 14/6 11/2
Completion rate  59.6 58.9

You can look to October for that “aha” moment.

Thorson was really impressive in wins against Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana. In those three victories, he completed passes at a 64 percent clip and tossed nine TD passes with just one interception. He made throws that quarterbacks with bright NFL futures can make. He’s found guys down field, squeezed the ball through tight spaces and has found ways to get the B1G’s leading receiver Austin Carr the ball in critical situations.

Against Indiana, he delivered a near-perfect strike to Macan Wilson for a long TD pass against a fairly solid Indiana secondary:

Two weeks earlier against Iowa, he was able to squeeze this pass to Carr for a TD:

Those were plays he wasn’t making as a freshman. Those are plays a lot of college quarterbacks struggle to make at any point in their career. Yet it seems to be coming naturally to Thorson. He’s beginning to make these type of plays on a more frequent basis. Only a sophomore, he’s beginning to live up to that four-star ranking he received from 247 Sports when he was coming out of high school.

Blough is doing similar things in West Lafayette.

His precision isn’t quite up to par with Thorson, but he’s still shown some potential. His aggressive nature certainly accounts for the high number of interceptions this year, but Blough has, at times, showcased his ability to thread the needle.

He had this strike to Domonique Young against Cincinnati that was put right on the money:

Like his Northwestern counterpart, Blough is developing nicely into an accurate deep-ball passer. That’s important for Purdue because it’s a weapon the Boilermakers really haven’t had since the days of Drew Brees and Kyle Orton. He’s delivering perfect strikes downfield to receivers who have been well-covered.  This throw late in the  game against Iowa was just a sampling of his ability to find receivers in stride:

Throwing aside, both guys seem to be thinking a little more clearly this season. Maybe that’s not too surprising since both were forced into starting roles as freshman. The game appears to be slowing down to the sophomores and decision-making is coming more naturally. Blough and Thorson aren’t the fastest guys on the field, but they do have good mobility. Last year, it seemed like they were too eager to run when things weren’t open downfield. This year, they each seem more patient and try to extend plays with their legs when something opens up or when protection breaks down.

In all fairness, Blough and Thorson are light-years ahead of where anyone expected them. Even when we predicted our top passers entering the season, neither got so much as a mention. Heading into week 11, they make up 2/5 of the list.

Last year seems so far away. Both quarterbacks have matured dramatically over the course of the season.

Now we’ll get the chance to watch them head-to-head. This one could be a shootout. Yes, a game that was determined by a final score of 21-14 last year in Evanston could see scores in 40s or possibly 50s.

If both quarterbacks bring their best game, that wouldn’t be much of a surprise.

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Photo Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

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