Northwestern's Clayton Thorson: Loss to Wisconsin 'hurts more' than 8 sacks

Let's start with some good news, which was in short supply after Wisconsin's 33-24 victory over Northwestern: Clayton Thorson is still alive.

He was even well enough after the game to walk and talk under his own power.

The 10th-ranked Badgers (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) sacked Thorson eight times, the most the Wildcats have allowed since their 2011 bowl game against Texas A&M.

"I feel fine," Thorson said. "We lost — and that's what hurts more than anything."

He added: "I have to get the ball out whether it's throwing it away, making quicker decisions. It starts with me."

And it ended with him. With half the student section cleared out at Camp Randall Stadium, the Wildcats rallied from 31-10 down and got the ball back, down a touchdown, with 69 seconds to play deep in their own territory.

Thorson rolled right and thought he could outrace all-conference caliber safety D'Cota Dixon. No D'Chance.

Dixon took down Thorson for a safety.

Asked about all those sacks of Thorson, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said: "We have to put him in better situations — it's protections, it's calls, it's routes, schematics. We have to protect better, we have to get open and he has to get it out of his hand. That's the whole thing with the passing game. When it's off, it's just really ugly. And for a while today, it was really ugly."

The second quarter was promising, though, and Northwestern took a 10-7 lead into the locker room.

But to spring the upset as 15-point underdogs, the Wildcats (2-2, 0-1) needed a bigger halftime lead after forcing three turnovers.

On Wisconsin's first play, Northwestern's Trae Williams dislodged the ball from receiver Jazz Peavy at the Badgers' 24-yard line. But after a going backward on third-and-1, the Wildcats settled for a Charlie Kuhbander field goal.

"Embarrassing," Fitzgerald said of his team's short-yardage woes.

Northwestern's defense was exceptional in the first half, racking up four tackles-for-loss to go with those three forced turnovers. Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook completed just 5 of 11 throws for 48 yards.

And then — whoa, Nellie — Hornibrook did this in the third quarter: 5-for-6, 116 yards, one touchdown pass.

The big blast was a 61-yard completion to the speedy Quintez Cephus after a third-and-3 play-action fake.

"Bad communication," Fitzgerald said. "Guy was wide-ass open. A crazy concept. When guys don't communicate, (Cephus) goes down the field and he's wide open. That was miscommunication on a play and a rep we actually practiced this week."

It appeared that Godwin Igwebuike committed too heavily to the fake handoff, but the standout safety implied there was more to it than that, saying: "We needed better communication with me and Trae (Williams)."

What they also need is a healthy Justin Jackson. The senior tailback, dogged by a leg issue, rushed for just 25 yards on nine carries, getting little help from Northwestern's line.

"Justin didn't practice at all week," Fitzgerald said. "To see him out here at all shows his toughness."

Jackson was not made available after the game, but Thorson said: "Credit to him; he is pushing through a lot of tough things."

The Wildcats have a brutal task ahead: Penn State visits next week for homecoming. As Igwebuike spoke Saturday, a nearby TV showed this first-quarter score: Penn State 21 Indiana 0.

"That will be a great challenge for us," Igwebuike said. "Better to play them to let everybody know: We're a great team; we believe that."

tgreenstein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

Wildcats 2-minute drill

Punch line: Northwestern's offensive line had a rough day against a terrific Wisconsin front. The Wildcats gave up eight sacks, though several of those were on Clayton Thorson, who was slow to release the ball. Perhaps more damning: Twice Northwestern had third-and-1 in the first half and failed to convert. The left side of the line sprung a leak on the first one; the right side appeared to be the issue on the second. "It's embarrassing, quite frankly," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Third-and-1 and you get lips knocked off. Obviously our sense of urgency in those downs wasn't good enough." 

Action Jackson: Justin Jackson needed 109 yards to become Northwestern's all-time leading rusher. He got just 25 on nine carries, smothered by the Badgers and dogged by his own leg ailment. Asked if there's hope Jackson will return to full health this season, Fitzgerald replied: "Yeah. You said hope, right?" 

Bright spots: Freshman Samdup Miller and Joe Gaziano did get some decent pressure on Alex Hornibrook, and freshman JR Pace made a leaping interception. Backup tailback Jeremy Larkin broke enough tackles to gain 37 rushing yards. "He's tough," Fitzgerald said, "and has great balance." 

Up next: Northwestern is host to Penn State at 11 a.m. Saturday.

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