Northwestern notes: Performances by Tanner Lee, Clayton Thorson impress coach; Another linebacker busts out

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald had seen enough of Nebraska’s 25-24 win over Purdue to be quite impressed by the performance of Husker quarterback Tanner Lee, who led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to pull off the comeback.

“You could argue that he had probably his best game on Saturday against Purdue,” Fitzgerald said. “Made some big-time throws. That two-minute drive that he led was awesome. It was impressive … he threw the ball into some tight windows, their guys went up and made some big-time catches for him. Tight end played great. Stanley Morgan made some big plays.”

Fitzgerald saw the same kind of performance from his quarterback, Clayton Thorson, in Northwestern’s 39-31 triple overtime win over Michigan State. Thorson had the best game of his career — 33 of 48 for 356 yards and two touchdowns.

“He gave us a chance to win,” Fitzgerald said. “We had six drops, so he had 33 completions — if you take the six drops, that’s 39 of 48. That’s pretty spectacular in my book.”

Another linebacker busts out

On the heels of graduating All-Big Ten standout Anthony Walker, Northwestern appears to have found another elite middle linebacker.

It’s redshirt freshman Paddy Fisher, who sat out last season to put on weight but has burst onto the scene in 2017. He leads Northwestern with 73 tackles, which ranks third in the Big Ten. Fisher, 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, was Big Ten defensive player of week after logging 14 solo tackles in the win over Michigan State.

Northwestern signed the three-star prospect out of Katy, Texas, after beating out Wisconsin and Iowa State, among others.

“He’s a lot like the generational linebackers,” said Fitzgerald, who won the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards in 1995 and 1996. “I think he easily could have played back then because of his size. There’s some new-age linebackers at their size who would’ve never been able to play back in the ’90s. And then there’s guys like me with my lack of athleticism that couldn’t play now. The game has evolved. It’s a much more spatial game. You think about a couple of the plays that Paddy has made outside of the numbers, even the fumble caused on Saturday that was a big play in the game. That’s a big 250-pound guy that can run sideline to sideline. It’s pretty impressive.”

Fitzgerald said Fisher had 21 tackles overall against Michigan State, though he was originally credited with 17.

Fisher attributed his success to his training at Katy High School, a prep powerhouse in Texas.

“Katy was definitely structured identically to how it is here at Northwestern, so it was almost like I was playing four years of college ball already,” Fisher said. “It just had a lower intensity, and just not as many athletic guys. Just throughout the competition level. But it really helped me come in here with confidence and a step ahead of the other guys, and allowed me to be able to help the other guys and show them the way.”

Fitzgerald agreed.

“They’ve been one of the best defenses in Texas since I’ve been recruiting down there,” Fitzgerald said. “Paddy came prepared. He does a great job in practice. He’s a diligent worker. I think he’s really starting to gain confidence, and slowly starting to take this defense over and the team, and it’s been fun to watch that maturation.”

Quick hits

» Northwestern’s run game has struggled mightily this season. The Wildcats have run for less than 100 yards four times, including just 25 yards at Wisconsin and 64 in the triple-overtime win over Michigan State. Sacks — which go on the rushing total ledger — have been an issue: Northwestern has allowed 24 for 170 yards.

» Fitzgerald had high praise for Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, where the Wildcats have won twice.

“We’re going to have our hands full in one of the great, great venues in college football and you could argue the best fan base in America,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re rabid. It’s a great challenge to play in, and we’ll have our hands full with that.”

» Northwestern has 10 freshmen and sophomores on its top two units on defense and nine on offense.

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