TAMPA — Tucked somewhere inside Pat Fitzgerald's closet is a T-shirt that reads, "Stats are for losers."
For the 10th-year Northwestern coach, that phrase is more than just four words screen-printed on cotton. It's a mentality he upholds when it comes to the development of redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson.
When Thorson takes the field at Raymond James Stadium for Friday's Outback Bowl, his regular-season line probably won't raise many eyebrows. Thorson's 1,465 passing yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions pale in comparison to Tennessee standout Josh Dobbs (15 touchdowns, five interceptions).
Yet to his coach, there's only one statistic that counts.
"The only stat that matters is if you win," Fitzgerald said. "And he's a 10-win freshman quarterback. That's pretty impressive."
Thorson's journey to lead Northwestern to its first bowl appearance since 2012 can be best described as a roller coaster, to say the least.
Once a consensus four-star prospect with more than a dozen Division I offers out of Wheaton, Ill., a suburban town roughly 30 miles outside Chicago, Thorson won the starting job in August over seasoned options in senior Zack Oliver and redshirt sophomore Matt Alviti. His first collegiate start came a few weeks later when the Wildcats stunned then-No. 5 Stanford in their season opener Sept. 5.
Initially, Fitzgerald said Thorson found it difficult to breathe in the spotlight of a new environment. "Probably hyperventilating would be the best way to describe it," he quipped.
But the experience quickly helped him gain confidence. The highlight of the game? A 42-yard rushing score by Thorson for the game's only touchdown.
In subsequent weeks, junior receiver Austin Carr said the signal-caller grew into his role as a leader of the offense and built a strong rapport with his teammates.
At least once a week, Carr said Thorson would accompany his unit at a restaurant for dinner. Sometimes, the two would go out by themselves.
"He definitely hit the ground running," Carr said. "In the preseason, we could see just raw skill and he had the brains to make the plays and to understand the offense."
While Thorson saw his share of triumphs, there were some trying times. In a 21-14 victory over Purdue on Nov. 14, Fitzgerald benched Thorson in the third quarter for Oliver after he completed 44 percent of his passes and committed a costly turnover.
Fitzgerald could have stayed with Oliver at Wisconsin the following week. But he kept his trust in Thorson, and the Wildcats topped the Badgers to reach nine wins for only the sixth time ever.
"I really felt going into the season … that he would move the ball and I thought that he would do a great job from a leadership standpoint," Fitzgerald said. "I guess I set the bar a little low."
In the weeks since Northwestern concluded the regular season with a win at Illinois, Thorson said he has taken some time to reflect on his performance.
Sure, there are moments he would like to revisit. But an opportunity to capture the program's first 11-win season against the Volunteers after consecutive losing campaigns? No stat can ever trump that.
"I think there were points that I did really well and I think there were points that I wish I could have back," Thorson said. "But when I look back at it, I see 10 wins and that's all I really care about.
"Of course you would like to throw for 3,000 yards. But I'll take however many I have now for 10 wins rather than five wins any year."