NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson’s eyes lit up when he saw his team was matched up against Kentucky on Friday in the Music City Bowl.
The last time Thorson faced a Southeastern Conference opponent, it wasn’t pretty.
It was Jan. 1, 2016, Thorson was a freshman starter and the Wildcats lost to Tennessee 45-6 in the Outback Bowl.
The Volunteers punished Thorson throughout the game on the way to claiming the largest margin of victory in a bowl game in their history. Tennessee held Northwestern’s offense to 129 passing yards and 261 total yards and forced four turnovers.
Thorson, however, said that was then and this is now.
‘‘I’m a completely different player since that game,’’ Thorson said. ‘‘Our offense is so much better. We could sit here for a few hours and talk about how much difference there is in that team and the team we have now.’’
Thorson will make his 38th start in a row and said he sees the game against Kentucky (3:30 p.m., ESPN) as an opportunity to get revenge on the SEC, along with a chance for the Wildcats (9-3) to reach 10 victories for the second time in the last four seasons.
‘‘The fact that we are playing an SEC team gives me a little more motivation,’’ Thorson said. ‘‘We got embarrassed the last time. That is one of the things coming to this bowl that I was excited for — and a lot of the older guys were excited for, too — was to play another SEC team.’’
Thorson completed only 8 of 20 passes for 57 yards against the Volunteers. He was intercepted twice and sacked four times before being replaced by Zack Oliver, who also threw two interceptions.
‘‘We were very run-oriented back then,’’ Thorson said. ‘‘We would run the football, run the football, then I’d throw it on third down. We are much more balanced now, and that takes a little bit off our defense.’’
Thorson heads into the bowl game ranked 41st nationally in passing yards (2,809). He has completed 258 of 426 passes with 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and is Northwestern’s all-time winningest quarterback with 26 victories.
While the Wildcats managed to win 10 games in 2015, coach Pat Fitzgerald said this team is considerably better.
‘‘We’re a totally different team than we were two years ago,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘We had a freshman quarterback back then; now he’s a third-year starter. It starts there.
‘‘[Thorson] has grown so much since that first bowl opportunity. He’s already our all-time winningest quarterback with a year to go, plus one game.’’