September 01, 2015

Stanford took a step back in 2014 after the best four-year run in school history elevated the program into college football's elite.

The 21st-ranked Cardinal look to begin their march back to prominence Saturday at Northwestern in the schools' first meeting in 21 years.

Stanford won 46 games from 2010-2013, trailing only Oregon nationally in that span as it transitioned seamlessly from Jim Harbaugh to David Shaw. Shaw led the Cardinal to their first back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances in four decades after Pac-12 titles in 2012 and 2013.

The 2014 season was a different story, however, as Stanford went 8-5 with an especially disappointing 5-4 conference record. The Cardinal aren't completely short on national respect, appearing in the AP's preseason Top 25 for a fifth straight year for the first time.

Three of Stanford's losses came by exactly three points, and the team closed its season with three consecutive victories, outscoring California, No. 9 UCLA and Maryland by a combined 114-48.

"I was definitely disappointed," said running back Christian McCaffrey, who rushed for 217 yards in the final four games after totaling 83 in his first eight. "Anyone who sees the team we had and the players we had, knows there was so much more. The last three games speak to that team we can be. We didn't falter when the chips were against us."

McCaffrey is one of the biggest reasons for optimism surrounding the Stanford running game after it underwhelmed in 2014, at least by recent Cardinal standards. After losing Tyler Gaffney, the team's 158.8 rushing yards per game were its fewest since 2007.

Shaw said he wants to get the sophomore 20 carries a game, so he'll have a chance to join Gaffney, Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart as the latest in Stanford's recent line of dominant running backs.

The Cardinal are also experienced at quarterback with senior Kevin Hogan holding the reins for one more year. Hogan was inconsistent at times in 2014 with a career-low 145.8 passer rating, though he posted a 185.9 mark over his final three contests.

While McCaffrey and Hogan lead a talented offense, Stanford faces many question marks on the other side of the ball. The entire starting defensive line and secondary are gone from a unit that limited opponents to 16.4 points per game, ranking second in the FBS.

"I say thank you. It's great. I like when people doubt us as opposed to getting pats on the back," Shaw said of the uncertainty on defense. "I have no problem with that at all because I'm one of those guys that believes, yes, we should have to prove ourselves every year."

Northwestern finds itself in a similar position following a second straight 5-7 campaign after reaching five straight bowls for the first time. In his 10th year as coach and 20 years after leading the Wildcats to its second-ever Rose Bowl as a player, Pat Fitzgerald is going with a redshirt freshman as his starting quarterback.

He announced last week that Clayton Thorson beat out senior Zack Oliver and sophomore Matt Alviti in the competition to replace three-year starter Trevor Siemian, who appears to have secured a job as the Denver Broncos' No. 3 quarterback.

Thorson is the only one of the three without a pass attempt in college, though the dual-threat signal-caller was widely regarded as a top-10 quarterback in the class of 2014 and chose Northwestern over the likes of Ole Miss, Penn State and Iowa.

"I would say in practice what I've seen is he's been pretty unflappable. He just goes out and plays," Fitzgerald said. "I don't think he puts too much stock in any specific play. He just goes out and tries to play his best on every rep. That shows a little bit more maturity than a typical redshirt freshman usually shows."

Fitzgerald figures to lean heavily on running back Justin Jackson, who ran for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman.

Stanford leads the all-time series 3-1-2. The last meeting ended in a 41-41 tie in 1994 at Northwestern with Shaw playing wide receiver for the Cardinal.

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