Stout defense and a heavy dose of the running game led to victory in the Northwestern-Stanford game. Sounds like the recipe for a Cardinal win, right? Instead, the Wildcats beat Stanford with its own formula to upset the No. 21 Cardinal 16–6 in Evanston on Saturday. Here are three thoughts on the win.
1. Great Northwestern defense or subpar Stanford offense?
Week 1 results tend to create questions about which side deserves credit. The fact is the Cardinal struggled mightily to move the ball against the Wildcats. Quarterback Kevin Hogan, who completed 30 of his final 40 passes of 2014 with four touchdowns and no interceptions, threw for just 155 yards against Northwestern on 20 of 35 passing. His game-sealing interception in the end zone may have been a touchdown had Hogan not floated the pass, allowing safety Kyle Queiro to snatch it away. While running back Christian McCaffrey picked up a solid 66 yards on 12 carries, Stanford gained just 3.1 yards per carry overall.
Northwestern’s defensive line won the battle in the trenches much too often for a Stanford attack that has historically been built on powerful offensive line play. The Wildcats got to Hogan three times and recorded eight tackles for loss. No Stanford run play went for longer than 16 yards, and after gaining 64 yards on their opening possession, the Cardinal didn’t move the ball more than 32 yards on a drive until midway through the fourth quarter.
So, was Stanford’s lack of offensive success a result of a staunch Northwestern defense? Or are the Cardinal in for a low-scoring season that will require great defensive performances to win? If the latter is true, Stanford will have a tough time surviving a Pac-12 slate featuring games against No. 8 USC (Sept. 19), No. 13 UCLA (Oct. 15) and No. 7 Oregon (Nov. 14).
2. Northwestern’s offense did just enough
The Wildcats did little to impress offensively, but found just enough success on the ground to win. Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson looked shaky passing the ball in his first start (12 of 24 for 105 yards) and was fortunate on several occasions to not throw an interception. However, the former four-star dual-threat recruit showed off his legs on a 42-yard scamper for the game’s lone touchdown. Northwestern’s offense has had its greatest success under Pat Fitzgerald with mobile signal-callers like Kain Colter and Dan Persa. Thorson showed he can provide that, but he'll need to become a more efficient passer.
While Thorson settles in, the strength of the Wildcats’ attack will remain their running backs, especially Justin Jackson, who gained 134 yards on 28 carries. The sophomore helped Northwestern chew up clock time against a Stanford defense that led the Pac-12 in rushing yards allowed per attempt last season.
3. The Pac-12 North may be a one-team race
Let’s avoid grand pronouncements after one game, but the Stanford offense that showed up Saturday has no chance of keeping up with Oregon. The Cardinal need Hogan to be a much more effective passer—4.4 yards per attempt won’t cut it—and should try to get McCaffrey more touches.
The silver lining for Stanford, of course, is this was a nonconference game, so nothing has changed in the Pac-12 race. But the Cardinal travel to face USC in two weeks. Coach David Shaw has his work cut out for him.
As for Northwestern, perhaps a team picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten West could outperform expectations. The West is the easier division in the Big Ten, and if Northwestern’s defensive line can build off this performance, the Wildcats should be able to reach a bowl game for the first time since after the 2012 season.