While most FBS college football teams went the cupcake route in week one — as is standard practice in the industry — the Northwestern Wildcats and Stanford Cardinal decided to tackle a challenge in week one.
This approach naturally invites risks, chief among them the distinct possibility that if you’re sloppy or nervous or timid (or all of the above), the quality of opponent is high enough that you’ll lose. It’s not generally the case for games between FBS powerhouses and FCS foes, and that’s why the industry practice is so common. Coaches want to be able to get the mistakes out of the way against a team that won’t be able to take advantage. Week two, for at least a few teams (see Oregon and Michigan State), makes a lot more sense as the occasion on which to schedule a tough non-conference game. The kinks have been worked out (at least to some extent), and a big-time game can be considered.
Give Northwestern and Stanford credit, then, for being willing to test themselves right out of the gate. It was risky, but that’s what big-time athletics ought to do more of. This backdrop to Saturday’s game in Evanston, Illinois, forms the basis of the story authored by the homestanding Wildcats.
In this season-opening test, one team took the field with a quarterback who — for all his limitations — had piloted the offense for two consecutive Pac-12 championship teams. Kevin Hogan, for all the criticism he has endured in his career (and for all the heat he will catch about how he hasn’t measured up on The Farm, which isn’t entirely true or fair), did play in two straight Rose Bowls, winning one of them.
The other team in this week-one game called upon a redshirt freshman to be its quarterback. Clayton Thorson was making his first start at Northwestern, and his first start at the collegiate level.
Two-time Rose Bowl quarterback versus completely untested redshirt freshman?
The redshirt freshman didn’t rack up stats… but he did look like the better quarterback. He did score the game’s only touchdown on a very impressive run.
He did manage to win the game.
It’s true that Thorson accumulated only 105 passing yards. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald rightly didn’t expect Thorson to do too much — asking him to play hero-ball would have been the very approach which would have led to mistakes. Given the way Northwestern’s defense handled Stanford’s offense from start to finish, the Wildcats’ best chance to win this game was to focus on their defense and leverage field position, while having the offense get out of the way.
Thorson enabled that approach to emerge, and he then enabled it to succeed. Moreover, while Thorson didn’t make a lot of impressive plays in the passing game, he made the one which really counted.
After Stanford kicked a field goal to trim a two-score deficit back to one (13-6) midway through the fourth quarter, Northwestern — on the verge of losing momentum — faced third and eight in its own territory. The Wildcats needed to convert this one first down, if only to gain field position and rob Stanford of a few more minutes in the attempt to forge a comeback. Thorson delivered a gorgeous strike, a 25-yard dart to Miles Shuler on a flag route, to convert that third down. Northwestern not only proceeded to eat more clock, but to kick a 49-yard field goal to seal a 16-6 victory which rocked the Pac-12 Conference and its North Division contender.
That ability to play most of a game in a supporting role, but to then burst through and contribute two huge plays — the run for the touchdown and the late-game 25-yard pass — represents the mark of a very mature young player. If this is Clayton Thorson’s first game, imagine how great a leader he can be for the Wildcats throughout this season and his career.
Yet, as great as Thorson was, it was his defense — especially the front seven — which took center stage on Saturday afternoon.
On third downs, these teams were most clearly separated from each other. Northwestern converted a majority of third downs, 12 of 22, while Stanford was a miserable 3 of 15. This had a lot to do with the quarterbacks, and it also had a lot to do with a terrible performance from Stanford’s group of pass catchers, but it started and ended with Northwestern owning Stanford up front.
No one needs this to be explained: Stanford hangs its hat on its ability to mash opponents at the line of scrimmage with brawn and agility. The Cardinal and coach David Shaw love those heavy-jumbo sets and revel in the attempt to pound opponents into submission.
Northwestern, after Stanford took the opening drive 64 yards for a field goal, completely owned every inch of real estate at or near the point of attack. A 225 to 85 tally in rushing yards tells you all you need to know about which team owned the line of scrimmage. On third downs, Northwestern sustained what it did on first and second downs, and that was the ballgame.
Many will focus on Stanford’s utter ineptitude, which is fair and understandable. Yet, Northwestern ended its 2014 season losing to Illinois and missing a bowl game.
This Northwestern team was not that one. Something has definitely been restored by Pat Fitzgerald, who began his new season with a clinical coaching performance.