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Northwestern-Stanford preview: Three matchups to watch

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Which matchups will decide Saturday's game?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Gameday is a mere three days away. So with Saturday looming, it's time to start digging a little deeper into the intracacies of Saturday's contest. Football, at its core, is a game of individual matchups that all work together to form one play. All individual showdowns are crucial. But there are still some that are more important and influential than others. Let's look at the three matchups (plus one) that may decide Northwestern's season opener against Stanford:

1. Kevin Hogan vs. the Northwestern secondary

We start with a matchup between a pretty good Stanford passing attack and what many believe to be Northwestern's best positional group. In fact, you can count Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan among those believers:

When asked what worries him most about Northwestern's defense, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan said his focus has been on the secondary. "They really work together well," Hogan said. "Whether it's the safeties coming up in the run game and the corners replacing over top, or the corners trusting their technique on the outside and sticking true to the scheme, they do a really good job."

Northwestern's secondary should be at least solid. We know that. With corners Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris on the outside, the Wildcats should be able to play a decent amount of one-on-one, even against Stanford's bigger receivers. This will free up the linebackers to make plays and help out against the run game. The back end of Traveon Henry and Godwin Igwebuike isn't too shabby either.

However, what tips the scale towards Stanford a bit here is that as good as the secondary is, they do get beat deep every once in a while. Also, and probably more importantly, Hogan isn't Joel Stave. The 6-foot-4 senior got hurt against Notre Dame early last year, which led to an average season overall, but as he got healthy late in the year, he once again began to light up defenses. Hogan won't put up gaudy numbers, but he's extremely efficient. He was 45 for 59 in Stanford's last three games of 2014. This Saturday, look for a heavy focus on the run game early. But then at some point, Hogan will look deep, and that's when the secondary needs to be ready.

This matchup is pretty even. The deciding factor could be that Hogan may be missing two of his biggest targets. Senior Devon Cajuste, who was Stanford's main deep threat last year, is questionable with an ankle injury. Even though the 6-foot-4 receiver will probably still play, he won't be 100 percent effective. Deep threat Michael Rector also could be absent due to suspension. Without two of his weapons on the outside, Hogan will have trouble beating the secondary deep. He'll still have options short, and NU's inexperienced linebackers could struggle with Stanford's tight ends, but here, the Northwestern secondary has the advantage.

Slight Advantage: Northwestern Secondary

2. Peter Kalambayi and Kevin Anderson vs. Eric Olson and Geoff Mogus

Stanford employs a 3-4 defensive scheme, which might prove troublesome for Northwestern. Instead of bigger, slower defensive ends, Northwestern's tackles will have to deal with two quicker outside linebackers rushing off the edge. To make it even more difficult, in this case its two very capable rushers in Peter Kalambayi and Kevin Anderson. Last season, Anderson and Kalambayi combined for 12 sacks (5.5 and 6.5), only a half a sack less than the ENTIRE Northwestern defensive line... and Kalambayi, now a sophomore, wasn't even starting.

What makes this matchup one-sided is that the tackle position is in a state of flux for Northwestern. Young tackles Blake Hance and Tommy Doles didn't do enough in camp to win jobs, so Geoff Mogus had to be moved over to left tackle from left guard. Also, even though new right tackle Eric Olson has 10 career starts, he has been, for the most part, shaky in those 10 starts.

Northwestern's offensive line was subpar as a unit last year. It will have to show marked improvement immediately on Saturday if it is to give Thorson enough time to get comfortable in his first college start.

Advantage: Peter Kalambayi and Kevin Anderson

3. Christian McCaffrey vs. Anthony Walker/Justin Jackson vs. Blake Martinez

In many ways, Christian McCaffrey and Justin Jackson are quite similar. Their skillsets are completely different, but they are both exciting sophomore running backs who flashed a lot of ability last season. They were both four-star recruits, and both go to fantastic academic institutions.

The biggest difference between the two is in the quality of their offensive lines. McCaffrey is blessed with one of the perennially great lines in the country, while Jackson's line is hit or miss at best. How does that relate to this matchup? Well, Anthony Walker is at a disadvantage here because there's a pretty good chance that there will be a Stanford lineman in the way when he tries to stop McCaffrey, while the reverse isn't true for Stanford inside linebacker Blake Martinez.

Martinez is arguably the best defensive player returning from a defense that was a top-five unit in the nation a year ago. Finishing the season with 102 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 3 interceptions, the he flew all over the field. Walker by comparison had 51 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 2 interceptions in a little over half a season.

But the pressing question in this matchup is essentially this: Which running game will be more effective? The numbers say Stanford's. Since McCaffrey didn't break out until late last season, Stanford's rushing S&P+ was 61st in the nation compared to Northwestern's 91st rank. Defensively, the Cardinal were the 3rd best defense against the run last year, while Northwestern was 47th.

The linebackers matter the most in this matchup because neither team's defensive line is particularly great. Northwestern's is looking to improve, while Stanford's will most likely regress after losing all three starters. Martinez and Walker will have the unenviable task of plugging those holes, and keeping track of a shifty opposing running back. If either Walker or Martinez is able to make enough plays to slow down the running game, that might very well be the difference on Saturday. Both of these teams rely on the run.

So who has the advantage? Walker and Martinez are about even, though Martinez has far more experience. But the slight edge goes to Stanford due to the third variable of the offensive line. McCaffrey, who has been garnering all kinds of offseason hype, will just have a bit more room to run than Jackson.

Slight Advantage: Christian McCaffrey and Blake Martinez

Bonus: Clayton Thorson vs. Himself

Consider this a bonus matchup. We know Thorson has the raw skills to be a successful quarterback, but he also hasn't played live meaningful football in almost two years. On top of that, he has to face a ranked opponent and last year's fifth-ranked defense. There's no telling how he'll handle himself mentally. By all accounts, he should do so well. Pat Fitzgerald referred to Thorson as "unflappable" Monday, and we do know that Thorson sleeps by putting his head on a pillow though, so that's good. However, out of all of these matchups, it may not be the ones on the field but the one inside of Clayton Thorson's head that decides this game one way or another.