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Opponent Q&A: Previewing Northwestern-Stanford with Rule of Tree

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Rule of Tree, SB Nation's Stanford site, answers our questions about Saturday's game.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Every Thursday during football season, we'll be reaching out to opponent SB Nation sites to give readers another perspective on Saturday's upcoming game.

This week, as Northwestern gets ready for its season opener against Stanford (11 a.m. CT, ESPN), we chat with Sean Levy of Rule of Tree:

Inside NU: Stanford loses a ton of players on the defensive side of the ball from last year, especially up front, where they have to replace all three starters. Who are the biggest losses, who will replace them, and what does each of those players bring to the table?

Rule of Tree: The main players Stanford lost this past off-season were all of its secondary, plus linebackers AJ Tarpley, and James Vaughter. Since I will be getting into more depth about the secondary, I will just talk about the replacements for Tarpley and Vaughter. Tarpley was an amazing inside linebacker and he will be hard to replace. This year, [Stanford coach David] Shaw is going to be using two different guys to replace him, Kevin Palma and Jordan Perez. Of these two guys, only Palma has played in a game. He played in 11 games last season and recorded 18 tackles. There really isn't much on Perez because he sat out his freshman campaign, but in high school he led his team with 84 tackles his senior year. Both of these guys bring great size to the position and they will be taught and brought under the wing of Blake Martinez. Martinez was the leading tackler just a season ago and is back to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

Vaughter was an outside linebacker opposite of another great player in Kevin Anderson. The person who is taking Vaughter's spot is going to be Peter Kalambayi. Kalambayi was the No. 1 recruit in the 2013 recruiting class. Last year, Kalambayi played in 13 games and recorded 32 tackles with 6.5 of those for sacks. Having Kalambayi play last year is a huge plus because it gives the position more experience. There won't be much of a drop off between Vaughter and Kalambayi because they are both great at getting to the QB. Also, expect Kalambayi to make more impact in the rush defense. Last year he had limited snaps and he sure made the most of them. The losses of the Tarpley and Vaughter hurt especially since the other inside linebacker spot is still up in the air. The outside linebacker spot should be at the same level as it was last year, but the secondary is a whole different story.

INU: Kevin Hogan, overall, played well for the Cardinal last year and is back this year. What are some of the biggest strengths of his game, and what should he have improved upon over the offseason?

ROT: Hogan's biggest strength is his rifle for an arm. He has one of the strongest arms in the country and his balls are, when he has time in the pocket to step up, pretty accurate. Overall, he is an accurate quarterback, but his accuracy could improve. Last season he only completed 65-percent of his passes, and that needs to be in the high 60s or low 70s.

I also like his mobility in the pocket and his great decision-making. His mobility is an underrated part about his game. Last season he ran for 5 TDs, which is more than Christian McCaffrey and Barry Sanders Jr. combined. His rushing also tells a tale of his great presence of mind to tuck the ball and run. He is not a QB that forces passes often and his great decision-making has a huge part in that.

Over the off-season, I would have liked to see him work on his accuracy. His first season playing was his most accurate year by far and he needs to return to that form.

INU: Ty Montgomery was a true No. 1 wideout for the Cardinal, but now he's a Green Bay Packer. Stanford returns Austin Hooper at tight end and Christian McCaffrey as a swing back type of player, but who replaces Montgomery on the outside? Will it be a by-committee approach?

ROT: Ty Montgomery was the No. 1 wide receiver over the past two years, but his stats only show him being a clear No. 1 in 2013. Last year, he recorded 62 receptions for 604 yards. Devon Cajuste, who will be the man who will replace Montgomery, caught 34 balls for 557 yards. If we also compare TDs, Cajuste (6) had twice as many TDs as Montgomery (3), which was a huge drop off for Montgomery from the previous season.

Cajuste will replace Montgomery, and may even be better than him, but the other receivers will have to step up if Michael Rector can't participate. Expect Rollins Stallworth, who will be opposite of Cajuste, and Frank Owusu to be crucial to the passing attack. Christian McCaffrey is the starting running back this year; he might be a Darren Sproles type of player this year while also receiving touches on the ground. Austin Hooper will continue to be a great Stanford tight end; he will also pick up some of the receptions lost with Montgomery and Michael Rector.

INU: What is Stanford's offensive line looking like sans All-American Andrus Peat? They struggled at times last year, especially in pass protection, and now they've lost one of the best tackles in college football. What are expectations for them this year?

ROT: The offensive line could either make or break the season. These guys regressed a lot last year, allowing Kevin Hogan to be sacked 22 times, which was almost double the previous year's total. However, although Peat moved onto the NFL, the line returns a lot of experience. Kyle Murphy will be the best player on the line because he is moving back to his normal position of left tackle. Reports have said that he is more comfortable on this side of the line anyway. Also the line is made up of mostly seniors and one true sophomore. The true sophomore, Casey Tucker, was a highly sought after recruit (No. 7 OT according to 247Sports) and has looked stellar. Between these five guys, Stanford is returning 57 starts and a combined experience of 182 games. These guys should be much improved from last year's squad, so the expectations are pretty high.

INU: If you had to pick one position group and say it is the strongest one on the team, which group would it be? What would the weakest group be?

ROT: The strongest position is going to be the receivers. They have so much depth and talent at the position that they will not miss Ty Montgomery. Devon Cajuste was arguably better than Montgomery last year (see question No. 3 for more info) and now he will be back with returning starter Michael Rector. This wide receiver core also includes fifth-year senior Rollins Stallworth, who will be starting the season over Michael Rector, and Frank Owusu, who has been having a great camp. The receivers are as stacked as they can be now it will be Hogan's responsibility to get them the ball.

The weakest positional group will be the secondary. Stanford lost senior captain Henry Anderson and standout corner Alex Carter to the NFL draft this year. The other players in the secondary from last year all graduated. This secondary will be completely new, but not necessarily young. They just won't be as experienced as the secondary that graduated in 2015. Ronnie Harris will be a clear-cut starter because he was good enough to challenge 3rd round pick Alex Carter last year for the starting spot. Other than Harris, expect some missed plays and broken coverage early on in the season. The 2015 depth chart was just released August 30th, and it looks like coach David Shaw is going to be going with seniority at those positions.

INU: What is the general perception of David Shaw around Stanford? Is his seat at all warm?

ROT: At the end of last season people were questioning his play calling. People were saying he was forcing the ball to Montgomery, and that led to poor performances and high expectations for the receiver. As I have mentioned, Montgomery did not have a great season last year. His seat is relatively cool though. People were just a little frustrated. And after all, this was his only "bad" season. But if Stanford has consecutive 5-loss years, the seat might warm up.

INU: The game starts at 11 a.m. CT, which is 9 a.m. PT. How big of a concern should that be for Stanford?

ROT: I feel like this shouldn't be an issue for them or any team. These guys are probably up way before that to get in morning lifts and then go to class after. This will just be a little earlier than they are used to, but these guys are top-notch athletes and something like time change should not be a factor in the game.

INU: Finish the statement: Stanford wins this game if _________________.

ROT: Stanford wins this game if they can stop the running game. Justin Jackson is a talented back and arguably the best player on the Northwestern offense. He is a big time performer in big games totaling 311 yards last year against Wisconsin and Notre Dame. On the defensive side, Stanford's defensive line will be rotating in all throughout the game. On that rotation there will be some unproven sophomores, so if they can step up and plug the holes as well, Stanford will win.

INU: What's your prediction for the game?

ROT: My prediction is quite simple. Stanford needs to stop the run and if they can't do that it will make it harder for them. That being said Stanford is the better team overall and this matchup shouldn't be too hard for them. Final score: 28-14.