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Why Northwestern will/won't beat Stanford

Envisioning the scenarios in which Northwestern wins or loses on Saturday.

Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Every Thursday during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.

To open the season, Northwestern is a double-digit underdog heading into this weekend's clash against Stanford (11 a.m. CT, ESPN). The Cardinal have been one of the nation's best programs over the past half-decade. Ian McCafferty and Zach Pereles give their ideas on why the Wildcats will or will not leave Ryan Field victorious. Ian takes the optimisic point of view, while Zach refutes it:

Ian McCafferty: Northwestern will win Saturday because they'll be able to catch Stanford off guard. Our Henry Bushnell covered this idea in his article on Monday, and there's some credence to this possibility. By going with an unknown commodity, Northwestern doesn't know what they'll get from their offense on Saturday, but neither does Stanford. It's hard to gameplan for a quarterback who's never played a collegiate snap.

If offensive coordinator Mick McCall is smart, he'll make a special package of plays specifically for Thorson that highlight his athleticism. Using Matt Alviti in a way that isn't bland and unimaginative would be great too, though even that might not be necessary. If Northwestern can fire out of the gates, using brand new plays, the Wildcats have a shot at hitting Stanford in the mouth and winning this game.

Zach Pereles: The biggest difference between the two teams, I think, is the stability on Stanford's roster in the most important place that Northwestern has a major question mark: quarterback. Kevin Hogan has over 500 collegiate career completions for over 6,500 yards and nearly 50 touchdowns and will be playing in his 38th game for the Cardinal on Saturday. Clayton Thorson, well, has zero, zero and zero, and was just named the start a couple weeks ago. While there's no doubting his talent, he's never seen the field and probably won't be called upon much on Saturday to make a big throw. If Stanford's running game struggles, it has a future pro behind center with a penchant for making big plays late in games. If Northwestern's running game struggles, it could be a very long day for the Wildcats.

Ian McCafferty: Sure, Stanford has stability at quarterback, but on the other side of the ball, there are question marks. Stanford's defense was ranked 5th in the nation last year, but that defense loses NINE starters. The only returning regular starters are inside linebacker Blake Martinez and outside linebacker Kevin Anderson. Stanford needs nine different players to play up to par to get back to the level they were at last year.

At the end of the season, Stanford's defense may very well be as good as it was last year. The Cardinal certainly still has the talent. But that talent is going to take time to gel. In terms of vulnerability, this is the best time Northwestern could have played Stanford, before that talent is able to congeal into a solid unit.

Zach Pereles: Northwestern has questions on defense too. Thus far, everyone has predicted Northwestern's defense to be very solid. But let's not forget its basically the same group that gave up 48 points to Iowa, 47 to Illinois, 40 to Notre Dame and 38 to Nebraska — MINUS its leading tackler (Chi Chi Ariguzo) and best player (Ibraheim Campbell). Stanford may be inexperienced on that side of the ball, which certainly plays to Northwestern's advantage, especially early in the season. But might we be overrating Northwestern's defense? We love to remember the unit that held Christian Hackenberg to 7 points... but what about the one that gave up 48 points to Jake Rudock?

Ian McCafferty: Here's another reason Northwestern will win: In case anybody forgot, Justin Jackson is still on this team, and he's really good at football. The running back is a young quarterback's best friend, and Clayton Thorson has a potential All-Big Ten best friend in the backfield with him. Due to reasons mentioned above, Stanford's defense won't be as good as it was last year, especially against the run. Losing your entire defensive line will do that. Jackson — or any of his three capable backups — should have some room to run, and a couple big runs will set up a deep shot for Thorson against an also raw Stanford secondary.

The other player that will ease Thorson's growing pains and allow Northwestern to win this game is Dan Vitale. Every quarterback needs a safety blanket, and Vitale will be that for Thorson. Northwestern will be running a lot of quick throws early on, and a good chunk of those will go to Vitale. When Thorson knows he'll have Vitale for a checkdown, he'll feel confident in taking that aforementioned deep shot.

I will admit, however, that a lot of Northwestern's chance to win falls on the shoulders of the coaching staff, and its ability to prepare and bring some fresh ideas to the table. Northwestern's best chance at beating Stanford may very well just be taking a flier on something new.

Zach Pereles: Any hope for Northwestern's offense could be extinguished if the offensive line can't hold up though. Inexperienced on defense or not, Stanford has quite a few guys who can get after the quarterback and in general wreak havoc in the backfield... as you mentioned yesterday:

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 it's 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.

I really worry about Northwestern's offensive line's ability to not only protect Thorson, but even open up holes for the running backs. Justin Jackson was terrific last year with a suspect line; this year's group might be similarly mediocre, if not worse. Against Stanford, that's not a recipe for success.