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Clayton Thorson will decide Northwestern-Stanford

At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Clayton Thorson looks the part of a big-time starting quarterback. He also sounds like one. He's already well-versed in cliche's about his leadership qualities, his role as a freshman starter and his responsibility to his teammates.

But until he takes his first snap Saturday, it remains to be seen if he plays like one.

Every other facet of Northwestern's roster is fairly predictable. On offense, running back Justin Jackson will be the focal point and the receivers, aside from a healthy Christian Jones, will be inconsistent and young. The line has a bunch of moving parts, and should be talented enough to show flashes of competence during Big Ten play.

On defense, the backfield is strong with talented veterans and young guys to provide both quality and depth. At linebacker, Anthony Walker should be a star and help cover the weaknesses of those who flank him on the outsides. The defensive line is full of talented ends who need to put it together consistently to develop what could be a fearsome pass rush.

All that's left is Thorson. He's the question mark on this team and how he performs, especially in Week 1, will determine Northwestern's trajectory in 2015.

One may say that putting this much pressure on Thorson is unfair. The 19-year-old redshirt freshman is being thrown into the fire against one of the nation's premiere defenses in his first football game since high school. Is it really fair to assess both his performance and how it reflects upon the team as the most important part of Northwestern's season-opener?

But, at least to me, the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes.

Pat Fitzgerald had options. He could have gone with two players with more experience than Thorson, shielding him from the concern about "throwing him into the fire" right away. But he didn't. Fitzgerald chose Thorson, or rather Thorson gave Fitzgerald no other choice. The fact that he's starting in the first place means that the coaching staff has the confidence in him to take full responsibility for his play — and the team's — his first week on the job.

From a psychological perspective, that pressure could be a lot. But then again, Thorson is also playing with house money this week. Few people expect Northwestern to beat No. 21 Stanford, even though many around the program expect Thorson to be both the present and future of Northwestern football. So if he comes out and plays poorly — struggling to find open receivers, being too quick to tuck and run — it's not a huge deal. It'll lead to a loss that won't damage Northwestern's season. He'll say he learned form the loss and do everything he can to get better for Week 2.

But, taking a look at what could happen on the field, Thorson could have a big day against the Cardinal. And no matter how you look at it, his performance will be the catalyst for the Wildcats on Saturday and throughout the season.

Stanford has to replace nine starters on defense. So as inexperienced as Thorson may be, David Shaw's defense could be just as susceptible to mistakes. A miscommunication here, a dumb penalty there, and Thorson could be looking at some opportunities to make Stanford pay. It's Stanford's first game too, remember.

Thorson's play will give Northwestern a chance in this game. Stanford's rebuilt defensive front should give Thorson enough time to find open receivers and connect with Jones, Dan Vitale and Garrett Dickerson over the middle, the part of the field where young quarterbacks are most comfortable throwing.

Even with mistakes and interceptions likely, a run-centric offensive attack should allow Thorson to get comfortable in his first start before unleashing a few throws that'll make those at Ryan Field do double takes. But take the growing pains too, because they'll be present and costly. Probably costly enough to give Stanford the game.

A new, refreshing start for Northwestern football after two disappointing campaigns will take shape Saturday and at the center of it all is the Wildcats' least known commodity: quarterback Clayton Thorson.

The 'Cats will go as far as Thorson takes them. And that'll hold true Saturday, throughout 2015 and beyond.