Northwestern wasn't give much of a chance in their season opener against Stanford, as the Wildcats were 11.5-point underdogs to the Cardinal at Ryan Field on Saturday. However, in redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson's first college game, the Wildcat defense was dominant and the running game was explosive, leading to a 16-6 upset win.
Thorson didn't throw the ball particularly well in his debut start (12-for-24 for 105 yards) but he broke the scoring open for Northwestern with a 42-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. That was NU's only big play of the game, but it was enough to get the job done. Justin Jackson (28 carries for 134 yards) and Thorson (eight carries for 68 yards) led the way on the ground, which more than made up for the poor passing game.
Stanford's offense wasn't much better, as senior quarterback Kevin Hogan was underwhelming to say the least (20-for-35 with 155 yards). Standout sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey was solid on the ground (12 carries for 66 yards) but no weapon other than him did much at all as the Cardinal's wide receivers dropped numerous open passes. An interception by Kyle Quiero with less than a minute to play sealed the win.
A drive-by-drive recap of the game can be found here. Some more important takeaways from the opening victory:
1. Northwestern won the turnover battle and played mistake-free football
Although Thorson threw a bunch of passes that were nearly picked off by Stanford defenders, none were, so the Wildcats committed no turnovers all game. For a relatively young team going up against a ranked Stanford unit--which lost a fumble on a McCaffrey run, forced by Drew Smith and recovered by Anthony Walker--this was vital. The Hogan interception to Quiero with Stanford driving at the end of the game sealed the Cardinal's fate.
Northwestern didn't convert on that fumble--Jack Mitchell missed a 48-yard field goal--but the steadiness caused by keeping possession was a big factor in the win. The Wildcats also committed just four penalties all afternoon, which coach Pat Fitzgerald certainly will be happy about.
2. Christian Jones was dearly missed last season
On the eve of the 2014 season, Northwestern found out that top receiver Christian Jones would miss the entire year due to knee surgery on the same knee he tore an ACL in a few months earlier. The loss of an important pass-catcher was tough for the skill-position-starved Wildcats, who could have used Jones out in the flat during the tough 2014 campaign.
But now he's healthy, and he made his presence known quickly in Saturday's season-opener, catching five passes for 52 yards as a vital target for the freshman Thorson. Northwestern appears to be using him as a possession receiver this season, which would be the perfect role for the senior.
3. The Wildcats have a serious stud in Anthony Walker (and a pretty good defense overall)
Walker could have easily picked two or three passes off against Stanford, and while he didn't take advantage of those opportunities, he was dominant in every other aspect of the defensive game. It felt like he was getting a tackle, forcing pressure on Hogan or perfectly defending a pass every play for the Wildcats, who have expected a breakout season from him.
Wow, Anthony Walker is all over the field for @NUFBFamily. Will be an All-Big Ten player soon, if not this season. #STANvsNU— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) September 5, 2015
However, he wasn't the only defender who had a big game. Dean Lowry was stellar in controlling the defensive line while Nick VanHoose made a few huge pass breakups. Even Ifeadi Odenigbo contributed with a sack. It was a very strong, very dominant performance from start to finish (besides a tough opening possession) against a productive Stanford offense.
4. Jack Mitchell came through in the clutch yet again
The hero of the huge win over Notre Dame last season hit a trio of field goals this afternoon from distances of 31, 19 and 49 yards respectively. With the Thorson-led offense having trouble moving the ball at times, having Mitchell knock down short, medium and long field goals to get points on the board was needed.