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Northwestern-Stanford: How should we adjust season expectations?

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

The first college football Saturday of 2015 has come. And it has gone. And oh, what a day it was for Northwestern. It took the Wildcats all of three hours to make us look stupid, and to render at least some preseason doubt foolish.

As is always the case on the Sunday of that first weekend, the speculation is now behind us. The reaction has begun.

But the start of football does not mean the end of forward-looking statements, nor the end of the discussion of season expectations. In fact, Northwestern's win over Stanford makes that discussion just as, if not more, pertinent.

Northwestern entered the 2015 season with already-tempered expectations. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, 12 or 13 games to break in a new quarterback, for young talent on both sides of the ball to develop and blossom. And it still might be.

But after 60 minutes of actual football evidence, perhaps it won't be. That evidence was a dominant defensive performance against a ranked team, and one that some even thought could make the College Football Playoff.

The difficulty now is in deciding how to balance those preseason expectations with the loftier ones generated by Saturday's game. And there's not a clear solution.

On one hand, Northwestern's defense looked like one of the best units in the Big Ten. We knew the Wildcats would be stronger on the defensive side of the ball than the offensive side, but we didn't believe them to be this strong.

A few developments potentially push expectations for the defense to new heights. Anthony Walker played like an All-Big Ten middle linebacker, ruling over the middle of the field against both the pass and the run. His immediate emergence helped hide what many suspected would be a shortcoming, the outside linebacker position. Even if the likes of Jaylen Prater, Drew Smith and Nate Hall are eventually exposed, Walker could be good enough to make Northwestern's linebacking corps above average.

The other presumed weakness was... well, not a weakness at all. Northwestern's defensive tackles, after getting pushed around on the opening drive, were formidable. Tyler Lancaster, in his first career start, looked the part, and even backups Max Chapman and freshman Jordan Thompson held their own against a very good offensive line. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald called it a dominant performance, and opined that his team "controlled the line of scrimmage on every single play."

Fitzgerald also called it one of the best defensive performances he's seen from his team in his 10 years on the job. And it's darn near impossible to disagree with him. It was the first time NU kept a ranked opponent out of the end zone since the Rose Bowl season in 1995.

With above average units at all three levels now, Northwestern's defense seemingly has a very high floor, and a ceiling that rises with every Walker hit, with every Ifeadi Odenigbo sack, with every Godwin Igwebuike pass breakup and with every dance move from defensive backs coach Jerry Brown.

The offense appeared to hold promise too. Sure, it only put up 16 points, and gained just 4.18 yards per play, but small drops of potential leaked out of it. Of the Wildcats' 330 total yards, 225 came on the ground — and they came against last year's third-ranked run defense in the nation. The offensive line, which struggled a year ago, endured an injury to starting center Brad North but still paved the way reasonably well for running back Justin Jackson.

The main source of potential though was Clayton Thorson. The Wildcats' signal caller seemed to open up the offense with his legs, and after his second quarter touchdown run, dissuaded Stanford's defense from keying on Jackson. He also showed poise in converting several third-and-longs. At the very least, Northwestern's offense was different than it was a year ago, and that can't be a bad thing.

On the other hand, Thorson really wasn't that good. His 42-yard scamper was a welcome sight, but he was shaky as a passer for much of the afternoon. On some occasions, he threw low; on others, he threw wide; on others, he threw dangerously into coverage. In fact, it's a wonder he came away from the game without a first career interception to mar his day.

Some portion of his moderate success also can be chalked up to Stanford's lack of a gameplan. It's not even that the Cardinal had a poor gameplan; it flat out didn't have one. Stanford coach David Shaw admitted that he had no film on Thorson, and the extent of the scouting report was that they had "heard he was a pretty good athlete in high school." Shaw didn't seem too concerned with the abilities of NU's new QB until he had been beaten by him.

Other teams won't be so unprepared though. The scouting report is out on Thorson now, even if it's based on a small sample size, and defensive coordinators will scheme to take away his strengths and expose his weaknesses. If Northwestern is to be a Big Ten West contender, Thorson will likely have to improve. That's not to say he can't, or shouldn't be expected to. But eventually, his arm will have to be more of a consistent threat.

The other factor that should reel in any sky-high expectations for the Wildcats is their opponent. Stanford might be a good team by season's end. It was not on Saturday though.

Stanford played a mistake-riddled game. The Cardinal committed multiple pre-snap penalties, and quarterback Kevin Hogan played nothing like the NFL prospect that some believed him to be. Even when he did, his offensive teammates failed him. Wide receiver Michael Rector dropped a would-be touchdown on a deep ball, and blitz pickup was spotty. Shaw's playcalling was also questionable.

On defense, a front three that had to replace all three starters couldn't crack NU's inexperienced offensive line. It's nearly impossible to tell just how much of that was due to the deficiencies of Stanford's front, and how much can be credited to Northwestern's road-pavers. But in all likelihood, it's some of both.

So where do expectations fall after Saturday's upset? Probably somewhere short of Big Ten West favorite, but definitely beyond the doubt of another bowl-less season. There are more reasons to be reactionary than reticent.

If you were at 5-7 prior to Saturday, you must recalibrate. If you were at 6-6, you probably should as well. If you were at 7-5, it depends on your initial logic.

The offense is still a question mark. If you expected 7-5 because you projected significant offensive improvement, hold your horses. But if you believed the defense would only be good enough to win seven games, and no more, you might just have been mistaken. Against this schedule, Northwestern's defense might just be good enough to win NU eight games, and to put the Wildcats in position to go to Madison in November — still as an underdog; let's not get too carried away — with a Big Ten West title on the line.