Over the past week, we counted down our Top 5 moments in Northwestern sports from the 2015 calendar year. We began with an Olympic athlete, Jordan Wilimovsky, at No. 5. We then travelled back in time to November, and north to Madison, Wisconsin and the wild finish of the Northwestern-Wisconsin football game. At three, we looked back at Northwestern's women's basketball team doing a little dancing. Our No. 2 moment was when Tre Demps sank Michigan with clutch three after clutch three.
But today, in our top spot, sits a game that set the tone for what became one of the best seasons in Northwestern football history.
The playcall seemed pedestrian.
It was a third-and-7 from Stanford's 42-yard line with the game tied at 3 and just under six-and-a-half minutes left in the first half. And, keeping with the conservative nature of the game up to that point, offensive coordinator Mick McCall employed a QB draw for his redshirt freshman signal-caller.
Clayton Thorson, playing in his first collegiate game ever after beating out a sophomore and senior for the starting job, took the snap in the shotgun and dropped back. He looked to his right for a split second, hit his back foot and jolted forward. His offensive line sat back in pass-blocking techniques, allowing Stanford's front to encroach the backfield. Solomon Vault, who flanked Thorson to his right, hit the hole on the left side of the offensive line first and wasn't touched. The quarterback followed behind him.
First, he avoided Cardinal linebacker Jordan Perez, who took a bad angle. Then Thorson sped past cornerback Ronnie Harris, who couldn't catch-up to him after a Mike McHugh block. Thorson scampered into the endzone, going 42 yards in the blink of an eye.
That one touchdown was all Northwestern needed to upset Stanford — a 10-point favorite — to open 2015, a game that finished 16-6.
It's odd to think about this game in the scope of the rest of the season. Stanford lost only once more the rest of the season and finished the year with a 45-16 Rose Bowl victory over Iowa, a team Northwestern lost to by 30 points on the same field it beat Stanford. In the four games the Wildcats played this season against elite competition (Stanford, Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee), they went 1-3 (Northwestern's only three losses) and were outscored by a combined 107 points — over 35 points points per game.
Northwestern, when looking at the scope of the entire season, had no business beating Stanford. It was an anomaly, which made it great.
The Wildcats matched up well with Stanford in many aspects of the game, especially defending the run. While Stanford boasts a top offensive line and is known for its power-run game, Northwestern used its speed to subdue running back Christian McCaffery, holding him to his worst game of the season.
For perspective, the Heisman runner-up ran for just 66 yards and caught for 23 against Northwestern, for 89 total yards, his lowest output of the season. In the rest of his games, he averaged over 198 total yards per game.
Middle linebacker Anthony Walker stalked McCaffery all game long, staking his claim to a season that would see the sophomore earn All-American honors. Matthew Harris and Nick VanHoose shut down Stanford's wide receivers and the defensive line held its own against a formidable Cardinal front.
The win established a formula Northwestern used to get eight or nine of its 10 wins on the season (with the Eastern Illinois and Nebraska games as outliers): just enough timely offense combined with a swarming, opportunistic defense. It set the tone for a season few, if any, saw coming.
It produced dancing Jerry Brown...
... and hope, most of all, that 2015 would be different than the two 5-7 seasons that preceded it. It was. It was successful, exhilarating, exciting, at times sobering, but most of all fun. And it all started on Sept. 5 against Stanford.
After the game, Thorson confidently said, "Hopefully we've got 14 more to play," indicating his desire to play a 15-game season, meaning Northwestern would be in the national championship game. And while the Wildcats aren't playing Monday night in that final game, they got way closer than most of us thought. This was the start.