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Know your 2019 Northwestern football opponent, Week 1: Stanford

In a rematch of the 2015 contest in Evanston, KJ Costello and the Cardinal will be looking for revenge.

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Pittsburgh vs Stanford Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

The final installment of our 2019 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.

Up first is Stanford, who you’ll remember from 2015, when Clayton Thorson debuted as the Wildcats’ starting quarterback. NU grinded out a big 16-6 win, setting the tone for a ten win season. This year, the Cardinal return without two lethal offensive game-changers in JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Bryce Love, a 2017 Heisman nominee. However, Stanford does have senior quarterback KJ Costello and a plethora of talented options. Let’s take a look at Northwestern’s opening challenge.

The Basics

Returning production: 54 percent (Offense 45 percent, Defense 63 percent)

2018 record: 9-4 (6-3 PAC)

Coach: David Shaw

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2018 S&P+ Overall: 26th

2018 S&P+ Offense: 26th

2018 S&P+ Defense: 43rd

2018 Capsule

The Cardinal opened the season with four straight wins, earning themselves a top ten ranking. Stanford was seventh in the nation as they entered a big matchup with Notre Dame in South Bend. The Irish easily handled them, though, and the team proceeded to drop their next game to Utah as well.

A win against Arizona State was sandwiched by two more losses, and suddenly Stanford was 5-4. The Cardinal pulled out three wins to close out the regular season, before beating Pittsburgh 14-13 in the Sun Bowl. In the end, it wasn’t the season they were looking for, but closing out the year with four consecutive victories marked a solid finish that may bring some momentum into 2019.

Four players on the 2018 team were drafted into the NFL, including Arcega-Whiteside and Love. Linebacker Bobby Okereke, punter Jake Bailey and tight end Kaden Smith also got the call. Overall, the Cardinal averaged 273 yards in the air and 108 on the ground, and conceded 410 yards per game.

Offensive Overview

Stanford had a solid offense in 2018, but the unit didn’t put up staggering numbers. 381 yards per game was good for 76th in the country, and their 28 points per game placed 59th in the nation.

Headlining the group is Costello, a six-foot-five quarterback that threw for 29 touchdowns and 11 picks last year. The senior is projected to go anywhere from the first round to deep in Day Three in next year’s draft, but he has a chance to boost his stock significantly with a productive season.

Though Stanford lost its two most prized weapons to the NFL, Costello will have plenty of able targets. But his options don’t have quite as much experience as one would like. Sophomore Michael Wilson is coming off of a 14-catch season where he accumulated 126 yards, and junior Connor Wedington is likely the next best available at wide receiver. He had nine catches for 65 yards last year, but had 31 for 243 in his freshman campaign. Stanford’s top pass-catcher will likely be big tight end Colby Parkinson, who had the most catches of any returning target. The six-foot-seven junior is on the Mackey Award watch list and has breakout potential.

Love’s departure, similarly, leaves a serious lack of depth in the running back position. Senior Dorian Maddox projects to be the main ball-carrier for the Cardinal, but he only had 23 carries last year. Justus Woods returns with four carries on the previous season, and Austin Jones is a four-star back that will be a freshman. In short, it’s hard to have a lot of confidence in the Cardinal’s running game heading into the year.

Defensive Overview

It was a tough year for the Stanford defense. The group gave up 264 yards per game in the air, which isn’t terrible, but concurrently allowed 146 on the ground. Conceding 410 yards per game isn’t good enough, and certainly explains the team’s struggles in the middle of the season. Notre Dame gouged the Stanford defense for 270 yards on the ground in South Bend, and Utah posted a 200+ yard game on the ground the following week. The interior of the defensive line remains intact from 2018, but it’s an area that Stanford will have to correct, lest Isaiah Bowser and co. expose it.

Stanford’s pass rush, on the other hand, was dominant. The team notched 36 sacks on the year, and the wealth was dispersed across a significant group. Overall, six players had at least three sacks, led by Gabe Reid’s 5.5, and five others got in on the action.

The Cardinal was also effective in producing turnover opportunities, amassing 11 interceptions and 10 forced fumbles, though they recovered just four. Then-sophomore Paulson Adebo accounted for four of those picks, and he’ll be back anchoring the Cardinal’s secondary this year.

For the most part, though, Stanford does not return much experience on the defensive side of the ball. Only five starters will be coming back, and both of the team’s top tacklers, Okereke and Sean Barton, are gone. You can expect Fitz and McCall to test the Stanford run defense early and often, and success there could be a key in allowing Hunter Johnson to ease into his first start.

Three Players to Know

KJ Costello, QB

This is the obvious one. If Costello isn’t able to execute, it’ll be really hard for Stanford to put together a very successful year. But the California native has proven he’s capable of being the centerpiece of the offense. A 43-15 career touchdown to interception ratio highlights the pro-style quarterback’s ability to hit the long ball while, if necessary, taking a hit to make a play. It’s a decisive year for Costello in terms of draft stock as well, as I mentioned earlier. His situation is very reminiscent of Clayton Thorson’s last year, though he is not coming off of an injury.

Walker Little, OT

Little is an elite offensive tackle that has early-round pick written all over him, as long as he continues to develop accordingly. The All Pac-12 honoree is a monster at six-foot-seven and 310 pounds, and has the talent to protect Costello’s blind side as well as most tackles in the country. But he won’t be able to do it all on his own. His line gave up 24 sacks last year, an average number that placed them at t-43rd in the country in sacks allowed.

Paulson Adebo, CB

Adebo is capable of being a true all-around cornerback. Not only did he garner four interceptions and 20 pass breakups last year, he contributed on run defense, earning 64 tackles. The Texan is on all types of preseason award watch lists, and with the most passes defended in the country last year, it’s easy to see why.