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Three matchups to watch: Northwestern vs. Stanford

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These battles will have significant influence over the outcome of Saturday’s game.

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

The Cardinal may be favored by a touchdown in their upcoming season-opening clash with NU, but if the Wildcats can control the point of attack and limit Stanford’s explosiveness, they have a good chance to beat the Trees in Week 1 for the second time in five years. Here are the conflicts you should keep an eye on when Northwestern travels to Palo Alto on Saturday:

Northwestern’s offensive line vs. Stanford’s pass rushers

We’ve talked about it all summer, but the ‘Cats are replacing three offensive linemen. The departures of Tommy Doles, Blake Hance and J.B. Butler mean that Nik Urban, Sam Gerak and Gunnar Vogel will have to step up, with each playing an important role in the trenches. The trio will have a tall task in their first game of the season.

Stanford returns nearly all of its defensive line, including leading tackler Michael Williams on the inside along with Thomas Booker and Jovan Swann on the outside. The group had 98 tackles and eight sacks in 2018, and brings a great deal of talent to the front of the defense. The experience and ability of Rashawn Slater and Jared Thomas at the core of Northwestern’s line make things a bit more even, but the Wildcats will have their hands full.

We saw at times in 2019 (Michigan, Ohio State, even parts of Rutger) that if the offensive line isn’t firing, the whole team struggles. The unit can’t allow that to happen for Northwestern to have a chance in this contest.

K.J. Costello vs. Northwestern’s secondary

Another Wildcat position group that will see some turnover this year is the secondary. Montre Hartage’s transition to the NFL forces NU to be more creative with their coverage schemes, as Mike Hankwitz and co. no longer have an elite corner that they can count on to isolate an opposing receiver (at least for now). Greg Newsome II and Trae Williams have their fair share of experience, though, and the defensive backs unit overall has more depth (thanks to improved health) than many past groups.

Meanwhile, Costello has legitimate NFL draft hopes rooted in a cannon of an arm. Much like the offensive line, the secondary will have a major challenge with the senior quarterback, but not an impossible one. The Coto de Caza native has been efficient during his Cardinal career, throwing 43 touchdowns to 15 interceptions over the past two years, but with three receivers departing the program, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding who can step up and catch the ball for Stanford.

Big tight end Colby Parkinson is primed to be one of the main targets for Costello, so the Wildcats have a decision to make as to how the team wants to approach his coverage: perhaps safety Travis Whillock, who was relatively impressive against similarly big-bodied opponents in 2018, will get the call. That decision, and the team’s overall handling of Costello, will be a must-watch component to this game.

Northwestern’s quarterback(s) vs. rhythm

While I don’t doubt that both Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall know more than me about managing reps in practice and implementing a strategy in-game, sharpness (or the lack thereof) at the quarterback position could make or break the offense’s success. Personally, I expect both Hunter Johnson and TJ Green to see the field to some capacity, and how Northwestern handles that situation will be critical.

Even if only one of them plays, though, having to split first-team practice reps all throughout training camp could lead to a lack of familiarity with their weapons or even just a significant adjustment period before things fully click. In a similar situation against Purdue last year, it all worked out. Will the same unfold be the case this time around? We’ll just have to see.