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Northwestern-Stanford preview: opponent Q&A with Go Mighty Card

Learn all you need to know about the strengths, weaknesses, and questions surrounding the Cardinal from a first-hand source.

NCAA Football: Stanford at California D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats and Cardinal will meet on a football field for the first time in four years. We’ve given you a taste of what to expect from Stanford over the course of the week, but for a deep dive into Northwestern’s first opponent we went to an expert: Hank Waddles, who runs preeminent Stanford football blog Go Mighty Card.

Inside NU: With the departures of JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Bryce Love, are you worried about where contributions are going to come from at skill positions offensively? Who are some players you expect to step up?

Hank Waddles: There are some understandable concerns about the running game, and although much of that is due to uncertainties surrounding the offensive line, there’s no getting around the reality that Stanford fans have enjoyed watching the two greatest running backs in Stanford history (Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love) over the past four years, and both of them are gone. It’s obviously not realistic to assume that the next man up will simply carry on that tradition, but senior Cameron Scarlett will be successful if the offensive line is healthier and more consistent than it was last season.

The situation with the wide receivers, however, is more interesting. Even though the offense is replacing the most productive wide receiver of the David Shaw Era (J.J. Arcega-Whiteside) and the most consistent (Trenton Irwin), there is still considerable optimism surrounding the position entering 2019. This could be the most impressive run of talent Stanford has ever seen at the wide receiver position. There were high hopes for Connor Wedington after his debut in 2017, but injuries limited him to just four games last season. Expectations are high for him this year, as they are for sophomore Michael Wilson. Another receiver to watch is junior Osiris St. Brown. Even though he’s listed as a backup on the depth chart, I think we can expect to see him on the field a lot in three receiver sets.

INU: With KJ Costello heading into his senior season, how much faith do you have in the Cardinal offensive line to protect him (and create space in the running game)?

HW: This is the biggest question surrounding the team this season. Without question, Stanford’s identity and success has been built on dominant offensive line play, but last season was unlike any in the Shaw Era. Injuries across the line led to almost weekly shuffling, and the running game suffered tremendously as a result.

The good news for the Cardinal (and K.J. Costello) was that they were much better in pass protection. About a third of the way into the season Coach Shaw accepted that the running game wasn’t going to materialize, so the focus of the offense shifted to Costello and the passing game. I would have to imagine that Shaw will look to establish the run early in the season, but I’m also certain that Costello’s success in 2018 will make it easier for Shaw to fall back on the passing game if necessary.

INU: Who is a potential standout player, whether just in this game or beyond, on each side of the ball?

HW: On offense, I’m going to go back to Connor Wedington. He was originally expected to play running back, but Bryce Love’s historic 2017 season left few carries to go around. The coaches realized that Wedington needed to be involved in the offense somehow, so he became a hybrid receiver, predominantly running plays designed to get him the ball in space. As the season wore on he began to look more like a true receiver, but he’ll never be confused with Arcega-Whiteside. Reports out of training camp have indicated that the offense will include a greater variety of wide receiver screens, and Wedington will likely be the main beneficiary of this new wrinkle. Watch for this on Saturday.

On defense, I’m going to go with inside linebacker Curtis Robinson. I can’t support this with much evidence from previous seasons, but he’s the player I’m most interested in watching on that side of the ball. There are great concerns about the inside linebacking group, and it’s imperative that Robinson, who was a highly-touted recruit when he arrived a few years ago, steps in to the starting role and fulfills some of his promise.

INU: Will the rest of the pass defense be able to step up and match the level of play provided by Paulson Adebo?

HW: I can’t imagine that too many quarterbacks will challenge Adebo this fall, so the rest of the pass defense certainly will have to step up. Obi Eboh, the cornerback opposite him, was also a coveted recruit, and Coach Shaw spoke glowingly about him at Pac-12 Media Day. The concern regarding the secondary lies at the safety position, where only free safety Malik Antoine boasts significant experience. One of the stars of the Stanford coaching staff, however, is defensive backs coach Duane Akina, and his presence alone on the sidelines makes me feel more optimistic than most about the potential of this group.

INU: Which positional group will stand out for the Stanford defense this year?

HW: The mere presence of Adebo, a pre-season All-American, makes the secondary a potential candidate here, but I’m going to go with the defensive line. Many fans are concerned about this group, but I think they’ll be surprisingly good. ESPN recently named defensive end Jovan Swann the top returning defensive player in the nation in terms of game impact, and I also feel good about sophomore Thomas Booker, the opposite defensive end who showed flashes as a freshman last season and should be much better this year.

Incidentally, the defensive line is the position group that will best determine the overall success of the Stanford defense on Saturday and throughout the fall. If Northwestern running backs are finding big holes and the quarterbacks are enjoying protection, things might disintegrate quickly.

INU: What facet of Northwestern’s game are you most concerned about as a Cardinal fan?

HW: Last season the Cardinal had difficulty stopping opposing running backs, so this will remain my biggest concern until I see that the defensive line and inside linebackers have alleviated those worries.

INU: Finally, what is your prediction for Saturday afternoon’s showdown?

HW: There are questions marks surrounding the defense, but I don’t worry much at all about the offense. By the end of the season people could be talking about K.J. Costello as the best quarterback in the Pac-12, so if the running game isn’t clicking, he presents a nice fallback option. I haven’t even mentioned 6’7” tight end Colby Parkinson (one of four players on the Stanford offense who measure 6’7”), who should have a breakout season. If the Cardinal ends up in a situation where the offense has to outpace what the defense is allowing, Costello and company will be ready. So I’m expecting a Stanford win on Saturday.

Stanford 31, Northwestern 24.