After back-to-back disappointing seasons in 2013 and 2014, Northwestern’s star running back knew that the 2015 season opener represented a unique opportunity for the Wildcat football program.
“I remember us having an attitude of wanting to prove who we were at the time, prove what type of program we could be,” Justin Jackson, now Northwestern’s all-time leading rusher, recently told Inside NU. “We knew Stanford [was] another highly regarded academic school as well as an athletic school; them coming to our home field, we wanted to beat them on a national stage.”
And the Wildcats did just that.
NU stifled the Cardinal offense, smothering the then-No. 21 team in the country 16-6. Jackson, leaned on heavily, churned his way to an 134-yard outing. In his first career start, Clayton Thorson’s careful play along with the clock control created by the impressive running game proved enough for their defensive counterparts, who held Stanford to just 240 yards of total offense and forced two timely turnovers, to seal the win.
Offensive coordinator Mick McCall kept the playbook limited for the redshirt freshman quarterback from nearby Wheaton, Illinois. At that point, Thorson, still wet behind the ears, served primarily as a game manager. Against Stanford he performed as such, and his 42-yard TD scamper was enough to fuel a national upset that would set the tone for his tenure on campus.
“It was a statement win,” Jackson said. “It was the beginning of, ‘whatever you thought about Northwestern in the past, you gotta respect us.’ It was a big game for our program.”
Jerry Brown, defensive backs coach at the time, remembered the Wildcats grinding Stanford out, essentially beating the Cardinal at their own game.
“I think [Stanford] coach [David] Shaw said at the end of the game that Northwestern was the more physical team on the field that day,” Brown, whose postgame celebration dance later went viral, told Inside NU. “That one was probably a little bit more special, I think because of the similarities of our two schools, operating at the national scene and also having to recruit high academic-type young men.”
Back in October of 2013, things looked promising for Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern.
The 4-0 Wildcats were ranked 16th, and welcomed No. 4 Ohio State for a primetime fight that drew College GameDay to the Lakefill. After a shootout classic that NU lost in heartbreaking fashion, the team went into a tailspin.
The Wildcats finished 5-7 in both that season and the following one, creating plenty of anxiety among the fanbase as the 2015 campaign approached.
“People were calling for jobs after the two consecutive losing seasons, which I don’t think Fitz has ever had [to deal with],” former NU quarterback Dan Persa said. “I think  was, for the program, kind of a make-or-break year, and it got everything back on track. Now you have a lot more consistency, being at the top of the Big Ten West, winning it last year, when four years ago that hadn’t happened yet.”
Pat Fitzgerald’s team finished 2015 10-3, despite the offense scoring just 19.5 points per game and Thorson throwing for well under 2,000 yards on the season. A blowout loss to no. 23 Tennessee in the Outback Bowl reminded the program it had a ways to go, but the season was largely considered a success. Winning ten games with an unproven freshman quarterback was no easy feat, and the bowl appearance ended up marking the first of four straight during the Thorson era.
Despite a similar string of four bowl appearances from 2008-2011, the Wildcats came up empty each time. It took the quarterback combo of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian to lead them to double-digit wins and a crucial Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State the following year.
“After winning the Gator Bowl and finally getting a win in a bowl game, I think the expectation was they were just going to pick up and continue to go to bowl games and win them every year,” said Dave Eanet, the radio voice of Northwestern football since 1990.
For the next two years, that expected success didn’t come to pass. But after the famous Stanford upset against a Cardinal team that finished the 2015 season as Rose Bowl Champions and ranked third in the country, the Wildcats gave themselves another chance at a rebrand. This time, they took advantage.
Northwestern has spent the last four years trying to prove the Stanford victory was not a fluke. In the process, the program has accomplished a lot, as Pat Fitzgerald puts quite tangibly:
“We have personnel changes, we have coaching changes, on-the-field success changes,” the coach recently told the media. “We have 36 wins since that game and three bowl wins, a Big Ten West championship.”
Those 36 wins tie for nineteenth in the country over that span (fourteenth among Power 5 schools). With that number, the Wildcats have matched LSU and Notre Dame since 2015, and they even rank ahead of other big-name programs like Miami, USC, Florida and Auburn. According to Jackson, it was truly knowing they belonged that finally translated into consistent winning.
“I mean it’s nice to have the underdog mentality, but at the same time when you think of yourself as the top dog, that’s also a good mentality to have going in, having that confidence. Every single week we’d go into every single game knowing that we should win the game, and that’s a huge difference between that and a team where you’re like, ‘well you know we can stick in it and maybe at the end of the game we’ll come out on top.’”
For a program that lacked consistency and often gravitated toward mediocrity, the last four years have provided the stable foundation for a new era. But as important as the contributions of Thorson, Jackson and a bevy of successful receivers were during that time, it’s been the defense that has undoubtedly solidified Northwestern’s standing as a team to watch.
“It has been able to set a nice tone for them,” noted Eanet. “For a lot of years, the defense had some terrific individual players, but over time they’ve become much more consistent. Going into 2015, I’m not sure a lot of people would have thought they could shut down a pretty potent Stanford offense the way they did in that first game. I think the defense for the most part has played that way since then.”
Consistency has been the modus operandi for the NU defense. In 2015, the ‘Cats ranked 12th in the country in points allowed and 13th in total defense. In each of the three years following, the unit has ranked in the top 40 in scoring (top 25 twice).
They haven’t always been something to marvel at statistically, but Northwestern’s defense repeatedly kept the team in games when the offense struggled. They made enough opportunistic plays to get by, but largely dominated thanks to a refusal to break. Notably, in 2018, the group embodied this ideal by giving up touchdowns on less than half of opponents’ red zone possessions.
“I think the defense has kind of taken on Fitz’s personality over the course of time,” Eanet opined.
The broadcaster, known by some as Mr. Cat, credited the defense’s never-say-die attitude with spreading throughout the entire team. Northwestern’s recent history in close games is well-documented, especially its three overtime wins in the span of three weeks during the 2017 season.
According to Eanet, it’s the Fitz mentality of playing tough and clean — Northwestern was the least penalized team in the nation last year — that keeps their success in tight games — 23 wins in games decided by 10 points or fewer since 2015 — from being a fluke.
“I look at them now and they look more like a physical football team, a team built to win in the Big Ten,” he said. “Look at the way they played Utah in that bowl game. Utah’s a tough-minded, physical team that I think kind of had the markings of a Big Ten team in a lot of respects. Once [Northwestern] kind of took control of that game, they really assumed control of it. That’s sort of an indication where the program is now.”
Earlier in Fitzgerald’s tenure, the Wildcats often continued to rely on outscoring opponents, especially with the aforementioned Persa at the helm. The All-Big Ten signal caller started in 2010 and 2011, when the defense gave up nearly 30 points per game. He told Inside NU that improved recruiting on both sides of the ball over the past several years has helped cement Northwestern’s status as a serious conference contender.
“We always kind of considered ourselves the guys that were more or less the land of misfit toys, turned down by a lot of different schools and came together and relied on our grit and toughness to win games.”
“Now, Northwestern’s competing with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Stanford and winning a lot of those battles. Back when I played they might win a couple, but it wasn’t consistently like [it is] now. The facility is a game changer, and that kinda dovetails into recruiting.”
Despite unprecedented success over the last four years, the men in purple have generally gone unnoticed at the national level. The prevailing media narrative at the end of the past few seasons tended to follow somewhat along the lines of “Pat Fitzgerald is doing a lot with a little in Evanston.”
Now, Fitz is ready to do a lot with much more.
Over the last few years, the Wildcats’ winning ways, combined with the brand new, $270 million Walter Athletics Center (and Ryan Fieldhouse within it), have led to a recruiting bump, specifically for the classes of 2019 and 2020.
During Fitzgerald’s 13-year tenure, NU has signed just eight four-stars and two five-stars — both of whom were transfers. Just in the past year, however, Fitz and his staff have landed two four-stars for the class of 2020 and many high three-stars that aren’t far behind.
“The facility was coming,” Persa said. “I think it was a little delayed, but they had that to sell. The Big Ten continued to get better and better, and I think Fitz and his staff just develop great relationships around the country. They get higher-rated recruits, and whether you believe ratings or not, you can see the speed and talent that they continue to recruit, which especially on defense has been kind of game-changing for them.”
Now it’s the offense that is also reaping the recruiting rewards. Northwestern has nearly unprecedented depth at wide receiver this year — a position group oft-criticized for a relative lack of production, besides a few outlier seasons, over the past seven or so years — thanks in large part to the additions of athletic, high three-star recruits Genson Hooper-Price and Bryce Kirtz.
The class of 2020, though, is shaping up to be Fitz’s highest-rated group in a long time, with its only real competition coming from the star-studded class of 2014 (which produced both Thorson and Jackson).
Northwestern’s group is currently rated 5th in the B1G and 27th nationally. Specifically, the Wildcats have reeled in their best class of offensive linemen in program history, the centerpiece being local product Peter Skoronski. The four-star is the second-ranked player in all of Illinois and turned down historic Big Ten powerhouses to stay closer to home.
One noticeable change among a few within this year’s recruiting braintrust is Kurt Anderson, who is the man primarily charged with revamping the offensive line. To Persa, with so few coaching changes occurring in the Fitz era before the last couple of years, introducing new energy and ideas from guys like Anderson, Lou Ayeni, and Tim McGarigle can only help.
“Now they have all the tools at their disposal, they have a winning record, they have a program that they can sell, and recruiting translates to on-field success,” argued Persa. “And they don’t really have an excuse for recruiting anymore, because if Stanford and Notre Dame can perform with academic standards, Northwestern can, too.”
For the first time in 2019, it’s game week.
Four years since 2015, Northwestern opens the season against Stanford once more. In the first release of the AP Poll, Stanford was ranked 25th. The Wildcats? On the outside looking in, as usual.
NU, despite finishing three of the last four seasons ranked, has been included in just two preseason AP Top 25 polls since 2000. For a program that has prioritized gritty over pretty and never received much praise for it, the national respect is only just beginning to grow.
“Hopefully you look at our program now as one that’s becoming a consistent contender for championships every year,” Fitzgerald told another media scrum. “It’s one thing to become a consistent winner and consistent bowl team, now it’s hopefully that next step.”
For the Wildcat faithful, there is legitimate hope that the program can finally sustain success it has only experienced in spurts in the past.
“I really believe that this has a chance to be one of the best defensive teams that Northwestern has seen,” Eanet said. “That’s saying something because going back to the mid-90s, that ‘95 team in particular was a great defensive football team.”
On the road in Palo Alto, this 2019 season opener presents itself as a chance to make a huge statement — just as the case was in Evanston in 2015.
According to Fitzgerald, every game serves as an equally important benchmark. But realistically, a win against what’s projected to be another very solid Cardinal squad would aid NU’s case to be a program worthy of national attention more fully than many other wins could. The game has the potential to set the tone in 2019 as it did in 2015, and as the two programs have become closer in caliber, the contest even represents a larger recruiting battle.
“I’m sure there’s 10 or 20 guys that are looking at both Stanford and Northwestern,” Persa said. “Not too long ago, Stanford was 0-12 or 1-11 when Harbaugh first got there in the early to mid-2000s, and they turned it around. They won a handful of Pac-12 titles, they’ve been to bunch of Rose Bowls, they’ve won a bunch of Rose Bowls. That’s the next step [for NU]. I think it’s a huge measuring stick.”
There are plenty of reasonable excuses to be made for a loss to Stanford: new quarterback, first game of the season, tough road opponent, etc. But in Evanston, there are many fewer valid reasons for losses now than there were four years ago. Last year’s appearance in the Big Ten Championship didn’t yield a trip to Pasadena, but to Persa, the experience of being there and competing with Ohio State through three quarters is invaluable.
“You don’t go from zero to 100, right? You have to build building blocks and take steps on the ladder to success,” he analogized. “And I think last year is just another building block. I think they’re pretty talented. It’s just doing it at this point.”
Fitz is still looking for solutions to the slow starts that have continued to plague his teams over the past few years. If Northwestern wants to take the next step as a program, eventually those will have to disappear. And with a big opening matchup looming, there’s no time like the present.
If they take down a top-25 Stanford team to start the season for the second time in five years?
“I think that all of a sudden,” Eanet said, “you get a lot of eyeballs looking at Northwestern again.”