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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Stanford

In football, the difference between a win and a loss can come down to the seemingly most insignificant variables. What does Northwestern have to do on the field to assure a victory come Saturday?

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

The last time Northwestern faced Stanford was back in the early days of Clayton Thorson’s quarterbacking career in Evanston. That game’s sole touchdown happened to come from the hands of the signal-caller in the form of a 42-yard scramble.

This time around, Thorson isn’t playing his football in purple, and the game is kicking off a bit farther from Ryan Field. With new faces across the board, and possibly one of Fitz’s most talented groups to date, the clash in Palo Alto warrants all the excitement.

Why Northwestern Will Beat Stanford:

Run Defense

In all four of Stanford’s losses last year, the Cardinal failed to have a rusher surpass 75 yards. The first key to victory is dominating the line of scrimmage and forcing K.J. Costello into obvious passing situations. Costello is a competent passer, but forcing him to drop back can prove to be a recipe of success for the Cats’. Diving even deeper into his passing numbers from last season, in only three games last season did Costello drop back to throw the football more than 40 times. All three of those games ended in losses. Costello did lead the Pac-12 in Big Time Throws according to PFF and ranked on their top 50 list for a reason. However, tiring him out and forcing him to chuck the ball more than he would like has proven to be a successful strategy.

Run Offense

Isaiah Bowser proved to be the missing link when pertaining to Northwestern’s offense in the second half of last season. In fact, Northwestern went 6-1 in games that Bowser was given the ball at least 18 times. In those games, he averaged about 115 yards per game with a crucial 165 yards coming in the Big Ten West clinching away game at Iowa. Long story short, give Bowser the ball and good things will happen.

Special Teams

Lastly, for the Cats’ to come away victorious in California this weekend, the grittiest position group in football has to show up. That’s right, place kicking and punting may very well be the deciding factor on opening day. As seen from the college football opener (Miami vs. Florida), the first game can be sloppy, and sometimes even hard to watch.

Field position will be essential. Solid punting can take the pressure off of the defenses, and in turn, create opportune scoring chances for whoever is under center. Winning the field-position battle, however, is only half the task. Charlie Kuhbander has to step up and capitalize on every kicking opportunity for the Cats’ to have a chance against the Cardinal.

With the healthy version of Kuhbander from two years ago likely taking the stage, there’s no reason to assume the kicking phenom from 2017 won’t return to spectacular form and help the Wildcats earn an opening day victory.

Why Northwestern Won’t Beat Stanford:

Secondary

A loss of an elite caliber defensive back will surely be felt for any program. Montre Hartage is no exception. Last season, Hartage consistently ranked among the elite corners in the Big Ten and even the entire nation. Not only will losing that skilled of a player have consequences on Northwestern’s pass coverage, but a player like K.J. Costello won’t be second-guessing which side of the field to throw on when he sees a sophomore down the field. If Newsome doesn’t step up to the moment, then the defense will be picked apart regardless of how talented the pass rush is.

Receiving options

Flynn Nagel is gone. Cam Green is gone. What do those two have in common? They both were the only players to record over 50 receptions on the season as a whole. The main concern from the receiving corps comes from the players outside of Bennett Skowronek.

If the supporting cast of receivers can’t create separation off the line, the ‘Cats will be in for a rough showing. Unless Hunter Johnson is the phenom that most have built him up to be - or T.J. Green suddenly gets the arm of Patrick Mahomes - the receiving cast is going to have to carry the majority of the burden in creating passing windows.

Turnovers

Lastly, the most overused key to victory and the perennial cornerstone of the “Coors cool hard facts,” is turnovers. Turnovers have been and will be the key to the Cats’ success. In losses last season, Northwestern turned the ball over more often than in wins (1.6 as compared to 1.2) — not too much of a surprise. What is a surprise, however, is that in games that the purple came out victorious last season, the Cats’ defense averaged over a forced fumble and interception per game. In wins, the defense forced 2.4 turnovers while in losses they failed to pass 0.6.

Taking out Northwestern’s dismal month of September, Fitz’s defense forced 2.31 per game. Framing that into the course of a season, they would have been the 4th best defense in the country in terms of turnovers. That ranks above Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson, Michigan and Ohio State. So basically, pretty good. . If the defense can’t make that critical game-deciding play and put Northwestern’s offense in advantageous scoring positions, Fitz and the Wildcats might be flying back from Palo Alto with a loss.