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Behind enemy lines: Northwestern Wildcats

Stanford's defense will have to come up with a solution for Northwestern sophomore running back Justin Jackson, who had 1187 yards his freshman season. (KAREN AMBROSE HICKEY/stanfordphoto.com)

In preparation for Stanford’s upcoming season opener in Evanston, Illinois against the Northwestern Wildcats, The Stanford Daily’s Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark) talked to Andrew Brown (@AndyBrown1314), the sports editor at North By Northwestern, to get an inside look at where the Wildcats’ program stands heading into the matchup with Stanford.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): The Wildcats play in the Big Ten West, regarded by many as the weakest division in the Power Five. It looks like Stanford is one of the toughest opponents Northwestern faces all season; how do people around the program feel about getting such a stiff test right from the onset?

Andrew Brown (AB): I think this is exactly what people around the program wanted two years ago. It took so long for Pat Fitzgerald to get Northwestern to the point where it wasn’t falling back on a listless nonconference schedule to reach bowl season anymore, but he might be kicking himself for not giving the team a better chance to start conference play two or three wins from clinching a bowl spot, given the struggles of the last two years. I don’t think the fans are confident, but there’s some excitement in that it’s been a while since NU has played a ranked team this early.

TSD: Northwestern was a 10-win team as recently as 2012, but that’s got to seem like an awfully long time ago given the back-to-back 5-7 seasons that the program has seen since. Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern seem like a great fit, but he’s never really given the program consistent success. How do you feel about his tenure? Is he capable of getting Northwestern over the hump?

AB: Well, he led NU to bowl games from 2008-12, which, by NU’s historical standards, is nothing short of incredible. The flip side is that his past success has raised those standards, so back to back 5-7 seasons are unacceptable now. But in those two seasons, 10 of NU’s 14 losses have been by two scores or less. So if you believe in the metric that close football games are basically a coin flip, he’s just been unlucky, and his track record says he’ll turn things around. However, it’s not absurd to see this as a make-or-break year for the coaching staff as a whole.

TSD: The Trevor Siemian-led offense of last season wasn’t consistent enough to be a solid complement to a good defense, but now that Siemian has left for the NFL, there’s a lot of uncertainty at the position with redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson set to step up. What can Stanford fans expect to see from the new man under center in Evanston?

AB: They’re grooming Thorson to lead the next NU resurgence if that’s actually in the cards. He’s got a good arm and is pretty mobile for his size, so even though he’s going to struggle here and there (and there’s a good chance he will in the first game) Fitzgerald is hedging his bets on his raw talent in the long run, which Thorson has plenty of. It’s worth noting that Siemian’s early success as an NFL quarterback is a pretty damning indictment of the NU coaching staff’s ability to develop quarterbacks, since he was awful at times last season as a senior starter. So whether they can make the most out of Thorson’s talent remains to be seen.

TSD: For the first time in a long time, Stanford isn’t proven on the defensive line heading into a season. However, the Cardinal do return an experienced and talented linebacking corps. With that said, how successful do you think Justin Jackson can be on the ground on Saturday?

AB: On the other side of the coin, Northwestern will counter that unproven defensive line with an unproven offensive line, so the battle in the trenches may actually be pretty even. Justin Jackson is a stud, though. He rushed for 1,187 yards last year with pretty much no help up front, and some think that since many on that line graduated, the fresh faces might actually be an improvement.

That said, knowing it’s Thorson’s first game and how Stanford plays defense, I’d expect the box to be stuffed the majority of the time the ‘Cats have the ball. Michigan did that last year and held Jackson to 35 yards on the ground, so he is human, after all. But if Thorson proves he can beat the Cardinal through the air, Jackson, with his uncanny ability to break tackles and consistently fight for extra yards, is a force to be reckoned with.

TSD: Northwestern has had a pretty good defense, but with the departures of guys like Chi Chi Ariguzo and Jimmy Hall from the linebacking two-deep, other contributors are going to need to step up. Although Stanford’s offense has been inconsistent in the past, it’s looking promising on paper heading into 2015. Who do you think will win the battle between the Stanford offense and Wildcat defense?

AB: NU returns most of its starters to a defense that, yes, played very well for the majority of last season. So while Stanford’s offense is improved, I think it’s going to be a pretty stiff battle for Kevin Hogan’s crew, at least in the first half. Northwestern is the poster child for why “the best defense is a good offense” often rings true.

How Stanford’s offense fares against a pretty stout unit will probably come down to how much rest Thorson, Jackson and co. can create for the defense when it’s their turn to move the ball. For much of last year, the ‘Cats ran a hurry-up offense that would sputter quickly, putting their defense on the field for far too much time and wearing them down. So that’ll be what to watch for: Can NU’s offense sustain drives long enough to give its good defense ample rest to slow down a good Stanford offense?

TSD: Last season, the Wildcats beat Wisconsin and Notre Dame but lost to Northern Illinois and Iowa. What was the cause of all of that inconsistency? Is the “true” Northwestern closer to the team that pulled off those big upsets or the team that lost to those below-average opponents?

AB: Honestly, if I knew the answer to that question, they’d fire Fitzgerald and hire me at the drop of a hat. In 2014, Northwestern was quite possibly the most enigmatic football team of all time, and I say that with no hyperbole intended. I guess I could point to ineffective offensive game-planning and execution in those games like Iowa, NIU and Michigan that made me scratch my head, but then in those crazy upsets, both of those areas were on point, proving that NU had the personnel to be much, much better than its record indicated last year.

But in all honesty, the “true” Northwestern was probably a win or two better than it was. As to what the “true” Northwestern will be this season, ask me after it’s all over, because I can guarantee my answer will change after every game. That’s Wildcat football in a nutshell.

TSD: What does Northwestern need to do to win? What’s your prediction for the game?

AB: To win this game, Northwestern needs to make the game as ugly as possible. It won’t be easy to watch if they’re successful in that goal, but Fitz seems to get a high off those types of games for whatever reason. And when I say “ugly,” I mean making field goals, hoping for a few missed field goals by Stanford, punting, more punting, some extra punting for good measure and forcing at least three Stanford turnovers. It’s how NU beat Wisconsin last year, and pretty much the only way I see the ‘Cats emerging victorious on Saturday.

There’s a slight chance that Thorson will shine in his first collegiate game, and if he does, I really think this game is up for grabs. But on the more likely chance that he isn’t able to crack the Cardinal defense, Stanford will lead 17-6 at the half, withstand a brief, seemingly miraculous comeback by Northwestern and cruise to a 33-19 win.

Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Do-Hyoung Park

Do-Hyoung Park

Do-Hyoung Park '16, M.S. '17 is now the Chief Operating Officer and Business Manager at The Stanford Daily. He's also a Bay Area-based freelance sportswriter. He previously covered Stanford football and baseball for five seasons as a student and served two terms as sports editor and four terms on the copy desk. He was also a color commentator for KZSU 90.1 FM's football broadcast team for the 2015-16 Rose Bowl season. He covered the 2016 Minnesota Twins for MLB.com and has also contributed to The Bootleg and SI's (now defunct) Campus Rush. Hire him at dpark0027 'at' gmail.com or send him snarky Tweets @dohyoungpark.