For around eight minutes on Saturday, Stanford looked every bit the part of the dark-horse College Football Playoff contender that many around the country were pegging it as.
But for the next 52 minutes, No. 21 Stanford (0-1) was simply outmatched, outcoached and outplayed by a Northwestern (1-0) team that was a double-digit underdog at home. The Wildcats did not allow Stanford to reach the end zone as they cruised to an ugly yet comfortable 16-6 victory, Stanford’s first season-opening loss since 2007.
“We didn’t give ourselves a chance to win,” said head coach David Shaw. “They played well and were well-prepared, and we thought we were well-prepared, but it didn’t show.”
After Stanford drove 64 yards easily before stalling on its first offensive drive and forced Northwestern into a three-and-out on its first defensive drive, Stanford couldn’t regain its footing on offense until the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Northwestern did just enough to stay out of reach after making some adjustments.
Although Stanford was driving down 16-6 with time running out into the fourth quarter, fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan threw an interception to backup safety Kyle Queiro on a fade to Austin Hooper in the end zone, sealing the game for Northwestern.
Stanford was outgained on offense 330-240 and had a paltry 88 yards at halftime, when the Wildcats took a 10-3 lead into the locker room. The Northwestern lead was never more than 10 points, but it felt like a blowout all the way through as the Wildcats moved the ball effectively and Stanford stalled time after time.
Pat Fitzgerald crafted a fantastic game plan that worked to perfection. The option running game to the perimeter kept Stanford off-balance and set up the counter, the inside draw play that Northwestern ran to perfection when Stanford only left three or four men in the box. Fitzgerald made adjustments; Shaw seemingly didn’t, with Stanford running similar route packages that looked to work the middle of the field all game and only stretching the field once or twice.
“I thought our guys came prepared to play an outstanding football team,” Fitzgerald said. “We really stuck to our plan.”
The Wildcats ran wild behind stud sophomore running back Justin Jackson and redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson, whose option running game kept Stanford off-balance all afternoon and ate away at swaths of yardage. Jackson finished the game with 134 yards on 28 carries, while Thorson rushed for 68 yards with his eight carries.
While Stanford reached the ball-carriers quickly on most of those runs, missed tackles — grossly uncharacteristic for a Stanford team — allowed Jackson and Thorson to keep plays alive and make something out of nothing.
“We just need to look at the film to see exactly what we need to fix,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Blake Martinez, who led the Cardinal with 14 tackles. “Obviously, we missed tackles that were there, so we need to fix those and work on that stuff and kind of work on the overall execution of each play, like knowing where your gaps are, who is your help, and everything.”
And when Thorson wasn’t keeping Stanford off-balance on the ground, he looked nothing like a freshman making his first career start and every bit a poised, experienced college quarterback when attacking through the air.
Although Thorson was just 12-of-24 for 105 yards, the boxscore doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. He looked extremely comfortable operating the option running game, and although he was wild on a few throws, he only once made an ill-advised throw: a ball directly at Stanford safety Kodi Whitfield in the end zone, who dropped the sure interception.
Otherwise, Thorson’s throws were hard and accurate for the most part, and with Northwestern’s running game keeping Stanford guessing, he was able to remain composed in the pocket even when under pressure and get his throws out and on the money. That helped extend drives where Stanford couldn’t: Northwestern was 12-of-22 on third downs, while Stanford was an embarrassing 3-of-15.
“I talked to [Thorson] earlier in the week about not trying to outplay a fifth-year senior and just doing what we do,” said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. “And through that, he outplayed a fifth-year senior.”
Part of Thorson’s success was due to the fact that Stanford was dominated on both lines by Northwestern on Saturday, which was a sight that not even the most homer Northwestern fans or the most downer Stanford fans could have seen coming.
Although Northwestern was replacing two pieces on an offensive line that struggled mightily last season, Stanford just couldn’t get pressure with its defensive line, and the team that was once known for igniting a #PartyInTheBackfield did not record a single sack, even after Northwestern’s starting center was injured and the Wildcats had to shuffle players inside and outside to make up for the loss.
The defensive line also showed a startling lack of lateral mobility and inability to get off blocks, resulting in Northwestern’s success with runs to the perimeter throughout the game.
“I’m really proud of everyone,” Jackson said. “Not only the running backs and wide receivers blocking on the edges — I think our O-linemen, they really showed up today.”
With the line struggling to pressure Thorson and the freshman quarterback throwing darts to his receivers, Stanford couldn’t throw in its aggressive blitz packages and, for the most part, Stanford’s pass rush was a non-factor in the game.
Although the line struggled, the rest of the defense, to its credit, played as well as it could given the circumstances and made some key stops on big plays — and, more importantly, kept the offense in the game.
Not that it helped much.
For as large of a step forward Kevin Hogan took at the end of last season, he took an equally large step back against Northwestern.
He was 20-of-35 for 155 yards and a pick, and his game was a lot uglier than the numbers would indicate, despite Shaw saying after the game that Hogan “for the most part played really well.”
His throws were inaccurate and often late, he missed wide-open reads and he returned to his old habits of staring down his receivers and throwing the ball into pockets he shouldn’t have been throwing into.
It also didn’t help that the receivers would drop the good passes that Hogan did put on target. Michael Rector, who sat out the first half in favor of Rollins Stallworth, saw a perfectly placed deep ball fall through his hands, while tight end Dalton Schultz also dropped a late would-be first-down reception.
And Stanford’s offensive line had no answers for a Northwestern defensive line that was utterly dominant in both phases of the game.
After the first drive, the Northwestern line didn’t give Stanford much of anything on the ground — Stanford finished with 85 rushing yards the whole game — and mounted a strong pass rush that pressured Hogan in important situations, and, more importantly, seemed to never really make Hogan comfortable in the pocket.
“I thought there was a dominant performance from our defensive line,” Fitzgerald said. “It looked like we controlled the line of scrimmage on every single play defensive-line-wise.”
In the end, a defense that accounted for a paltry 17 sacks last season brought Hogan down twice. It also forced a fumble from sophomore Christian McCaffrey, who was Stanford’s leading rusher with 68 yards and saw lots of action as a wide receiver as well. McCaffrey, however, effectively became a non-factor after the first quarter as Stanford was forced to throw the ball often to try and play catch-up.
The lone bright spot of the day for Stanford was on special teams, where senior Conrad Ukropina scored all six points for Stanford on two convincing field goals; junior punter Alex Robinson was arguably the most impressive Cardinal player on the field by averaging 46 yards each on his seven punts; and freshman kickoff specialist Jake Bailey recorded touchbacks on two of his three kickoffs.
Stanford will need to regroup quickly and find answers on offense before it returns to Stanford Stadium for its home opener next Saturday against UCF (0-1), which is coming off of a similarly ugly and shocking loss to Florida International.
“Every team makes mistakes and it’s unfortunate that we made our mistakes so early on,” said senior guard Joshua Garnett. “We still have so much football ahead of us. We have 11 more games… So we have to come together and keep our heads up so we can really keep moving forward.”