No. 25 Stanford opens its 125th season with a home matchup against Northwestern, the defending Big Ten West champion. The Cardinal have won 11 consecutive home openers and are ranked in the AP preseason poll for the ninth-straight year.
The Wildcats racked up a 9-5 record last year, including a sparkling 8-1 conference account. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, entering his 14th season, has garnered the respect of his peers. Though it is unranked by the AP, Northwestern is No. 25 in the Coaches Poll.
“The name of the game for us is execution,” said Stanford offensive coordinator Taita Pritchard. “This isn’t a team you outscheme.”
Stanford’s recruiting class has been ranked higher than Northwestern’s in each of the last five recruiting cycles. Northwestern, with its grit and coaching, will need to overcome Stanford’s talent advantage.
The Northwestern defense is lead by linebacker Paddy Fisher, who was named to the AP All-America third team last year. After leading all first-year players with 113 tackles two years ago, Fisher added 116 more last season, with four forced fumbles and his second-career interception. In addition to Fisher, the defense returns seven starters.
Also closing the talent gap for the Wildcats is running back Isaiah Bowser. A three-star recruit and the 32nd ranked player in the 2018 class out of his native Ohio, Bowser appeared in 11 games as a true freshman and took over the starting job in the seventh game of the year. From then on, he averaged over 100 yards per game.
“As a college football fan he is fun to watch,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw ’94. “The guy plays hard. And what you love about watching good running backs is he breaks tackles.”
Bowser played with a chip on his shoulder as an ultra-aggressive runner to the tune of 866 yards and six touchdowns. The Stanford defense has spent significant time in the offseason on tackling, both in terms of technique and one-on-one execution, and it will be put to the test immediately matching up with Bowser.
“He’s definitely going to be a handful,” said Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson. “Their offense changed a little last year when they inserted him and he really brought something to their run game.”
On the other hand, Bowser will be running behind an inexperienced offensive line. Only fifth-year senior center Jared Thomas is starting in the same position as last season, and three starters are entirely new.
Another question for the Wildcats is significant — the quarterback. Fifth-year signal-caller TJ Green was the backup last season, appearing in nine games as he occasionally spelled Clayton Johnson. Hunter Johnson, meanwhile, is a former five-star recruit who transferred from Clemson.
“That team is going to be what they have crafted it to be,” Shaw said. “Offensively, they’re going to morph to what the quarterback does well.”
In preparation for the contest, Anderson and the defense have been able to watch tape on Green from Northwestern’s clash with Duke, a game in which he featured prominently. For Hunter Johnson, whose reps were limited at Clemson, Stanford dove into his high school tapes.
“They’re a good, solid football team,” Anderson said. “They’re physical, they run the football well, very efficient in the throwing game, and got some great schemes where the pass game complements the run game and vice versa.”
In the past, Stanford was more experienced on defense, but this year’s leaders are looking to close that gap. Senior free safety Malik Antoine, voted a captain by his teammates, has played a large role in mentoring younger members of the secondary throughout fall camp.
“Proud as a football coach that our process led us to a guy like Malik, who is a very good football player, outstanding leadership qualities, who garners the respect of his teammates through his words and his actions,” Shaw said.
Listed opposite of Antoine, at the strong safety position, is sophomore Kendall Williamson. His progression from starting one game as a true freshman to the first on the depth chart as a sophomore was, in part, due to Antoine’s leadership. The development is not too different from Antoine’s own.
After not seeing action in his first year on the Farm, Antoine contributed his sophomore year and as a junior compiled 53 tackles, two interceptions and a sack. Now, as a senior, he is the vocal leader of the defense.
“How far I’ve come since my freshman year here,” Antoine said. “Being a guy from Louisiana coming all the way out to a place like Stanford. It’s a huge honor to be respected by your brothers.”
One of the tasks laid out for Antoine on Saturday will be reading the Northwestern offense. With limited knowledge of the opposing quarterback and a scheme that had a whole offseason to be revised, dissecting Northwestern’s plan is Antoine’s role.
“This is what they did last year, let’s try to confirm it on play one,” Antioine said of his mindset for the first game of the season. “Mostly it’s just going into that game and knowing what we have as a defense.”
As far as what Stanford has on defense, fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill, a captain, will play a significant role in limiting Bowser. In just seven games last year, Toohill put together 29 tackles and two pass breakups. Improving over the course of the year, Toohill recorded seven tackles, one for loss, and three hurries in the Sun Bowl win over Pitt.
Talk in fall camp also highlighted junior cornerback Paulson Adebo, a first-team All-American after his first year seeing the field, and a preseason nod this year to repeat.
“Paulson Adebo had a phenomenal year last year,” Shaw said. “Regardless of whatever stats happen this year, I think he is a better football player than he was last year. Smarter, more versatile, more experienced.”
The Cardinal expect opposing offenses to avoid “Adebo Island” and instead target the other side, where senior Obi Eboh resides. If Northwestern decides to take this route, Stanford is just as confident in his ability.
“Obi has had a really good offseason,” Shaw said. “He’s taking that role very seriously knowing he’s going to be opposite of a guy that’s had a lot of publicity, so he is probably going to see more balls during the course of a game.”
Junior strong safety Stuart Head is the only Cardinal on the defensive side who will be held out for injury. On offense, senior running back Trevor Speights will not appear in the backfield committee.
That committee is undoubtedly spearheaded by fifth-year running back Cam Scarlett, who led the team with eight rushing touchdowns last year. Senior Dorian Maddox will also feature, but two freshmen, Nathaniel Peat and Austin Jones, are also likely to get snaps. In Pritchard’s words, it is an “immensely talented and deep group” of running backs, and after a year in which the run game took many steps backward, Stanford will need a difference maker to emerge.
In stark contrast to Northwestern, there are no doubts about Stanford’s starting quarterback. Senior K.J. Costello, a dark horse Heisman candidate, will command the Cardinal offense.
“To have a guy out there who is proven in games, that can lead this team, that’s invaluable,” said Stanford offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard.
With Stanford losing its top-three pass catchers from last season, Costello spoke of a willingness to expand the repertoire to better suit the options that are now at his disposable. The group of talented wide receivers is speedy, and in addition to running backs with sure hands, Costello sees screens and check downs as easy ways to pick up yards.
“There’s no doubt that we have to be a team that’s willing to run the football,” Costello said. “I think we’re going to find different ways to be efficient on first down.”
“Whether that’s running the ball or spitting it out on a bubble screen if they want to pack the box, we’ve got guys like Connor [Wedington] and Mike [Wilson] that can really run, and they’ve showed that in training camp,” Costello added.
Wedington, a junior, and Wilson, a sophomore, are in line to start on Saturday, which is a clue for how the new routes will fit into the passing game. But Shaw has made it known that the running game will not be neglected.
“Can our quarterback go in there and play a game and drop back 50 times? Absolutely,” Shaw said. “Is that what we want to do? Absolutely not.”
Whether the rushing attack succeeds will depend on the offensive line. Last season, the line was in disarray due to injuries, and many faulted Stanford’s 120th-ranked rushing offense on the line.
“Game 1 is going to present a big challenge,” Shaw said. “In particular, where we need to make the biggest improvement on our team is on the offensive-line.”
From left to right, the two-deep depth chart lists junior Walker Little, who received a preseason All-America nod, senior Henry Hattis, junior Drew Dalman, senior right guard Devery Hamilton, and junior right tackle Foster Sarell. Freshman Walter Rouse, a four star recruit by Rivals, is the backup for both tackle positions, while senior Dylan Powell is the next man up for each of the three interior spots.
The season kicks off at 1 p.m. PT on Saturday from Stanford Stadium.
“I want to see how we fight through the four quarters,” Antoine said. “This game is going to be a four-quarter game.”
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.