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King’s Keys: The Nerd Bowl

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It’s been eight months since No. 25 Stanford football’s last game, an ugly 14-13 Sun Bowl victory over Pitt. The long offseason was full of questions for the Cardinal: How would they replace Heisman runner-up Bryce Love ‘19, or All-Pac-12 receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside ‘19, or leading tackler Bobby Okereke ‘18? More broadly, how would Stanford rediscover its once dominant running game after slipping to 123rd nationally in rushing yards per game last season? And would the bend-don’t-break Cardinal defense start bending more and breaking less? 

Saturday’s season opener against Northwestern will not answer all of those questions, but it will provide plenty of clues as to what Stanford will look like in 2019. The Cardinal face more uncertainty than they ever have in head coach David Shaw’s eight year tenure. Stanford returns just eight starters from a season where it went 9-4 but finished unranked. The schedule does the Cardinal no favors, as they will face 11 Power Five opponents (not to mention Group of Five Champion UCF) and four teams that won 10 or more games last season. There is still plenty of reason for optimism, however, as Stanford has one of the most talented rosters in the Pac-12, and most of their toughest opponents will travel to Stanford Stadium. The Cardinal could have a special season in 2019, but it must start with a victory over 2018 Big Ten West champion Northwestern. Here’s three keys to an all-important opening victory for Stanford.

1) Be more intellectually brutal 

The Wildcats are a program built in Stanford’s own image. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, despite coaching at the most elite academic institution in his conference, has built up his program on toughness and physicality, just like Shaw’s predecessor Jim Harbaugh did at Stanford. The Cardinal were once the most intimidating smashmouth program in college football, but many fear Stanford has lost its physical edge, particularly after the departure of long-time Sports Performance Director Shannon Turley. Northwestern will be a perfect litmus test for the 2019 Stanford Cardinal. If Stanford is not any tougher than it was last year, when it had major struggles up front on the offensive and defensive lines, then Northwestern will serve up Stanford a heavy dose of its own treasured “Intellectual Brutality” and run the home team out of its own stadium. 

The Cardinal must find a way to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Last year, the running game averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per attempt. Northwestern, meanwhile, had one of the top run defenses in the country, surrendering just 3.8 yards per carry. Stanford no longer has a home-run hitting speedster at running back like Bryce Love, but they do have a tough, physical bruiser in fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett. If the new-look offensive line can open up some running lanes for Scarlett, the Cardinal running game could be fairly productive against the intimidating Northwestern front seven. But if the offensive line struggles like last season, the Wildcats will dominate the Cardinal up front, led by All-Big Ten stars Joe Gaziano and Paddy Fisher. Stanford is counting on former five-star recruits in junior offensive tackles Foster Sarell and Walker Little to prove that Intellectual Brutality is not an empty catchphrase and that the Cardinal still have one of the top offensive lines in college football. 

2) Be ready for anything at QB(s)

Hunter Johnson was the second-ranked pro style quarterback in the 2017 Recruiting Class, behind only Stanford junior Davis Mills. Johnson initially went to Clemson but lost the starting job to Kelly Bryant in 2017 and then decided to transfer to Northwestern for family reasons last summer. Most anticipated Johnson would easily win the starting job for the Wildcats after they lost four-year starter Clayton Thorson to the NFL. But fifth-year veteran TJ Green is still in the mix according to Fitzgerald, who has stated he will name the starting quarterback when the offense first takes the field against Stanford. In other words, the Cardinal coaching staff has no idea what to expect from the Northwestern passing game on Saturday. 

Johnson could prove to be one of the top quarterbacks in the nation if he lives up to his massive potential, but he may well be splitting time with Green early on. That could be an advantage for Stanford’s shaky secondary, which ranked 122nd out of 130 FBS teams in passing yards allowed last season. The secondary has talent, most notably in AP Preseason All-American junior cornerback Paulson Adebo, but the defensive backs will need help from the Cardinal pass rush to make it a shaky debut for both Northwestern quarterbacks. The Wildcats will likely struggle to run the ball after losing three starters from an offensive line that produced the worst rushing offense in the Big Ten (nearly as bad as Stanford’s). If the Cardinal can slow down the unpredictable Northwestern passing game, it could be a great day for the Stanford defense. 

3) Put the Wildcats away early 

Until last season’s 4-0 beginning, Stanford had a troubling habit of starting the season very slowly, often with a loss or two to inferior teams. That includes a 2015 road loss to Northwestern that kept Stanford out of the College Football Playoff that season. The Wildcats are a solid team. They finished 9-5 with a bowl victory over Utah last season and shockingly won the Big Ten West. But Stanford is absolutely the superior team, and playing at home, the Cardinal should start 1-0. If the game is close in the fourth quarter, however, watch out. Over the past four seasons, Northwestern has an incredible 16-5 record in one-possession games. In a close fourth quarter game, all the pressure will be on the home team. Stanford needs senior quarterback KJ Costello to light up the Wildcats defense early so that defensive coordinator Lance Anderson can turn up the heat on the questionable Northwestern offense. If Stanford starts slowly again, then Northwestern might send them into Week Two with more questions than answers. 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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