No. 25 Stanford (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) escaped Northwestern (0-1, 0-0 Big Ten) for a 17-7 season-opening home victory. With 30 second left in the game and down by three points, the Wildcats took over possession, but quarterback Hunter Johnson was strip sacked by fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill, and the ball was recovered by sophomore outside linebacker Jordan Fox in the end zone to ice the game.
“You expect your defense and you hope your defense keeps you in the game as you find your rhythm on the offensive side,” head coach David Shaw ’90 said. “Our big-time players made big-time plays.”
The win was Stanford’s 12th straight in season openers, and the Cardinal improved to 4-2-2 all-time against the Wildcats.
Stanford outgained Northwestern 365-210, but squandered opportunities, keeping the game within reach. Senior quarterback K.J. Costello missed the second half after a personal foul hit to the head that immediately sent him to the locker room. Stanford also lost junior left tackle Walker Little to an apparent leg injury on the final offensive drive.
Shaw had no comment after the game on the status of the injured players.
“We were staying connected, staying unified,” said fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett. “In the huddle, we were keeping it positive and making sure that everybody knew the next play was the most important play.”
Stanford’s first score came on a classic West Coast look, as Costello rolled to his right and hit Michael Wilson for two yards. The sophomore receiver dove for the pylon for the second touchdown of his career.
The drive had started 8:22 earlier, when Stanford took over on its own 10 yard line. The revamped offense was on full displays on back-to-back screen plays to fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett and Wilson.
Senior running back Dorian Maddox was able to show off why Stanford head coach David Shaw was so impressed with his camp, and made multiple tacklers miss on a 27-yard gain. The completion was the tenth straight for Costello, who added one more to his streak on a toss to Scarlett for eight yards.
Stanford’s only other first-half points came on the following drive, when senior kicker Jet Toner nailed a career-long 51-yard field goal to end the half. The possession was more significant for its damage to Costello, who was hit as he went to the ground by defensive end Earnest Brown. Costello was escorted directly off the field and into the tunnel; he finished with 152 yards on 16-20 with a touchdown.
Hunter Johnson, a transfer from Clemson and highly-touted former five-star recruit, was announced as the Northwestern starter at quarterback minutes before kickoff. Johnson started 1-6, including an interception on his second throw with the team. Junior outside linebacker Gabe Reid pressured Johnson, and senior safety Malik Antoine tipped the ball into the hands of senior inside linebacker Andrew Pryts for the first interception of his career in his first start.
Stanford could not convert the turnover into points, despite taking over on the 46 yard line. Costello missed junior tight end Colby Parkinson twice, and freshman punter Ryan Sanborn was called on for his first kick.
“I know there’s two throws in the first half K.J. would love to have back,” Shaw said. “Big opportunities to make big plays. We hit those plays and the game’s probably not as close as it was at the end.”
The Cardinal cornerbacks, junior Paulson Adebo and senior Obi Eboh, got the ball back to the offense. First, Johnson went after Eboh, who made an open-field tackle, then on third down Adebo recorded his first pass breakup of the season.
“I think I played decent for an opener,” Adebo said. “Definitely a lot that I can work on.”
“He demands excellence from himself,” Shaw said. “Sometimes you have to make sure that you get him to take some air out of the balloon because if he doesn’t make a play he gets so angry, upset at himself.”
The 11-play drive neared nine minutes, but only covered 47 yards as the offense hurt itself with penalties. Senior running back Dorian Maddox was the primary ball-carrier on the drive, but freshman Austin Jones also saw his first carry and Costello connected with both sophomore wide receiver Simi Fehoko and junior Connor Wedington.
A pass interference call on Northwestern, just the second infraction of the day for the Wildcats, put the Cardinal on the two yard line. After Costello missed Parkinson in the end zone, Shaw drew up the touchdown play to put Stanford on the board.
Northwestern’s other quarterback option, T.J. Green, a fifth-year with extensive knowledge of head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s system, took over and immediately improved the floundering offense. Green completed his first four passes, accruing a third first down with his legs. Stanford finally slowed Green on a hurry by sophomore inside linebacker Ricky Miezan, and took over on downs after a failed fourth down play.
Stanford shut out its opponent in the first half for the first time since the second week of last season and held a wide margin in yards (215-79 yards) and time of possession (22:57-7:03). The offense was perfectly split with 20 plays each on the ground and through the air.
Green, however, was injured on the first drive out of halftime and could not put weight on his foot as he left the field. After the game, Fitzgerald said he was taken to a local hospital for surgery. Gashing runs by running back Isaiah Bowser took the Wildcats down to the Stanford five yard line, but senior inside linebacker Curtis Robinson and sophomore strong safety Kendall Williamson combined for a strip-sack of Green, and Williamson recovered.
The turnover compounded and Stanford gave the ball right back to Northwestern. Junior quarterback Davis Mills, second on the depth chart, mishandled a read play, and Northwestern scooped the loose ball and took it to the Stanford 21.
“Davis Mills is a great athlete as well as being a great quarterback,” Shaw said. “But he’s a young quarterback, and we can’t put the ball on the ground.”
Johnson threw two incomplete passes, and after gaining just one yard, Northwestern opted to kick a field goal. Kicker Charlie Kuhbander missed the 38-yard try, and the Wildcats failed to take advantage of the excellent field position.
“I like the way we were flying around,” Toohill said. “We responded well in the red zone, off turnovers.”
Johnson’s next time leading the offense did not look much better. After completing just his second pass of the game to set up a third down, he eyed down his receiver all the way and Adebo took advantage for his first interception of the season.
“Paulson is one of the hardest working guys on this team,” Shaw said. “I don’t anticipate over the course of the year him having a chance to make a lot of plays.”
During the game, Adebo was receiving props on Twitter from the likes of Richard Sherman ’10, who was in attendance, as a certain NFL draft first round talent. Nevertheless, the hype does not reach Adebo.
“It’s my job to not listen to it and play up to it,” Adebo said.
Bowser injured his knee during the series and did not return to the game.
“I love watching that young man play,” Shaw said. “He plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Off of the turnover, Mills was able to connect with junior tight end Colby Parkinson up the seam, but the drive stalled there, and Toner’s field goal was blocked and hit off the left upright.
“Special teams wise, we don’t accept excuses,” Shaw said. “We have one of the best kickers in America. We’ve got to get the snap, the hold, the protection, got to get the kick.”
Soon after, Stanford was punting again, and Sanborn’s kick was returned all the way to midfield.
“Got a young punter that we think is going to be outstanding,” Shaw said. “Had a couple of miss-hits today, but we’re staying with him.”
Northwestern capitalized and finally put points on the board with 7:49 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats abandoned the aerial attack for the most part, and Johnson ate up ground with his feet, including on a crucial fourth down play deep in the red zone. It looked like Johnson would record a rushing touchdown as well, but after a review took the points off the board, it was running back John Moten IV on the score with a dive into the end zone.
“The quarterback was able to get outside of the pocket a little bit,” Adebo said. “Late there, he was hitting a little more passes.”
Stanford turned to lead rusher Scarlett to bleed clock in the fourth quarter. The first drive ended with another Mills’ turnover on another handoff attempt.
“The last one that we fumbled, if he pulls it he might have scored a touchdown,” Shaw said. “He’s probably the one guy on the team that has the exact same mentality as I do, the exact same personality, the exact same kind of, you know, even keel.”
Northwestern once again punted, and Scarlett ran six-straight plays to take the clock down to thirty seconds before Stanford was forced to punt.
“In the fourth quarter, we ran the same play five, six times in a row, and we were moving the ball and picking up yards,” Scarlett said.
Northwestern knew what was coming, but could not stop it.
“I thought we got what we expected,” said Northwestern safety Travis Whillock. “I thought the coaches did a great job of putting us in situations to make plays.”
“They had a good idea of what was coming, but that’s always been the Stanford brand,” Scarlett said. “They’re going to know we’re going to run it.”
“We were really getting good running the football,” Shaw said. “There’s a lot of pride we have, the defense knows we’re running it and we still run and still get a first down.”
With the potential to steal the game late, Northwestern took over on the ball, but Toohill and Fox sealed the game.
“That’s just what you live for,” Toohill said. “That’s icing on the cake, you want to be out there, you want to go make the play.”
Stanford’s ceremonial captain was Chris Marinelli ’09, who brought a metaphor of union workers to the offensive line during his time on the Farm. Offensive line coach Kevin Carberry, now in his second season, and the rest of the Cardinal coaching staff were hoping that the offensive line would take a major step forward from last year. The line limited the Wildcats to one sack, broke open holes for running backs to sneak into the secondary, and performed at a level reminiscent of the Tunnel Workers Union days.
“Not only was he a founding member of the Tunnels Workers Union, he was the founder,” Shaw said. “It was his idea. It was him bringing it from his father’s experience in Boston as a tunnel worker.
“As we got into the fourth quarter, we started hearing guys talking about the union, put it on the union, the guys up front,” Shaw added.
Stanford will head down to USC next Saturday.