The Northwestern Wildcats entered this season with a lot of new faces in new places, and after their 16-6 upset over Stanford on Saturday, the faces are becoming more familiar and the questions are starting become answered.
So much of the focus this offseason has been on the quarterback position, with the job ultimately going to freshman Clayton Thorson. Thorson was far from perfect in his debut, but in the end did everything he needed to do, and a little bit more, to secure the win for Northwestern.
While the offense did just enough to help lead Northwestern to the win, it was the defense that ultimately look center stage. The Wildcats held Stanford to only six points and 240 total yards, which included only 85 total yards on the ground from Stanford’s highly touted running backs. All of this against an offensive line that ESPN had ranked 8th best in the country headed into the season.
That said, things were not looking good on Stanford’s first drive of the game, in which Northwestern’s defense looked underprepared and overmatched. On their opening possession, Stanford drove down the field easily with a 12 play, 64 yard drive which ended in a field goal. Coach Pat Fitzgerald claimed the team didn’t make any adjustments after that drive, but something was different, and it was all Wildcats from there.
“There was nothing that we needed to adjust”, Fitzgerald said after the game. “We had opportunities to get off the field on that drive and we didn’t and that was probably what we were most disappointed with, was our inability to get off the field on third down”.
Northwestern’s dominance on defensive started up front with the veteran defensive line, led by Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson, who kept the Stanford rushing attack at bay and put pressure on quarterback Kevin Hogan all day. But Northwestern was able to bring pressure from all over, with sacks by Ifeadi Odenigbo and Traveon Henry.
“This game needed to be won up front. I thought there was a dominant performance by our defensive line. It looked like we controlled the line of scrimmage on every single play”, said Fitzgerald.
It was a balanced attack on defense from Northwestern, but the guy who spent the most time standing over tackled Stanford players was Anthony Walker. The promising young linebacker was all over the field, in on nearly every play, totaling 10 total tackles, 1 sack assist, 2 broken up passes, and a fumble recovery.
“We wanted to let everybody know that we’re a physical football team”, Walker said after the game. “We wanted to be able to stop the run first and that starts with the front seven and I think we were able to get that job done today”.
Walker came onto the scene unexpectedly last season as a freshman, when he was thrust into battle after an injury to Colin Ellis. He very quickly emerged as a star for Northwestern in 2014 with dominant performances in wins over Penn State, Notre Dame and Purdue. He is a player we featured as someone we were looking toward to make the next step and emerge is a true star and leader on this defense. This victory was a very big first step in that direction.
To put this game into perspective, last season Northwestern opponents averaged 25.2 points per game. This game was the lowest point total they’ve given up to an opponent since defeating Penn State 29-6 on September 27th, 2014. In fact, it was the first ranked team they’ve held without a touchdown in 20 years.
Stanford’s offense averaged 27.2 points and 388.6 total yards per game last season, compared to just 240 total yards against Northwestern on Saturday, with an offense almost entirely intact from last season. It was their lowest output on offense since their 45-16 loss to Oregon last season.
Of the game, Fitzgerald said, “It was probably one of the best performances I’ve seen our group play, top to bottom, against a ranked team, maybe in my time (here)”.
It was only fitting that the game ended on a touchdown saving interception by Kyle Queiro with under a minute to go in the 4th quarter.
This was a big win for Northwestern but also a big statement game for this defense, which came into the season with a lot of questions surrounding who would step up and be difference makers, particularly behind the defensive line.
“We unleashed a cage bull today”, said Lowry after the game. “It’s just a start though. Just a start”.
This win over Stanford set the tone for the Wildcats, and set the bar for the defense to be the group they believe they can be, but haven’t been over the last couple years. But with a young, albeit promising quarterback at the helm, the defense is going to need to be counted on to, at the very least keep them in games, and at times, win games for Northwestern this season. Now they’ve shown what this defense is capable of, and now that they are on the radar of the rest of their opponents, they know the real work is still ahead of them.