Football: Ground game, defense carry Northwestern to 16-6 upset of No. 21 Stanford


Chelsea Sherlock/The Daily Northwestern

Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson celebrates with teammates following his second-quarter touchdown. Northwestern topped No. Stanford 16-6 on Saturday.

Huzaifa Patel, Reporter

It was an opening-game test unlike any Northwestern football has faced in years. And the team passed with flying colors.

The Cats won the battle in the trenches, holding No. 21 Stanford to 85 rushing yards, while also locking up senior quarterback Kevin Hogan’s passing game, clinching the 16-6 win with an interception in the end zone.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson flashed big play ability in his first start, sophomore running back Justin Jackson zigged and zagged his way to another strong game and the Wildcats slowly but surely pulled away.

Thorson wasn’t perfect, but he was poised throughout.

“He’s really just unflappable,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He’s really just calm and cool. He doesn’t get too high or too low.”

Thorson primarily showed off his running ability, electrifying Ryan Field with a 42-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. He finished with 68 yards on eight carries, adding another dimension to the offensive attack. While Fitzgerald continued to be mum on Thorson’s legs, Jackson didn’t hold back when describing the freshman’s speed.

“I’d bet on me (in a race),” Jackson said. “But he’d give me a tough challenge.”

Jackson picked up where he left off in 2014, cutting and juking his way to another triple digit performance on the ground by carrying 28 times for 134 yards. The combination of Jackson and Thorson was a pleasure to watch, as the two kept the Stanford defense guessing all day.

The first half was an entertaining one with multiple big plays and what-ifs, including some near-interceptions by Stanford’s defense. The highlight was Thorson’s touchdown, but the defense was just as stellar, swarming the conservative Cardinal attack.

The star of the unit was sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker, who was a force in the middle, recording 10 tackles, three of which went for a Cardinal loss. Walker credited the outburst to the team’s desire to play with an increased physicality.

“Playing with swagger — I’m from Miami, so that’s what I’m used to,” Walker said.

The question of whether that performance was sustainable loomed over halftime, but the defense merely repeated the act in the second half by making key play after key play.

“Our defense really dominated today,” Fitzgerald said. “Probably one of best performances top to bottom I’ve seen them play.”

In the third quarter, neither team managed to sustain a drive. The farthest Stanford made it was the Northwestern 37-yard line, before a key pass breakup by Anthony Walker ended the drive.

But the Cats picked up steam heading into the fourth quarter. With some impressive runs from Jackson, the Cats were able to get inside the five before a Thorson incompletion on third down led to a field goal to make the score 13-3.

The Stanford drive that followed was a wild one. The Cardinal picked up a field goal on a 13-play, 55-yard drive, but not before a deep-ball drop by receiver Michael Rector and two near-interceptions by Northwestern, one called back due to penalty and one dropped by Walker.

The Cats showed tremendous resolve on their following drive, the key play being a 25-yard beauty-of-a-throw from Thorson to Miles Shuler. The effort was capped by a 49-yard field goal from Jack Mitchell, setting a new career long for the junior kicker.

The field goal proved to be a huge difference-maker in the flow and play calling of the final drive. Instead of a one-score game with 3:38 left, the Cats’ offense put the defense in a great position to play with the clock on their side.

Stanford drove down the field in small chunks, and it looked like the door was open for a comeback, but sophomore safety Kyle Quiero made an amazing break on a deep ball, and just like that Northwestern was 1-0.

Though the team will have to move on to Eastern Illinois soon, Wildcat fans can enjoy the win, which will surely go down as one of the most complete performances against high-level competition in recent memory.

“I look forward to watching the way that we mature here throughout the course of this week,” Fitzgerald said. “We just beat a very good football team. … How are we going to handle preparing for the team coming in here next week?”

As for Saturday, Fitzgerald had little to complain about.

“Challenge number one,” he said. “I think it was a success.”

Twitter: @huzaifapatel95