Football: Three takeaways from Northwestern’s 16-6 victory over No. 21 Stanford

Bobby Pillote, Gameday Editor

1. The defense is really, really good

Northwestern had the worst pass rush in the Big Ten a year ago, posting just 17 sacks, and still managed to finish seventh in the conference in points allowed per game. That the Cats got to Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan three times on Saturday, around one of the better offensive lines in the country, gives the defense the potential to jump from good to scary.

All that depth along the defensive line paid off by opening things up for NU’s other playmakers, and good things happen when one of those playmakers is Anthony Walker. The sophomore linebacker was everywhere against the Cardinal, blowing up runs before they had a chance to develop and playing with an assurance to his game well beyond his years.

Even the veteran secondary found a way to improve, buoyed a game-sealing interception and subsequent slide by prescient sophomore safety Kyle Queiro. If everyone stays healthy, NU will have one of the best defenses in the conference. And if a cog or two does go down with an injury, the well-oiled machine should be able to keep humming along.

2. Clayton Thorson has plenty of room to grow

The Cats’ new redshirt freshman starter under center did just enough to deliver NU a win, which isn’t saying much when the opposing offense didn’t even find the end zone. His best two plays of the day, a 42-yard run showing off some impressive speed and a 25-yard pass displaying an excellent touch, were really good, but a 12-of-24 for 105 yards performance was not. Several of Thorson’s incompletions narrowly missed being interceptions, and on many of his misfires, the quarterback simply threw the ball to the wrong spot. Five of his 12 completions went to receiver Christian Jones, and while the senior is a good target to rely on, Thorson and the team will be better served by spreading the ball among the Cats’ plethora of playmakers.

Offensive coordinator Mick McCall will rightly keep his game-plans simple for the time being because there’s no reason not to hand off to sophomore Justin Jackson and the rest of NU’s talented running backs as much as possible. But the Cats won’t always have the luxury of playing with a lead, and at some point Thorson will have to air it out and ignite a more efficient and explosive passing attack. Hopefully that’s later rather than sooner, because it doesn’t look like he’s quite ready yet.

3. Expectations are higher than ever

It’s easy to imagine that after two consecutive 5-7 seasons coach Pat Fitzgerald would be satisfied with his team’s mere return to bowl eligibility. While he was definitely excited about the win Saturday, Fitzgerald was anything but jovial Monday in his weekly news conference, when he ripped into much of the Wildcats’ performance.

The coach clearly believes NU is destined for something bigger and better than a bottom-rung bowl game, and his desire to continue pushing his squad bodes well for the rest of the season. Add in a favorable conference schedule and the fact the win over Stanford — arguably the most difficult team on the calendar — is in the bank, and Fitzgerald might actually be on to something. It can only help that players and fans have also bought in after Saturday’s statement victory.

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote