Expectations were not high for the Northwestern Wildcats entering their season opener. Hosting a ranked Stanford team, they were 12-point underdogs at Ryan Field. And Pat Fitzgerald knew national attention wasn’t drawn toward his young squad.
“There was no reason why anyone should have talked about us. We had no evidence from the way we finished last year,” the 10-year Wildcat head coach said.
Despite back-to-back 5-7 seasons, there was reason to believe Northwestern football was on the rise. Many of the best recruits of the Pat Fitzgerald era were moving into starting roles, and the level of talent on the Wildcat roster is peaking.
Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson, both four-star recruits who ranked in the top ten nationally at their respective positions out of high school, make up the starting backfield. Northwestern and Nebraska are the only teams with backfields of that caliber in the Big Ten West. Another four-star prospect from the 2014 class, Garrett Dickerson, saw significant time at superback Saturday.
On the defensive side of the ball, Godwin Igwebuike and Tyler Lancaster, who were both given four-star ratings by some recruiting sites, started and played integral roles in the Wildcat victory. Ifeadi Odenigbo, who is arguably the highest rated Wildcat recruit ever, rotated in on the defensive line and aided in a pass rush that kept Kevin Hogan nervous from the second quarter on. He also had a huge sack in the fourth quarter to stall a Stanford drive.
With the excess of talent in the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes, improvement was bound to come eventually. The impact of those players simply was not expected this soon.
Sophomore Anthony Walker was a ball-hawk against the Cardinal, stepping up to stop the run and swooping into passing lanes to force incompletions. He finished with ten tackles, two of which were for losses and two pass breakups. The three sophomore starters on defense totaled 18 tackles, three for losses and three pass breakups. And as a whole, the Wildcat defense was on top of its game.
“I think our defense really dominated today,” 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.”
Northwestern held Stanford, a notoriously strong running team, to 85 yards on the ground and just 240 total yards. The Cardinal were kept off the board for a 44-minute span stretching from the first to the fourth quarter, and they converted just three of 15 third down opportunities.
The success of the Wildcat defense took the pressure off Thorson in his first career start and allowed Justin Jackson to do his thing. Jackson ran wild for 134 rushing yards, averaging nearly five yards per carry. Solomon Vault and Warren Long spelled Jackson nicely too, combining for 51 yards on 13 touches.
Even Thorson torched Stanford with his speed. The lone touchdown of the game came on a 42-yard scamper by the 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman in the second quarter. He finished with 68 yards on eight carries. Thorson may have only completed half of his passes and barely totaled 100 yards through the air, but it was clear that NU has found its signal-caller.
“He’ll learn and really grow from this. I thought he played outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “He outplayed a fifth-year senior. That’s what I saw today. I thought he stayed within the framework of our offense. I don’t think he tried to do too much. I think that’s a great win for him.”
It was an excellent win for Thorson and it was an even better win for Northwestern. Getting a non-conference victory against a ranked opponent was huge, and all of a sudden playing during bowl season looks a lot more attainable.
There could be serious long term implications from this victory too. In the last three years, Stanford has dominated Northwestern in recruiting, and Fitzgerald’s recruiting success has already started to plateau. To regain the momentum, the Wildcats needed a victory like this, one against a marquee opponent that they are in direction recruiting competition with.
“We talked to the guys about dominating up front to make this be a statement game about where we are at right now so we can get better and improve and make this a statement game about recruiting,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought our guys made that kind of statement today against a very, very good football team.”
Now, after that statement victory, there is reason to talk about Northwestern football again.