By Eric Rynston-Lobel
The last time Northwestern played Stanford was September 5, 2015. Clayton Thorson had never played a college football game in his life, and Northwestern was coming off of its second consecutive 5-7 season. The next time Northwestern plays Stanford on August 31, Clayton Thorson will be donning a Philadelphia Eagles’ uniform and Hunter Johnson will be in a similar position Thorson was in roughly four years ago. The major difference? Northwestern is coming off of a historic season which saw the program reach the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time ever.
With expectations surrounding NU football higher than ever before, how they kick off the 2019 season against the Cardinal will certainly provide an early barometer as to how talented Johnson truly is. The following is meant to show exactly how Johnson and the rest of the Wildcats match up against a Stanford team coming off of a 9-4 season and a victory in the Sun Bowl over Pitt.
Northwestern Defense vs. Stanford Offense
The Cardinal will be led under center by senior quarterback K.J. Costello. In 13 games last year, Costello completed 65% of his passes and tossed 29 TDs against only 11 INTs. However, he didn’t play against a stingy Northwestern defense that forced 21 fumbles and 12 interceptions against opponents. Of course, the 2019 ‘Cats team will be without Montre Hartage, Nate Hall and Jordan Thompson, all of whom were major contributors to those gaudy numbers. However, with guys like Patty Fisher, Blake Gallagher, J.R. Pace and Earnest Brown returning, NU’s defense will be just fine.
Offensively, Stanford will be hurt by the loss of Bryce Love (drafted by the Washington Redskins in the fourth round) who led the team with 739 rushing yards last year. At this point, rising senior Trevor Speights looks to take over Love’s role as the go-to-guy in the backfield. Coming into 2019, Speights averages 3.8 yards per carry in 20 games which, while good, has come in only 95 carries (a little fewer than five per game). To me that’s a bit of a red flag, because it puts into question how durable Speights will be against a stout Northwestern front seven.
Stanford has also lost its top two wide receivers in terms of receiving yards from last year (J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin). The team’s two leading receivers following them were tight ends Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson. But against reigning All-Big Ten honorees Patty Fisher and Blake Gallagher at linebacker, it will be a tall task for Costello to rely heavily on his tight ends to deliver a win.
Northwestern Offense vs. Stanford Defense
This is the part I’m sure most of you have been waiting for. So, how does Hunter Johnson match up against Stanford? Well, it’s hard to say because he’s only thrown 27 career passes in college (at Clemson). However, we do know that he was a five-star recruit to Clemson and according to Jordan Thompson, has the capability to make throws in practice that make the room go silent.
Johnson will oppose a Cardinal defense that surrendered almost 23 points per game to its opponents last year and has lost its top two leading tacklers. However, like Northwestern, Stanford’s linebacking corps is still top-tier, headlined by Gabe Reid and Jordan Fox who combined for 10 sacks last year.
The presence of Reid and Fox could present problems to one of the biggest questions for this Wildcats’ offense: the offensive line. Though word on the street is that the offensive line is the unit on this team that will surprise the most (in a positive way), it’s unlikely this improvement will be on full display in game one of the season.
The other big question mark surrounds the wide receivers. With Isaiah Bowser continuing his role as the ‘Cats’ three-down back, that might take some pressure off of the receivers. However, with a young group of players at that position, it wouldn’t be surprising to witness some growing pains in that aspect of the game as well.
If you’ve watched enough Northwestern football, though, you know that when Northwestern wins games, it’s never pretty. Just last year alone, Wildcat fans saw a team that nearly squandered a 31-17 lead against Purdue, needed to drive 99 yards in the fourth quarter to tie the game against an 0-5 Nebraska team and win several defensive slogs against Rutgers, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois.
The point is, the ‘Cats should certainly be considered the favorite to win this game against Stanford with a strong defense and talented QB-RB combination. Just don’t expect it to look pretty.
In an offensive struggle, the defenses trade turnovers. Hunter Johnson underwhelms in his first game wearing Wildcat purple but is able to step it up in the fourth quarter to come back from a 13-12 deficit. His late-game performance has fans hopeful he will carry that success into the ‘Cats’ next game against UNLV.