EVANSTON — How good was the Northwestern defense on Saturday?
“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,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Without leafing through a Northwestern football history book, it would be difficult to argue with that. Fitzgerald routinely called his defense’s performance “dominant” after Saturday’s season-opener, a perfect adjective after a near-perfect showing in a 16-6 win over the No. 21 Stanford Cardinal.
Northwestern held Stanford, typically one of the nation’s better teams, to just 240 total offensive yards, only 85 of those coming on the ground. The Cats forced a pair of turnovers and kept the Cardinal completely out of the end zone en route to a statement win in the first game of the season.
“I think we just wanted to let everybody know that we’re a physical football team,” sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker said. “We wanted to 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. Our back four, safeties and corners, they play with that swagger that lets everybody know they can’t throw the ball, either. It’s all we wanted to do was set a tone today.”
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“We talked to the guys about dominating up front to make this be a statement game about where we’re at right now so that we can get better and improve and make it a statement game about recruiting,” Fitzgerald said. “And I though our guys made that kind of statement today against a very, very good football team.”
The Northwestern defense got into domination mode early. After Stanford went 64 yards in 12 plays on the first drive of the game, kicking a field goal to take an early 3-0 lead, Northwestern’s defense didn’t allow a thing. The rest of the first half, Stanford gained just 23 yards on 16 plays. Stanford punted on its three third-quarter drives. Its two fourth-quarter drives ended in a field goal and an interception.
Walker stood out, making 10 tackles and recorded three tackles for loss, half a sack and a fumble recovery. Safety Kyle Quiero came up with a huge interception on the goal line on Stanford’s final play while the Cardinal were threatening late in the game with the deficit just 10 points. Safety Traveon Henry made eight tackles, a tackle for loss and a sack.
The defensive line, though, played perhaps the biggest role, snuffing out Stanford’s run game and allowing the rest of the defense to do what it needed to.
“This game for sure needed to be won up front, and that’s what I saw from the boundary,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought there was a dominant performance by our defensive line. It looked like we controlled the line of scrimmage on every single play defensive-line wise. … Obviously for us when you look at our ability to run the ball for 225 yards and hold them to 85, that was a dominant performance by us on the line of scrimmage. Perfect? No. But dominant.”
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“I feel like defensively overall we unleashed a caged bull today,” defensive end Dean Lowry said. “It’s been a long offseason, it’s been a long time since November. We definitely had an unmatched work ethic this offseason, I think it showed off today. It’s a start, though, just a start. Consistency is key for that to continue.”
Northwestern, as you can surely tell from the final score, didn’t exactly flourish on the offensive side of the ball. Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson was serviceable in his first career start. He made plenty of throws that showed his inexperience and a couple real good ones, but his biggest flash came as a ball-carrier, taking the ball 42 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter for the game’s only touchdown. Otherwise, Thorson threw for 105 yards.
Justin Jackson picked up where he left off last season, rushing 28 times for 134 yards, a solid 2015 debut for him after rushing for 1,000-plus a season ago.
Northwestern’s defensive dominance grabbed the Cats a Week 1 win after a pair of losses to start the 2014 campaign had them in an early 0-2 hole. The 2015 season has started much differently, and it gives hope that the Cats — who’ve had a problem finishing off games they’ve been winning in recent seasons — can turn around some of their misfortune.
“Our standard around here is, for whatever reason, we play in close games, and when we’ve been very good, we win close games and we finish the job,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what the guys were talking about in the locker room afterward. This is a new team, and we know how to finish and the defense finished the job.”