Big Ten

Behind stellar defense, Northwestern chops down Stanford in upset


Behind stellar defense, Northwestern chops down Stanford in upset

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.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Watch Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson scamper 42 yards for TD]

“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.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Rutgers dismisses five arrested players]

“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.”

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?