Stanford has had a lot of cupcake openers throughout these past few seasons, including Sac State, UC Davis, and good ‘ole San Jose State. Northwestern isn't one that you can convincingly add to that list, so unfortunately for David Shaw, Stanford will actually have to implement some semblance of a game plan against the Wildcats.
Keys to the Game:
Clayton Thorson vs. Stanford Defense
Offenses live and die by the quarterback, and Stanford's less-experienced secondary will get to face a redshirt freshman quarterback making his college debut. Before you start chalking up a win, it's good to know that Clayton Thorson isn't your average freshman quarterback. He'll probably have a lot of jitters in the early going. However, once he settles in, he has the tools to be an excellent quarterback, but one that still will be very susceptible to freshman moments. We don't know much about him because of his lack of experience, but in his high school tape, he looks like a big, strong-armed kid (And a four-star recruit) that can fit throws into tight windows. He has the arm to make all of the throws, and steps up when he goes through his reads, not shying away from taking a hit to make a throw.
He fits pretty well in Northwestern's system because he can run the option well, and take the ball down the field himself. Thorson has a great combination of speed, mobility in the pocket, and elusiveness in the open field that makes him a very dangerous runner, and his experience in a spread scheme in college makes him a great fit for Northwestern's spread. At times though, Northwestern does run a poor man's version of Stanford's power game, so he could be vulnerable taking snaps from under center. He also has shoddy footwork, which has probably been honed in the two years since he filmed that tape.
Especially in the early going, look for David Shaw to dial up a lot of blitzes to get in Thorson's head. Whether or not they are successful with this plan will probably be the difference between a laugher and close one.
Stanford vs. Themselves
There are a lot of factors that make this game pretty scary for Stanford. Not Toby Gerhart bull-rushing you in the open field scary, but still.
First, that dreaded 9 A.M. Pacific Time kickoff after a long, long plane flight. They'll be sleep-walking for the first quarter at least, and it'll probably be a pretty close game in the early going.
Second, Stanford has had problems with looking past weaker teams, like Washington in 2012. Maybe you could chalk that one up to Josh Nunes, quarterback extraordinaire, but still. That trip to the Coliseum is probably in the back of a lot of players' minds — not necessarily their trip to Evanston. It is the first game of the season, so maybe the trap game factor isn't that high — around a 6 out of 10.
Finally, Kevin Hogan's play drops off a lot on the road, posting a quarterback rating nearly 35 points lower on the road last season. He'll have to conquer his road demons if the Cardinal offense is to hum along like it should.
Containing Justin Jackson
To put more pressure on Thorson, Stanford will have to bottle up Northwestern running back Justin Jackson, who earned an the All-Big Ten honorable mention with a breakout freshman year. He rushed for 1,187 yards (4.8 YPC) and ten touchdowns last season, while also hauling in 22 catches for 201 yards, huge numbers for a true freshman, or a fifth-year senior, for that matter.
The dual-threat back screams Big Ten, a bigger back who can plow you over, take hits, and bulldoze his way into the end zone. He's the kind of back Stanford needed last season, but just didn't have. David Shaw called plays like he had Gerhart in the stables, but that's beside the point.
Stanford's front seven needs to take advantage of Northwestern's mediocre offensive line, 83rd nationally in FootballOutsiders' Adjusted Line Yards, and bottle up Jackson if they want to play up to their potential. It might not be all that difficult— Northwestern sounds scarier this season with Thorson at the helm, but they were behind 100 teams, including FIU, Temple, and New Mexico State in scoring offense last season. Yikes.
Containing Jackson would be a big boon going forward for a fresh defensive front that has little experience together. He'll test their ability to make tackles — he isn't your average cupcake back.
Buckle up, Stanford fans. We're in for a fun season.