Four years ago, Northwestern hosted a ranked Stanford squad and surprised the college football world in a 16-6 upset. On Saturday afternoon, a combination of missed tackles, injuries, poor play and quarterback inconsistency doomed the Wildcats (0-1) from a repeat performance in an ugly 17-7 loss against the #25 Cardinal (1-0).
Northwestern’s first half offense sputtered to a complete halt against the Cardinal, who were likewise unable to respond with points until a late second-half run. Despite the attention that surrounded Hunter Johnson (55 YDS, 2 INT) this past season, the former five-star recruit struggled through a 1-4 start for three yards before being replaced by TJ Green (62 YDS), who promptly led Northwestern down the field at the end of the second quarter before a 4th-down stop by the Cardinal. Stanford took the lead on a two-yard score from KJ Costello (152 YDS, 1 TD) to Michael Wilson (47 YDS, 1 TD) following a 90 play drive. Stanford gashed the Wildcat interior for 63 rushing yards, while Costello took advantage of missed tackles and mismatches on the flat to the tune of 152 passing yards.
Northwestern’s defensive line, perhaps the strongest returning position group for the ‘Cats, set the tone early by forcing an early 4th-down stop and two punts. Edge rushers Joe Gaziano (4 TOT) and Samdup Miller (3 TOT), along with safety Travis Whillock (10 TOT), prevented the more experienced Cardinal offense from doing too much damage early on. Towards the end of the half, though, Stanford began exploiting gaps in Northwestern’s D. Missed tackles were an issue all game, as Coach Pat Fitzgerald noted after the game.
"Obviously the missed tackles were inexcusable,” Fitzgerald said. “As a former defensive player, there's an old saying: when you can't make an open-field tackle out there, you really hurt the defense.”
Injuries did the ‘Cats no favors, either; starting cornerback Trae Williams left with a leg injury in the second quarter.
The ‘Cats appeared prime to enter the half down one score, but Earnest Brown’s (6 TOT, 0.5 SACK) late hit against Costello set up Jet Toner’s 51-yard field goal, a career high. Stanford dominated the yardage matchup, at 215 yard to Northwestern’s 79. Only penalties and 4th down stops prevented the Cardinal from capitalizing on their 10-0 advantage. Social media began to take notice of what was quickly shaping up to be a farcical game.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the second half began with two key injuries and two key turnovers. TJ Green fumbled on Northwestern’s first possession deep in Stanford territory, and appeared to injure his leg. He was carted out of the game, leaving both teams with inexperienced quarterbacks for the rest of the half. Hunter Johnson failed to impress upon returning; Stanford’s All-American cornerback Paulson Adebo (5 TOT, 1 INT) picked off a pass intended for JJ Jefferson (8 YDS), but Toner missed the ensuing 29-yard field goal to keep the score at 10-0. Perhaps more importantly, Isaiah Bowser, who only managed 54 yards in a quiet game for Northwestern’s lead back, gingerly walked off the field after a two-yard gain. He was later ruled out for remainder of the contest. Despite the myriad of injuries, Stanford couldn’t put the game away.
The ‘Cats got on the board with a 1-yard rushing touchdown by John Moten IV (5 YDS, 1 TD), but the late score was for naught. Northwestern had one last chance to drive down the field, but a holding call followed by a quarterback draw on 3rd and 14 forced a punt.
With 30 seconds left, the Cardinal flushed Johnson from the pocket and forced a fumble as he was prepared to throw. Stanford recovered the football in the end zone, a fitting conclusion to a poor performance from the ‘Cats in a 17-7 loss.
This one was hard to watch. The ‘Cats, and Johnson in particular, seemed flat-out unprepared at kickoff. The defense couldn’t come up with enough heroics to salvage a forgettable offensive performance, and it appears as if Hunter Johnson will need to improve by leaps and bounds before the front-heavy Big Ten schedule kicks in. That said, Northwestern’s defense wasn’t the crisp unit we expect them to be, either, with missed tackles in open space allowing Stanford to gain chunks of yards.
"I came into the game expecting to cut loose and have fun,” said linebacker Paddy Fisher. “We played to the best of our ability with the cards we were dealt, but there is still work to be done [defensively]."
The ‘Cats are used to slow starts, but Pat Fitzgerald’s team is staring at a 1-6 start entering November. Northwestern moves into next week’s bye in need of morale and reinforcements before its tilt against UNLV on Sept. 14th. Potentially without Green, Bowser, Williams, and starting left tackle Rashawn Slater, the ‘Cats will have to dig deep to emerge with a fighting chance of repeating their division title.