A Contender Emerges? Northwestern Impressive vs. Stanford

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Heading into Saturday’s Stanford-Northwestern clash in Evanston, media buzzed with chatter of a team on the upswing after finishing 2014 strong.

Turns out, the buzz was misplaced — and that includes from yours truly.

Northwestern’s 16-6 win Saturday over Stanford didn’t just grant NU’s 2016 graduating class bragging rights (and possibly control over the Illuminati for the next year). It also suggests Pat Fitzgerald may have a team capable of competing for the Big Ten West.

Northwestern’s shown flashes over the last season-and-a-half of that quality, as Today marks the Wildcats’ third over a team ranked in the Top 25 the week they faced since October 2014.

Fitzgerald’s bunch upset Wisconsin last season before injuries piled, then knocked off Notre Dame late in the campaign.

Back at full strength to kick off 2015, Northwestern looks as though it could be a contender in a Big Ten West lacking a clear-cut favorite.

The division’s top three finishers of a year ago — and three favorites to finish atop the West again this year — opened 2015 with marquee matchups.

Minnesota hung tough with TCU, slowing down the No. 2 Horned Frogs’ explosive offense. Nebraska is in action with BYU as of this writing, and defending champion Wisconsin draws Alabama tonight.

Northwestern’s win over Stanford is the fourth of the West’s marquee games.

Early-season performances have to be measured careful, as much can change in just a few weeks. Northwestern experienced that each of the last two seasons, falling form the Top 20 to out of the bowl picture in 2013, then last year, going from wins over Penn State and Wisconsin to losses against Iowa, Michigan and Illinois.

However, Saturday was a great place for the Wildcats to start. The old adage of winning teams taking on their coach’s identity rang true, as the fiery, defensive-minded Fitzgerald saw his team match Stanford’s ballyhooed physicality with a haymaker counter punch.

The Wildcat defense was feisty, hard-hitting and flying to the ball. It complete shut down the Stanford run game (89 yards), while daring the Cardinal to go long — not exactly their strong suit.

Conservative play-calling or not, to keep Stanford out of the end zone for the duration is impressive — historically so.

That little bit of Northwestern history was preserved with an interception in the final minute.

The sole concern coming out of Saturday’s win has to be reaching the opposite end zone just once.

Running back Justin Jackson looks like a reliable option, rushing for 134 yards, and dual-threat quarterback Clayton Thorson’s running could be a huge difference-maker.

But Thorson must be able to throw more accurately to keep defenses from loading up on the run, the way Northwestern’s defense so effectively did against the Cardinal.

Everyone has something to fine-tune after Week 1, however. And starting that process after a win over a Top 25 team is pretty much ideal.