Cardinal host the Wildcats in intriguing Pac-12 vs. Big Ten season opener out west
The beginning of the 2019 college football season features a matchup between the Northwestern Wildcats and Stanford Cardinal, two Power 5 teams looking to take the next step. For the first time since 1992, the Big Ten's Wildcats (9-5 in 2018) will head to Stanford to take on the Cardinal of the Pac-12. These teams last met back in 2015 when Stanford traveled to Evanston, Illinois, for the season opener. Northwestern's defense held form as the Wildcats won that game 16-6 en route to a 10-3 campaign. Stanford won the 1992 matchup 35-24 and leads the all-time series 3-2-2, although NU has won two of the last three meetings.
Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats took a major leap in 2018. They overcame a 1-3 start to go 7-1 in their last eight games and took home the Big Ten's West Division title in the process. They fell well short against Ohio State in their first-ever Big Ten Championship Game but finished the year on a high note by overcoming a 20-3 halftime deficit and scoring 28 unanswered points to defeat Pac-12 member Utah in the Holiday Bowl on New Year's Eve. Before the "Cardiac Cats" can even think about a return to Indianapolis, they must first take care of business in the Bay Area.
Heading into his ninth season as head coach, David Shaw has guided the Cardinal to eight consecutive winning seasons (82-26 record, three Pac-12 titles). The Cardinal scored 30 or more points on six occasions in 2018; they held seven of their opponents under 20 points; and twice they had winning streaks of four games. Back-to-back losses against Washington State and Washington kept the Cardinal from winning the Pac-12 North last season, but a win over Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl gave Stanford its fifth bowl game victory under Shaw and a final record of 9-4.
Both teams ended 2018 with a win, and now they hope to carry that momentum into 2019.
Northwestern at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Stanford -6.5
When Northwestern Has the Ball
Fitzgerald has not officially named a starting quarterback yet, and he may not do so until kickoff approaches. He's deciding between senior TJ Green and Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson. Green was the main backup to Clayton Thorson last year and saw plenty of snaps at the beginning of the season as Thorson was coming off a knee injury. Green has completed 21-of-37 passes for 174 yards, and he also has 22 rushing yards and a touchdown run to his credit.
Johnson, on the other hand, was a prized recruit for Clemson and was set to be next in the line of recent Tiger signal-callers. He was the 30th-ranked quarterback in the Class of 2017, and in limited action behind Kelly Bryant, he completed 21-of-27 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. He transferred to Evanston when Trevor Lawrence arrived at Clemson. While both men lack starting experience, they'll have a nice supporting cast around them.
That starts in the backfield, where sophomore Isaiah Bowser looks to capitalize on last year's breakout freshman season. Bowser was called upon after cervical stenosis forced Jeremy Larkin to retire last September. And when all was said and done, Bowser totaled 197 carries for 866 yards and six touchdowns, and he added 127 receiving yards. Senior John Moten IV, sophomore Drake Anderson and junior Jesse Brown (699 rushing yards and 7 TDs combined) provide depth behind Bowser at the running back position.
The next QB will also have a nice crop of pass catchers to throw to. Junior Riley Lees (214 receiving yards, three touchdown catches last season) and senior Bennett Skowronek (562, 3) are the top returning receivers from last year. Lees is an effective slot receiver, while Skowronek is best remembered for hauling in the game-winning touchdown pass against Iowa that clinched the Big Ten West title. Also on board are receivers JJ Jefferson and Kyric McGowan (combined 464 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns in 2018), along with superback (fullback/tight end hybrid) Trey Pugh (29 receiving yards), who's set to replace Cameron Green, who retired during the offseason.
The Wildcats also have an experienced offensive line. Stanford is one of the few college teams that run the NFL-preferred 3-4 defense. And last year, that same defense posted 36 sacks while also deflecting 63 passes and forcing 20 turnovers, so they won't be giving up too much ground to Northwestern.
When Stanford Has the Ball
The Cardinal offense begins and ends with senior quarterback K.J. Costello. He threw for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns last year while completing 65 percent of his throws. This will be Costello's third year as Stanford's starter, and NFL scouts are highly interested in his arm strength and accuracy. Sophomores Osiris St. Brown (204 receiving yards, one touchdown) and Michael Wilson (126 yards, 9.0 yards per catch) and junior Connor Wedington (308 career receiving yards) return at wide receiver from last year's team, and they'll be looking to replace the production that the now-departed JJ Arcega-Whiteside (1,059 receving yards, 14 TDs last year) takes with him to the NFL. The 6-foot-7 Colby Parkinson (29 receptions, 485 yards, 7 TDs) is Costello's top target at the tight end position.
Bryce Love (3,865 career rushing yards, 465 career receiving yards, 32 total touchdowns, 2017 Heisman Trophy finalist) has moved on to the NFL. Looking to fill that sizable void will be Cameron Scarlett, who was last year's second-leading rusher (330 yards, 8 TDs, 4.2 ypc), and Trevor Speights, who was right behind Scarlett on the stat sheet (221 yards, TD). One concern for Stanford has to be the fact that Costello took 23 sacks and threw 11 picks one year ago. That will be music to the ears of the ever-opportunistic Northwestern defense (24 sacks, 12 interceptions, 15 forced fumbles in 2018), which returns numerous starters from last year.
Stanford has not played a Big Ten team since that 2015 loss to NU. But under Shaw, Stanford is 3-2 against the Big Ten. Northwestern, on the other hand, has won three of its last four games against Pac-12 opposition and has outscored those teams 115-87 during that stretch. The Wildcats are also 15-5 in their last 20 road/neutral site games and have won 15 of their last 21 games against Power 5 schools. The Cardinal have gone 15-7 in their last 22 games vs. the Power 5.
Both defenses will get plenty of attention on Saturday, and Costello will keep the Wildcats on their toes. But Northwestern's recent success away from home, both against Stanford and against the Pac-12 as a whole, pushes the Wildcats to a close, hard-fought win.
Prediction: Northwestern 24, Stanford 23
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.