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Stanford Cardinal vs. Northwestern Wildcats Preview and Prediction

Kevin Hogan

Kevin Hogan

This is a battle of contrasting styles, between a squad with a bruising running game and gritty defense versus a speedy team who likes to spread out and hurl the ball all over the field. Traditionally, the former would be from the Midwest while the latter hails from the West Coast. Actually, these two are the complete opposites of those stereotypes. The first team mentioned comes from the Pac-12 team while the second one belongs to the Big Ten.

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This type of inter-sectional match matters in the minds of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. The Big Ten's reputation took a beating in September of last season in part due to the Pac-12's winning four of five of the regular season contests between the conferences. That tattered reputation could have cost Ohio State a berth in the playoffs if not for the co-championship mess in the Big 12.

Stanford leads this series 3-1-2. However, Northwestern is 1-0-1 against the Cardinal in Evanston.

Stanford Cardinal at Northwestern Wildcats

Kickoff: 11 a.m. CT (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Stanford +12

Three Things to Watch

1. Untried Wildcats' Quarterback versus Experienced Cardinal Secondary

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Last week, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald announced that Clayton Thorson, a redshirt freshman, will start in the season-opener. He will be throwing against three seniors (Kodi Whitfield, Dallas Lloyd and Ronnie Harris), all of whom played in at least nine games during last season, plus a sophomore (Alijah Holder). If Thorson struggles, how long will Fitzgerald let that continue before inserting redshirt sophomore Matt Alviti or senior Zack Oliver into the game?

2. Senior Wildcat Skill Position Players Need to Alleviate Pressure on Young QB

Has fifth year senior wide receiver Christian Jones fully recovered from his torn ACL in order to serve Thorson as a dependable weapon downfield? The other upperclassmen at wide receiver, seniors Cameron Dickson, Miles Shuler and Pierre Youngblood-Ary plus juniors Mike McHugh, Andrew Scanlan and Austin Carr must do their utmost to break free of defenders and be open for passes. They cannot expect a quarterback making his first collegiate start to have pinpoint accuracy or squeeze the ball between his intended receiver and a defender blanketing his intended target. Also Dan Vitale will have to be able to serve as a safety valve for the neophyte under center. The knowledge that he does not throw perfectly and has running game to make the defense back off from blitzing frequently will maintain the confidence of the untested quarterback.

3. Early Kickoff Time

How will the 11 AM start affect the guys from the West Coast? Could the two-hour difference make the Cardinal sluggish in the first half? The fall quarter has not started yet so the crew from Palo Alto have not been waking up at the crack of dawn for classes. Have the players been mentally and physically preparing themselves for what will feel like a 6 AM wake-up call, if not earlier, for their season opener?

Final Analysis

As often happens when a Pacific Twelve team ventures eastward for an early kickoff, the visitors will seem lethargic. The Wildcats will also struggle on offense. The game should be low-scoring, in the single digits to the low teens, until the start of the second half. The Cardinal will have had their lattes at that point. Then they will proceed to pounding away with their running game, breaking off bigger gainers as the second half progresses. Stanford will run away with the game in the fourth quarter which is when the Cardinal will score the majority of its points.

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Prediction: Stanford 34, Northwestern 12

— Written by John La Fleur, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network. A graduate of Michigan State and LSU, La Fleur also has been a Saints fan since he was old enough to understand football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur.