EVANSTON, Ill. – After not qualifying for a bowl game last season, the Northwestern Wildcats began to stew about it the second their final game ended last year.
Their anger simmered over the winter. It became a bubbling fervor of discontent through the spring and summer and finally boiled over Saturday afternoon, when the unranked Wildcats upset No. 21 Stanford, 16-6, in a season-opening slugfest at Ryan Field.
“I felt like defensively, overall, we unleashed a caged bull today,” said Northwestern senior defensive end Dean Lowry, who had one tackle for loss among his four tackles. “It’s been a long offseason. It’s been a long time since” last “November, so we definitely had an unmatched work ethic this offseason. I think it showed today, but it’s just a start.”
Led by an attacking, aggressive defense, the Wildcats dominated the physical aspect of the game against a brutish team that has developed a reputation the past few years by pounding opponents into submission.
This time, the Cardinal (0-1) found itself on the business end of such a taxing contest. Northwestern (1-0) churned out 225 yards rushing on 54 attempts and held Stanford to 85 yards on 27 carries.
The Wildcats outgained the Cardinal 330 yards to 240 and frustrated fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, who completed 20 of 35 passes for 155 yards and threw an interception with 57 seconds left to seal the outcome.
Hogan’s numbers suffered, in part, because of a couple of key dropped passes.
“We didn’t give ourselves a chance to win,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “We thought we were well prepared, and it didn’t show. We can’t give up big plays – big runs or big passes – and we gave up both.”
Stanford held the ball for 8:33 on a 12-play drive that resulted in a field goal on its first possession, but the Cardinal struggled to move the ball again until the waning moments of the game.
Sophomore safety Kyle Queiro sealed the victory with his interception of Hogan’s pass in the end zone.
It was a reward for the Wildcats, who outslugged the Cardinal on a sweltering hot day.
Northwestern got three field goals by kicker Jack Mitchell and a long touchdown run by quarterback Clayton Thorson, a redshirt freshman making his first start.
Thorson completed 12 of 24 passes for 105 yards, and the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder rushed for 68 yards on eight carries, including a 42-yard touchdown in the second quarter that made it 10-3.
Sophomore running back Justin Jackson rushed the ball 28 times for 134 yards to lead the Wildcats’ ground game, while Stanford running back Christian McCaffery carried 12 times for 66 yards.
“I thought there was a dominant performance by our defensive line,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.