Who: No. 21 Stanford vs. Northwestern

When: Saturday, 11 a.m. CT

Where: Ryan Field, Northwestern


Spread: Stanford -12

Matchup to Watch: Stanford D vs. Justin Jackson 

The Big Ten’s second leading returning rusher has quite the challenge ahead to start his sophomore campaign. Brian Shaw’s defenses have been as solid as any over the last four years. The nation’s seventh best run defense, however, only returns four starters, none of which from the defensive line. Former Nebraska Gatorade Athlete of the Year Harrison Phillips and Co. will still be a force that the Northwestern line that will have its hands full with. It’ll need to find space for Jackson to operate, because he’s easily their best chance to hang tough against one of the Pac-12’s best.

Thing I’m excited to see: Clayton Thorson’s debut

It’s been a while since the Wildcats landed a quarterback recruit like Thorson, who not only has size but can also use his legs effectively. Pat Fitzgerald gave the redshirt freshman the keys to the car over Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver because of his upside. Thorson was the No. 9 pro-style quarterback in the 2014 class, and drew praise for his maturation during camp. It’ll be interesting to see how the game plan shifts with Thorson under center. One would assume that Fitzgerald is going to have to balance the big-armed quarterback’s shots down field with exposing him too much against the Cardinal defense.

Number to Remember: 104

That was Northwestern’s ranking in total offense last year. Wins vs. Wisconsin and Notre Dame bookended the Cats’ four-game losing streak in which they failed to reach 20 points once. A 4.5 yards per play average didn’t help them move the chains. For Northwestern to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2012, it has to improve greatly on that side of the ball. The return of former leading receiver Christian Jones should help against a talented Cardinal secondary. To pull off a Week 1 upset, the Cats need the same potent, balanced attack that stunned Notre Dame. But that might be asking for too much.

Prediction: Stanford 28, Northwestern 14

Too many questions surround Northwestern at the skillplayer positions to knock off a team like Stanford to start the season. I did predict that Thorson would earn Freshman All-American honors, and I do think a debut against Shaw’s defense will do him a lot of good. But not everybody is J.T. Barrett. Redshirt freshmen quarterbacks have a major learning curve, no matter how skilled they are. Give Thorson and the Cats some time to beat a ranked team.