This isn’t the first time Northwestern’s beaten a ranked opponent in a game where almost nobody gave them a chance to win.
But in the season opener? With a redshirt freshman quarterback? In almost perfect weather?
The Wildcats 16-6 victory over the #21 Stanford Cardinal was special. And if you allow yourself to dream for just a little bit, Northwestern and their fans could be in for a special 2015 season as well.
After a skydiver delivered the game ball to Ryan Field in spectacular fashion, this was one that began like so many last season for the Wildcats. Behind quarterback Kevin Hogan (who nearly left for the NFL during the offseason) and a punishing ground attack, Stanford marched down the field on their opening drive. Northwestern forced the Cardinal to settle for a field goal, allowing the visitors to grab an early 3-0 lead.
Then came the moment so many Wildcat fans had been anticipating throughout the offseason, as redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson entered the game at quarterback.
Much had been made of the ‘Cats open competition at quarterback this summer, as Thorson battled with senior Zack Oliver and sophomore Matt Alviti for the starting job. But after naming him the starter last week, head coach Pat Fitzgerald has stood behind his young signal-caller.
"He's really just unflappable,” Fitzgerald said. “He's really just calm and cool. He doesn't get too high or too low."
After going three-and-out on his first drive, Thorson would put that composure on display the very next time he stepped on the field, as he quickly figured out the key to running Northwestern’s offense.
Just hand the ball to Justin Jackson.
The sophomore tailback was in midseason form on Saturday, breaking off a few big runs on the ‘Cats second drive of the game, which led to a game-tying field goal from junior kicker Jack Mitchell. Jackson would finish with 134 yards rushing in the game.
Early in the second quarter, Fitz began to dial up some options plays that took advantage of Thorson’s dual-threat ability. And after a couple short runs, the young quarterback found an opening in the Stanford defense. Mike Patrick had the call for ESPN:
“Solomon Vault the new tailback…quarterback keeper…he’s got the first down and more…Thorson off the races and…TOUCHDOWN Clayton Thorson…42 yards!”
It would be the ‘Cats longest play from scrimmage on the day, but perhaps more importantly, announced the arrival of Clayton Thorson at quarterback for Northwestern. He could become the first four-year starter for the Wildcats since Brett Basanez from 2002 to 2005.
But after Thorson’s long touchdown run, this game was all about the players who shut down Stanford on offense.
There was plenty of optimism around Northwestern’s defensive unit coming into the 2015 season. Despite losing key contributors such as safety Ibraheim Campbell and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo to the NFL, many hoped that several young players would be able to step up for the Wildcats this year.
But even the most enthusiastic Northwestern fan couldn’t have predicted how well these guys would play on Saturday.
“Our defense really dominated today. One of the best performances - top to bottom - I’ve seen them play in my time here,” Fitzgerald said.
The Wildcats sacked Hogan three times and held star running back Christian McCaffrey to just 66 rushing yards. Sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker played one of the best games of his career, finishing with a career high 10 tackles and recovering a fumble to build on his breakout 2014 campaign.
After scoring the first they touched the football, the Cardinal offense couldn’t string together a drive of more than 32 yards until late in the fourth quarter, when they managed a field goal to make it a one-score game at Ryan Field.
Thorson and friends would get the ball back with a chance to put the game away. But despite an impressive 25-yard reception by Miles Shuler, the ‘Cats offense stalled near midfield.
That’s when Jack Mitchell came on like he was back in South Bend (where he hit two clutch field goals last season to sink Notre Dame) and nailed a 49-yarder that gave Northwestern a 16-6 lead.
A last-gasp comeback effort from Stanford would end with a pick from sophomore safety Kyle Queiro in the end zone. And after Northwestern ran out the clock, it was bedlam at Ryan Field.
For the Wildcats, it’s a perfect way to begin the 2015 season, after last year’s 0-2 start left many wondering where the program was headed. Fitzgerald is now an impressive 9-1 in season openers throughout his career.
With some winnable games left on the non-conference schedule and a perfect record for the first time in almost two years, it’s a fun time to be a Northwestern fan.
But after his first game at Northwestern, and a victory over a team that some picked to win the national championship, Clayton Thorson is thinking even bigger.
"Hopefully, we've got 14 more to play," he said.