EVANSTON, Ill. — No. 21 Stanford could not get its passing game going, and the Cardinal went nowhere when they tried to run.
It all added up to one miserable loss to Northwestern and a big bucket of cold water on the idea that a strong finish last season would fuel a better start for the Cardinal this year.
Freshman Clayton Thorson ran for a 42-yard touchdown while playing turnover-free ball at quarterback, Justin Jackson added 134 yards rushing, and Northwestern beat Stanford 16-6 on Saturday afternoon.
“We didn’t give ourselves a chance to win,” coach David Shaw said. “They played well and were well prepared, and we thought we were well prepared, but it didn’t show. We had opportunities on defense to get our hands on a couple of balls but I thought for the most part defense really played well. Offensively, we had a lot of opportunities that were let go.”
It was not what Stanford envisioned coming off an 8-5 season that snapped a string of four consecutive BCS bowls. They won the final three games last year. But this season is off to a rough start.
Kevin Hogan had a difficult afternoon, going 20 of 35 with 155 yards and an interception. He was sacked three times.
“We had opportunities and we didn’t take advantage of them.” Hogan said.
Christian McCaffery ran for 66. But the Cardinal managed just 85 yards rushing and 240 in total offense.
“The bottom line for us is that we have to be efficient on first down,” Shaw said. “We can’t have penalties. We can’t have dropped passes. We can’t have missed blocks.”
For Northwestern, Anthony Walker broke up two passes and had a fumble recovery, and Kyle Queiro intercepted Hogan in the end zone with about a minute left to seal the win.
“It was probably one of the best performances I’ve seen our ‘D’ play top to bottom against a ranked team maybe in my time,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Thorson scored the game’s only TD in the second quarter. He was steady overall, completing 12 of 24 passes for 105 yards, but fortunate not to have any interceptions considering he threw a few into double and triple coverage.
“I thought our team as a whole played well,” he said. “Our O-line did a great job the whole game. Me personally, I think I can always do a lot better. I missed some throws and some decisions I made weren’t great.”
Thorson got high marks from Stanford linebacker Blake Martinez.
“He was commanding the offense well,” Martinez said. “Keeping that pace going. They never stopped that quick offense. It was cool to see that he was able to do that his first game.”
Jackson carried 28 times. Jack Mitchell kicked three field goals, including a career-long 49-yarder that made it 16-6 with 3:38 left in the game, and the Wildcats started the season on a winning note after going 5-7 the past two years.
Stanford showed some of the form that carried it to four straight seasons with at least 11 wins on the game’s opening possession.
But Northwestern tightened its defense, forcing the Cardinal to settle for a 29-yard field goal by Conrad Ukropina to finish a 12-play drive.
The Wildcats tied it on a 31-yard field goal by Mitchell with 52 seconds left in the first quarter. Thorson, who starred at suburban Wheaton North High School about 40 miles from Ryan Field, made it 10-3 midway through the second when he took advantage of a big hole on the left and scored on a 42-yard keeper.
“It was kind of just a gap assignment mistake where one of our guys just didn’t realize he needed to stay on the outside and got sucked in, and the quarterback just bounced through,” Martinez said.
Northwestern had a chance to add to the lead after Walker recovered a fumble by McCaffery a few plays later. The Wildcats took over on the Stanford 38, but a 48-yard field-goal attempt by Mitchell sailed wide left with 2:35 remaining in the half.
“We’ll hopefully get everybody back up next week and hopefully play better,” Shaw said. “We’ll have to play better to give ourselves a chance.”