When the Pac-12 and the Big Ten announced their handshake agreement a few years back to schedule home-and-home intersectional games, it seemed like a great idea. We've seen Oregon play Michigan State, Ohio State matchup with Cal, and UCLA square off against Nebraska. The agreement between the conferences fizzled faster than roses in January, but Stanford gets its regular season look at a Big Ten opponent this Saturday morning when the Cardinal travels to Evanston, Illinois, to take on the Northwestern Wildcats.
I suppose this pairing makes sense since the two schools are the premiere academic institutions in their respective conferences, but the football teams appear headed in opposite directions. While Stanford has enjoyed a return to national prominence with a 54-13 record over the past five seasons, Northwestern has been a mediocre 33-30, including a disappointing 5-7 in each of the past two years.
Last year's campaign was particularly frustrating -- and confusing -- for the Wildcats. After opening conference play with a decisive road win over Penn State and following that up with a victory over Wisconsin, things were looking bright. A month and four straight losses later Northwestern was 3-6 and facing a trip to South Bend where they'd likely get pummeled by Notre Dame.
Instead, the Wildcats pulled off the upset, beating the Irish in a 43-40 overtime shoot out. How improbable was that win? After being held to negative nine yards rushing by Michigan in the previous week, Northwestern racked up 263 yards against Notre Dame, including 149 by Justin Jackson.
The Stanford defense will get to know Jackson this Saturday. After rambling for more than a thousand yards last season, the senior tailback returns as the likely focal point of a Northwestern offense that will be led by an unknown quantity, redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson. If Northwestern is to pull of the upset, Jackson and Thorson will need to have huge days, but I don't think that will happen.
Even though the Stanford defense is young and inexperienced, I expect it will be too much for a quarterback whose last game action came for Wheaton North High School. I expect that the Stanford offense will pick exactly where it left off the last time they played a Big Ten team -- the Maryland Terrapins in last year's Foster Farms Bowl. My prediction: Stanford 34, Northwestern 13.
For inside information about Northwestern football, I contacted Zach Pereles from the Northwestern site InsideNU.com, and he happily agreed to answer some of my questions about the Wildcats. I'll get out of the way now...