Stanford football offers mixed indications in 17-7 season-opening win

September 2, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 2, 2019

Stanford opened the 2019 college football season with a 17-7 victory over Northwestern that was not nearly as comfortable as the final score might suggest.

The Wildcats, who won the Big 10 West and beat Utah in a bowl game to finish 2018 with a 9-5 record, had the ball with the potential to tie or take the lead with 30 seconds to play when the Cardinal defense asserted its will. Redshirt senior outside linebacker Casey Toohill chased down quarterback Hunter Johnson and stripped the ball from behind. The pigskin bounded into the end zone and squirted out of the arms of a few players before being recovered by senior outside linebacker Jordan Fox for the game-sealing touchdown.

Stanford may ultimately consider this contest with a dismal air, despite being 1-0 on the young season. Quarterback K.J. Costello retired to the locker room near the end of the first half after junior defensive end Earnest Brown IV knocked off the Cardinal senior’s helmet as he was sliding to the turf at the end of an otherwise meaningless four-yard scramble. And late in the third quarter, junior tackle Walker Little left the field after apparently twisting one of his legs. If either player loses significant time in 2019, then the squad’s prospects will dim considerably.

Because of the injuries and the opening-game jitters, it was hard to know just what to make of Stanford’s performance. The team committed eight penalties for 78 yards and was so disorganized at the beginning that the offense had to call timeout before the second play from scrimmage. Junior quarterback Davis Mills, who played the entire second half, lost the ball twice on awkward exchanges with his running back.

The Wildcats were also flagged eight times for 67 yards and allowed a pair of fumbles as well as couple of interceptions. Senior inside linebacker Andrew Pryts picked Johnson on Northwestern’s third offensive snap, and junior cornerback Paulson Adebo victimized the sophomore in the third quarter. It was the first career INT for the senior and the fourth for Adebo.

The Cardinal offense opened scoring with 3:12 to go in the first half following a 15-play drive that covered 90 yards in an amazing eight minutes and 22 seconds. The key plays all ran through Costello, who completed six of eight pass attempts for 71 yards, including a two-yarder to sophomore wideout Michael Wilson for the touchdown.

On the ensuing drive, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald sent out senior quarterback T.J. Green in place of Johnson. To that point, the Wildcats had gained 33 yards on 12 plays, with the starting signal caller, a transfer from Clemson, completing one of four passes for three yards. The switch seemed to light a fire under the Wildcats offense, who rolled up 41 yards on nine snaps with Green under center.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, his pass attempt on fourth and six fell incomplete, giving the hosts possession at their own 34 with 40 seconds left before the break. The Cardinal advanced 14 yards but then saw Costello forced out of the game. Brown was assessed a 15-yard personal foul for the play, which many Cardinal fans believed should have been called targeting and resulted in a mandatory ejection.

Shaw sent out senior placekicker Jet Toner for the 51-yard field goal. He banged it home with room to spare on a career-long kick as time expired, giving the hosts a 10-0 halftime lead.

The second half provided 30 minutes of almosts. Both teams almost took control of the game but neither quite managed it. Mills almost asserted himself as a serviceable backup but fell short. Fifth-year senior Cameron Scarlett almost reached the century mark but settled for a career-best day with 97 yards. Toner almost gave Stanford a six-point lead before doinking a 29-yard attempt off the left upright in the third quarter. The Cardinal almost converted half of its third-down tries but wound up going seven for 16. And Stanford almost escaped the game without any further signifiant injuries but saw Little limp to the sidelines.

Northwestern fans surely felt frustrated, too. Their squad almost cut the deficit to one score before Green left the game after being sacked and turning over the ball on goal to go at the 5 less than four minutes into the second half. Sophomore defensive back Greg Newsome IV’s 18-yard return of Mills’s first fumble almost enabled the visitors to get an easy three points, but junior kicker Charlie Kuhbander missed from 38 yards on his only field-goal attempt of the contest. A touchdown with 7:49 left in the fourth quarter combined with senior lineman Joe Gaziano’s recovery of Mills’s second fumble almost allowed the Purple Pride a chance at a go-ahead score, but Northwestern was only able to advance 12 yards before punting.

The result was certainly better for Stanford than the last time these two teams met — a notoriously lackluster season-opening 16-6 loss in Evanston, Ill., that probably prevented Shaw’s 2015 squad from being seriously considered for a berth in the first-ever College Football Playoff. (That team, which ranks among the all-time Stanford greats, won the Pac-12, walloped Iowa in the Rose Bowl and finished third in the Associated Press rankings with a 12-2 record.)

But this was just the first chapter in a story that will run at least through Nov. 30. We’ll need to see more of the tale to know whether it’s likely to inspire joy, provoke sadness or do something in between.

Helpful links

Northwestern-Stanford team statistics — ESPN
Northwestern-Stanford box score
Northwestern-Stanford play-by-play
Northwestern-Stanford interactive box score —
Northwestern-Stanford statistics (PDF) —
Stanford 2019–20 football roster
Northwestern 2019–20 football roster

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