Lowes Line


Stanford Preview and Prediction

By Jersey Cat

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (0-0) at #25 Stanford Cardinal (0-0)
Date: Saturday, August 31, 2019, 3:00 pm CDT, Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, CA
Line: Northwestern (+6.5)
Over/Under: (48)
Money line:  Northwestern (+195), Stanford (-245)


Welcome back, Lowes Liners! This year’s season opener is eight months to the day after one of the most exciting games in recent NU history, as the ‘Cats overcame a 17-point halftime deficit against a solid Utah team to win their third bowl game in a row, capturing the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. 
The reigning Big Ten West champion Wildcats return to California to kick off the 2019 season.  The venue this time is Palo Alto, as NU completes its home-and-home with Stanford that started in 2015 with a game in Evanston.
The schedule this season is a brute, with six of the first seven games against teams in the AP preseason top 25.  In addition to this week at #25 Stanford, the ‘Cats have #18 Michigan State, #5 Ohio State, and #20 Iowa at home, while traveling to Camp Randall for #19 Wisconsin and Lincoln for #24 Nebraska.  Add to this the annual September inability to show up against non-conference opponents at home, which could make the tilt with UNLV in two weeks more of struggle than it should be, and NU could be looking up at the rest of the B1G West come late October.
Fitz needs four wins to get to 100 at the helm of NU.  This is truly a remarkable stat, and one never thought achievable.  Over the course of his 13-year tenure in Evanston, Fitz has three 10-win seasons, four bowl wins (currently three in a row), and has averaged more than seven wins a year.  No other coach in the history of NU has more than 49 wins.  In fact, Fitz has as many wins in his 13 years than the five coaches who led NU in the 28 seasons from 1978-2005.
If you’re like me, you cringe at the times Fitz fails to step on throats when he has the chance and put a game out of reach, but you take the good with the bad, and the good has simply outweighed the bad over the past decade-plus.  Fitz has had the uncanny ability to win close games.  Sometimes this is great (see Iowa & Nebraska last year), and sometimes it’s maddening (Rutgers and Illinois).
After four years with Clayton Thorson at the controls of the offense, it’s time to turn the page. Thorson left NU as the all-time school leader in nearly every statistical category for a quarterback and stands fourth all-time in Big Ten career passing yards.  Now the reins are turned over to Hunter Johnson, the much-heralded transfer from Clemson we’ve been hearing about for over a year, with three years of eligibility remaining.  Yes, we can all look at the depth chart and see the familiar “OR” with regard to Johnson or senior TJ Green, as Fitz again plays the nonsense game of not naming a starter.  But make no mistake, if NU is going to be successful this year, it’s not with TJ Green under center.
Sophomore running back Isaiah Bowser is looking to build on the successful first season he had as the feature back, after being thrust into action due to the injury and subsequent retirement of Jeremy Larkin.  Bowser averaged more than 100 yards per game in his eight starts last year and will be running behind a line that’s lost a few starters.  A notable returning offensive lineman is junior Rashawn Slater, who has started 26 straight games at right tackle and now moves to the left side for 2019. 
Senior wideout and co-captain Bennett Skowronek will be the primary target for Johnson.  NCAA rules be damned, Skowronek has surely still not paid for a drink after his catch-of-the-year worthy TD against Iowa last year that helped secure the B1G West for NU. 
Defensively, it will be the front seven who set the tone.  Senior Joe Gaziano is the man up front, having recorded 16.5 sacks and 25 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. Brothers Alex (senior) and Samdup (junior) Miller will be anchoring the defensive line alongside Gaziano.
Junior middle linebacker and co-captain Paddy Fisher is the heart and soul of the defense.  A 3rd Team All-America last year as a sophomore, Fisher has a nose for the ball, having recorded over 100+ tackles in each of his first two seasons as well as four forced fumbles last year alone.  Juniors Blake Gallagher, who led the Big Ten in tackles last year, and Chris Bergin are the other starting linebackers
The secondary is more of a question mark and will be tested right out of the gate against Stanford.  The starting corners are senior Trae Williams and sophomore Greg Newsome II and the safeties are juniors JR Pace and Travis Whillock.  This group tends to be overlooked due to the studs up front who garner the accolades, but their play will be key to the success of the Wildcats this season.
So, what are we to expect this year? You have to think more of the same. Chris the Cook changed the Mel-Fry more often than Fitz changes assistant coaches, so we should go by what we’ve seen, which is simply this:  the defense, especially the line and linebackers, will play well enough to keep NU in close games, and the offense will find a way to pull some of them out.  Even if Hunter Johnson is the second coming of Drew Brees, it stands to reason the play calling will continue to focus on running the ball first, and likely a fairly conservative ball-control offense. 
Stanford is led by senior quarterback KJ Costello, who threw for 29 TDs and over 3,500 yards last season.  His primary targets will be juniors Connor Wedington and Osirus St. Brown.  Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love are no longer roaming the backfield in Palo Alto, which is great news for NU fans, but solid fifth year senior running back Cameron Scarlett will be the guy in the crosshairs of the NU defensive front.
It will be interesting to see how the Wildcats come out on offense.  Given the athleticism of the Cardinal secondary, running the ball might be the best option. Look for Bowser to pick up where he left off in 2018.  Defensively, there’s a fair amount of confidence in the Wildcat front seven being able to contain the Cardinal rushing attack, but the effectiveness of the NU pass defense will determine the outcome of Fitz’s 14th season opener.
In the Fitz era, NU has never lost a season opener on the road, going 6-0 versus Miami (OH) in 2006, Vandy in 2010, BC in 2011, Syracuse in 2012, Cal in 2013, and Purdue last year.  This is a somewhat surprising stat, but one that makes sense when you consider how the ‘Cats tend to play away from home in general.  Maybe they should play every game on the road until October.  I think the successful road season opener trend continues.
Pick: ‘Cats don’t get stuck in a tree.  Northwestern 20, Stanford 17.  Take the NU and the points.


The Lowes Line is an e-mailed description of NU's next football game, with an invariably fearless prediction of the outcome and how NU will fare against what the other "experts" predict.  Our good friend and Brother Marcus Lowes began the broadcast mailing in 1996.  The crack Lowes Line Staff (alumni Jersey Cat, GallopingGrapes, P.S. O'Briant, Eric Cockerill, Joel Kanvik, Charlie Simon, and MO'Cats) have continued the Line in memory of Marcus.  For the 2019 season it has returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!