In order for Northwestern to upset 21st-ranked Stanford, the 'Cats needed to make the game as ugly as possible and rely on a little beginner's magic from quarterback Clayton Thorson in his collegiate debut.
Abracadabra, alakazam. 16-6, just as Fitz drew it up.
Thorson wasn't perfect, but he didn't need to be. Usually when inexperienced quarterbacks dig themselves in deep down and distance holes, they play conservatively at the orders of their offensive coordinator, handing the ball off to a steady ballcarrier or finding an easy checkdown pass over the middle. But Thorson showed he isn't just any new starting quarterback, converting eight first downs through the air in 3rd- or 4th-and at least four yards to go situations on Saturday. Those fearless clutch throws made up two-thirds of his 12 completions, and in many of them he displayed maturity and composure beyond his years, exemplified best by a 25-yard sideline over-the-shoulder bomb to Miles Shuler on a 3rd-and-8 in crunch time from his own 27-yard line.
Oh, and that's not to mention his 68 rushing yards, 42 of which came on a 2nd quarter touchdown scamper when he used what actually somewhat resembled 4.38 speed to gash the Stanford defense on his way to the house. Sure, he made some dangerous throws that were nearly picked off, but what more can you ask for in a guy getting his first minutes of college playing time?
Offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who has drawn significant angst from the fanbase over the last two years, deserves all the credit in the world for this win. He let Thorson play his game rather than forcing him to play it safe, and by doing so with help from a resurgent offensive line, gave a very sturdy defensive unit enough resting time to allow it to dominate the Cardinal from start to finish.
It's very easy to put too much stock in an early upset, especially in Week One. Stanford has talent in droves that vastly underperformed yesterday, and Northwestern's wide receiver and offensive line depth is questionable at best, which may come back to bite the 'Cats later in the year. But despite that, it's hard not to feel a seismic shift forward within the Northwestern football program.
Since starting the 2013 season 4-0, coming into Saturday, NU found itself on an extended 6-14 slide. College football's long offseasons of anticipation are the perfect recipe for hyperbole, but to say the program was rudderless over that stretch would be quite the opposite. Fitz and the gang just hadn't given the fans much to hope for as 2015 rolled around, but in the course of 60 minutes of gametime against Stanford, the idea that there could be a lack of hope now seems to be quite the opposite.
Is Northwestern out of the woods yet? Not necessarily. But the arguments for why it might almost be there seem increasingly less ridiculous after a win like yesterday's. Thorson and Justin Jackson have the potential to carry this team to great things over the next three seasons, but don't forget about the defense. Kyle Queiro, the safety whose athletic, high-flying interception sealed the win for the 'Cats, is just a sophomore. Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike are both in their second seasons, too. For the first time in recent memory, NU has young talent on both sides of the ball that not only has shown it can win games now, but that it also has room to get even better later.
And for the rest of a perpetually weak Big Ten West Division, that should be a little bit scary.
What's the rational ceiling for Northwestern in the upcoming years? A ten-win season, a New Year's Six Bowl appearance or even ... no, Northwestern? College Football Playoff? You can't be serious ... right?
Achieving just one of those things would be monumental for Coach Fitz's legacy, which, in just one day, went from being discussed in terms of the past to being discussed in terms of the future.
It's amazing what one can do to the perception around a program on any given Saturday with copious amounts of punts, some lucky breaks and a young quarterback with a magic wand for an arm.