A thoroughly frustrating 16-6 loss to Northwestern has given the No. 21 Stanford football team targets for improvement as it regroups for next Saturday's home opener against Central Florida at 7:30 p.m.
The Cardinal dropped a season opener for the first time in eight years, losing to host Northwestern, 16-6, in a nonconference game Saturday at Ryan Stadium in Evanston, Ill.
It was Stanford's lowest offensive effort in an opening game since 1989, when the Cardinal dropped a 19-3 decision at Arizona. Stanford finished 3-8 that season under Dennis Green.
A 42-yard touchdown run by Wildcats' quarterback Clayton Thorson midway through the second quarter broke a 3-3 tie and the points stood as Stanford's offense failed to mount a comeback.
"Didn't convert third downs, killed ourselves with penalties, self-inflicted wounds… can't do it," quarterback Kevin Hogan said.
Most glaring were Stanford's 3-for-15 conversion on third downs, a fumble and an interception in the end zone.
"The bottom line for us, we have to be efficient on first down," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "We can't have penalties, we can't drop passes, we can't have missed blocks that get us to second-and-long. When you get to second- third-and-long, it's hard to win football games."
That certainly wasn't the only problem, but was indicative of the poor situations that Stanford put itself. The Cardinal was unable to run between the tackles or find much of a downfield passing attack. Shaw didn't put it on Hogan, who completed 20 of 35 passing for 155 yards and threw one interception, but acknowledged, "We've got to run it better, we've got to throw it better."
Television announcers emphasized more than once that Stanford's play-calling was very conservative, perhaps more than in past years. This has been on ongoing criticism of Stanford's offense under Shaw, now in his fifth season.
The passing game, meanwhile, was undermined by drops -- Shaw counted four -- including a costly deep pass that Michael Rector couldn't handle with a step on the last defender in the fourth quarter. Though he is now healthy, Devon Cajuste had his playing time limited as coaches were concerned for his stamina, but helped rejuvenate the offense late, with four catches for 39 yards.
Stanford also made "inexcusable" mistakes with costly penalties, Shaw said. There were two for illegal substitutions on offense, three for offside on defense.
"Northwestern played well," Shaw said. "They were well prepared. We thought we were prepared, and it didn't show."
On Thorson's touchdown, scored on a third-and-long draw play, "It was 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," Cardinal inside linebacker Blake Martinez said.
Stanford cut a 10-point deficit to 13-6 on a 37-yard Conrad Ukropina field goal with 7:26 left, but failed to contain the Wildcats on their next possession. Thorson, a redshirt freshman making his collegiate debut, threw a 25-yard pass to Miles Shuler on third-and-8 to extend a drive that resulted in Jack Mitchell's clinching 49-yard field goal with 3:38 left.
Stanford managed only 240 offensive yards and ventured inside the 20-yard line only twice. It reached the 12 on its opening drive before settling for a 29-yard Ukropina field goal, and the 5 before Hogan threw an interception in the end zone with 57 seconds left.
Stanford failed to score a touchdown for the first time since 2007, and its national-best streak of scoring at least 10 points in 95 consecutive games was snapped.
Dynamic sophomore Christian McCaffrey accounted for 171 all-purpose yards. In the most active game of his young career, he rushed for 66 yards on 12 carries, with one fumble, and had 22 touches. His 13 touches in the first half matched his high for any game last year.
The Stanford defense, with nine new starters, held its own for the most part, but seemed to wear down.
Northwestern totaled 330 yards, but even more impressive was converting on 12 of 22 third-down plays. Justin Jackson had 28 carries for 134 yards and Northwestern rushed for 225, compared to Stanford's 85.
A blindside third-down hit by linebacker Kevin Anderson forced an incompletion that ended one drive, and a Martinez tackle for a 5-yard loss helped slow another that ended with a missed field goal from 48 yards. Martinez had 14 tackles (seven solo) and Peter Kalambayi had 12 (eight solo) for the Cardinal.
However, "We can't give up big plays," Shaw said. "We can't give up big runs."
"That was a dominant performance on both sides of the line of scrimmage," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We won the six-inch battle in the trenches."
The most frustrating aspect of the game? "The score," Shaw said. "You can't score six points and beat anybody."
Based on the opening drive, Stanford seemed in control. On four consecutive plays, Hogan hit Rollins Stallworth for 12 yards, McCaffrey for 13, and then McCaffrey ran for 12 and Remound Wright for 10. The Cardinal drove 64 yards on 12 plays, but it ended with two incomplete passes and a 1-yard end around by Francis Owusu.
The next eight Stanford possessions ended with seven punts and a fumble, with no series taking more than 3:07 off the clock.
The special teams performed well, in particular Ukropina was 2-for-2 on field-goal attempts and freshman punter Alex Robinson averaged 46.0 yards on seven kicks, though he kicked into the end zone when aiming for the corner from the Northwestern 38.
On Twitter, Rector provided a one-word assessment: "Urgency." That seems to be the mood heading into the next game.
"We still have so much football ahead of us," left guard Joshua Garnett said. "We have to come together and keep our heads up so we can really keep moving forward."
In all, it was one of those afternoons Stanford would rather forget, but needs to remember.