STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford coach David Shaw enters every season with a level of curiosity about how everything he's seen in spring ball and fall camp will transfer over to the season.
That's especially true this season when the 25th-ranked Cardinal are trying to get back to their identity of a power-running team after struggling mightily in that facet a year ago. The first test comes Saturday when Stanford hosts Northwestern, which reached the Big Ten title game last season.
"It's hard to calculate how important that is," Shaw said. "Is vital too soft a word?"
The Cardinal finished 122nd out 129 FBS teams in rushing last season as star back Bryce Love struggled with injuries before leaving for the NFL and a patchwork offensive line failed to live up to the usual standards at Stanford. Easing the pain from that deficiency was the performance of quarterback K.J. Costello, who threw for 3,540 yards (second most in school history) and 29 touchdowns (third most).
Costello is back this season leading the offense. Shaw said it is comforting to have a quarterback he knows he can rely on to carry a heavy load if necessary but both Costello and Shaw want to get back to Stanford's usual approach.
"There's no doubt we have to be a team that's willing to run the football," Costello said.
The questions at Northwestern are at quarterback, where coach Pat Fitzgerald had not announced whether senior TJ Green or Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson will start.
Green has more experience, playing in nine games as a backup last season, going 20 for 36 for 169 yards. Johnson has better pedigree as a former five-star recruit who left the Tigers after being beaten out for the starting job by Trevor Lawrence.
There is plenty of talent around the quarterback for the Wildcats to provide optimism for the season. But Fitzgerald knows the real test of how good his team will be begins Saturday.
"I like it in 72 degrees and as much adversity as I can create in practice," he said. "But you learn a lot about your squad in the opener. How do we handle it? How do we handle everything that happens in a game?"
CATCH THE BALL
Stanford must replace four of its top five leading receivers from a year ago. The biggest loss is JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who had 63 catches and 14 TDs. The Cardinal will have less size on the outside but more speed with players like Michael Wilson, Connor Wedington, Osiris St. Brown and Simi Fehoko. Costello said the difference could lead to a change in approach, with fewer back-shoulder and seam passes and more plays to get receivers open in space where they can run after the catch.
No matter who plays quarterback for Northwestern, the offense still figures to go through running back Isaiah Bowser. Bowser played a big role in the Wildcats success last year, rushing for 864 yards over the final eight games of his freshman season. That total ranked eighth best in the nation over the final eight games.
"There are guys who get what the play is blocked for and guys who get more than what the play is blocked for. He's one of those guys," Shaw said. "If it's blocked for 5, it's going for 8 or 10 or if he breaks that last tackle it's going for 20 or 30."
The opener starts a brutal start to the season for the Cardinal, who travel to USC next week and then No. 17 Central Florida the following week before hosting No. 11 Oregon and No. 13 Washington in two of the next three games.
"All the schedule stuff to me, that stopped last week," Shaw said. "I don't care about the schedule now. We have one game to play and that's this week."
The Wildcats won the Big Ten West Division last season despite losing all three regular-season nonconference games. Northwestern lost early contests against Duke and Akron and then again later in the season to Notre Dame. The slate should be easier this year with the other two nonconference games coming at home against UNLV and UMass.
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