Only five times in the 105-year history of the Granddaddy of Them All has a Rose Bowl Game been a rematch of a game that happened in the regular season that year. This matchup, Northwestern at Stanford, has a chance to be the sixth and the first since the 1988 Rose Bowl Game.
Northwestern surprised the college football world in 2018 as the Wildcats won the Big Ten West and earned a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game. While key losses on offense may hurt the ‘Cats this year, Northwestern brings back the core of its defense in linebacker Paddy Fischer, defensive lineman Dan Gaziano and safety JR Pace.
But undoubtedly, the most important player for the Wildcats in 2019 will be redshirt sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson. Johnson was the top-rated quarterback coming out of high school in 2017 and played in seven games for Clemson during the 2017 season before transferring to Northwestern and sitting out the 2018 season. Johnson will have to fill the shoes of Wildcats legend Clayton Thorson, who finished as the program leader in career passing yards (10,731), completions (991), attempts (1697) and touchdowns (61). Johnson will be working behind an offensive line with three new starters, but has the benefit of experienced receivers and a pair of stud running backs in Isaiah Bowser and John Moten IV.
Stanford has been one of the most consistent programs in the country under head coach David Shaw, but 2019 may be his toughest year on “The Farm.” Stanford, by most metrics, has one of the toughest schedules in the nation this year and that starts with Northwestern in week one.
The Cardinal will be without its top running back (Bryce Love) and top three pass catchers (JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Kaden Smith and Trenton Irwin) from 2018, as all four have moved on to the NFL. But what Stanford does return is perhaps the most under-the-radar quarterback in the country, senior KJ Costello, and a consensus NFL first round pick at left tackle, Walker Little.
Defensively, Stanford returns less than half of the starters from a season ago. The strength of the defensive will come from the defensive line, where all three starters return, as well as at the cornerback position, where the Cardinal boast lockdown corner Paulsen Adebo.
This game may prove to be a defensive battle as both teams work through the changes offensively. Stanford may be looking for revenge against Northwestern after the ‘Cats defeated the Cardinal, 16-6, to open the 2015 season. It was one of only two losses for Stanford that season and likely kept them out of the College Football Playoff.