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Northwestern defensive front comes up big in shutting down No. 21 Stanford

Safety Kyle Queiro (center) celebrates his interception, which sealed Northwestern’s win. | Matt Marton/AP

BY JEFF ARNOLD

For the Sun-Times

For the better part of nine months, Northwestern was anxious to leave the disappointment of a 5-7 season behind. So when its determined defense finally was unleashed against No. 21 Stanford on Saturday at Ryan Field, any aggression that might have remained was put to good use.

The Wildcats surrendered only a pair of field goals in a 16-6 upset victory capped by Kyle Queiro’s goal-line interception that not only cemented a dominant effort but also allowed last season’s frustrations to be done away with.

“I felt today, defensively, we unleashed a caged bull,” defensive end Dean Lowry said. “It’s been a long offseason, it’s been a long time since November. We definitely had an unmatched work ethic this offseason, and I think it showed today.

“It’s just a start, though.”

After yielding 64 yards on Stanford’s opening drive, which resulted in Conrad Ukropina’s 29-yard field goal, Northwestern’s defense allowed only 23 yards the rest of the first half.

While redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson was feeling his way around his first career start, the defense allowed him plenty of room to play through any first-time jitters.

Thorson, who won the starting job over fifth-year senior Zack Oliver, showed flashes of the quarterback he has the potential to be. But Thorson’s inexperience also showed in some decision-making, and he narrowly escaped interceptions more than once.

Other highlights included a career-high 10 tackles by linebacker Anthony Walker and 134 yards rushing by sophomore running back Justin Jackson.

“When you’ve got guys like that playing on the other side of the ball, it makes it a little more comfortable,” said Thorson, who was 12-for-24 for 105 yards. “But you can’t get complacent and think, ‘Oh, the defense will just stop them, and we only need 10 points today.’

“But that wasn’t our mindset. Our mindset was that we need to go down and score, and I think that’s what we did.”

A defensive front that allowed Stanford to grind out only 85 rushing yards also kept the pressure on senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, registering three sacks.

Thorson’s 42-yard touchdown run gave Northwestern some breathing room before Jack Mitchell’s career-long 49-yard field goal with 3:38 left gave the Wildcats a 10-point lead.

But the defense wasn’t done.

Despite having one interception negated by a pass-interference call and another dropped by Walker, who appeared to have an open lane to the end zone, the Wildcats’ defense made one more stand.

After Hogan marched the Cardinal to the 10-yard line with just over a minute to play, Queiro came through with his interception at the goal line. The pick finished off the victory and moved coach Pat Fitzgerald to 9-1 in openers.

“I thought there was a dominant performance by our defensive line,” Fitzgerald said. “It looked like we controlled the line of scrimmage on every single play defensive line-wise.”

It was a defensive performance that was a long time coming.

“We unleashed the frustration of not making a bowl game last year and just knowing in the last few years we could have been a better team,” Lowry said. “I think it showed today.”

Follow me on Twitter @JeffArnold_