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Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson lead Northwestern over No. 21 Stanford

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Conrad Ukropina 29 yd FG GOOD (0:13)

Conrad Ukropina 29 yd FG GOOD (0:13)

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern wanted to prove a point against No. 21 Stanford, and the Wildcats drove it home with a strong running game and solid defense that produced a season-opening surprise.

Or as defensive end Dean Lowry put it: "We unleashed a caged bull today."

Freshman Clayton Thorson ran for a 42-yard touchdown while playing turnover-free ball at quarterback, Justin Jackson added 134 yards rushing, and the Wildcats beat the Cardinal 16-6 on Saturday.

If Northwestern felt like a caged bull, well, back-to-back 5-7 seasons will do that. The recent losing ended a five-year run of bowl appearances that included a 10-win season in 2012.

Anthony Walker broke up two passes and had a fumble recovery, and Kyle Queiro intercepted Kevin Hogan in the end zone with about a minute left to seal the win.

"It was probably one of the best performances I've seen our D play top to bottom against a ranked team maybe in my time," coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Thorson scored the game's only touchdown in the second quarter. He was steady overall, completing 12 of 24 passes for 105 yards, but was fortunate not to have any interceptions considering he threw a few into double and triple coverage.

"I thought our team as a whole played well," Thorson said. "Our O-line did a great job the whole game. Me personally, I think I can always do a lot better. I missed some throws, and some decisions I made weren't great."

Thorson got high marks from Stanford linebacker Blake Martinez.

"He was commanding the offense well," Martinez said. "Keeping that pace going. They never stopped that quick offense. It was cool to see that he was able to do that his first game."

Jackson rushed 28 times. Jack Mitchell kicked three field goals, including a career-long 49-yarder that made it 16-6 with 3:38 left in the game, and the Wildcats started the season on a winning note for the first time against a ranked team since 1995.

Stanford, coming off an 8-5 season that snapped a string of four consecutive BCS bowls, clearly has some work to do.

Hogan had a rough afternoon, going 20-of-35 with 155 yards and an interception. He was sacked three times.

Christian McCaffrey ran for 66 yards, but the Cardinal managed just 240 yards on offense and scored their fewest points since 2007.

"The bottom line for us is that we have to be efficient on first down," coach David Shaw said. "We can't have penalties. We can't have dropped passes. We can't have missed blocks."

The Cardinal showed some of the form that carried them to four straight seasons with at least 11 wins on the game's opening possession. But Northwestern tightened its defense, forcing Stanford to settle for a 29-yard field goal by Conrad Ukropina to finish a 12-play drive.

The Wildcats tied the game on a 31-yard field goal by Mitchell with 52 seconds left in the first quarter. Thorson, who starred at suburban Wheaton North High School about 40 miles from Ryan Field, made it 10-3 midway through the second when he took advantage of a big hole on the left and scored on a 42-yard keeper.

Northwestern had a chance to add to the lead after Walker recovered a fumble by McCaffrey a few plays later. The Wildcats took over on the Stanford 38, but a 48-yard field-goal attempt by Mitchell sailed wide left with 2:35 remaining in the half.

The Wildcats, 10-point underdogs, picked up their first win over the Cardinal since 1958.

The Associated Press and ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.