It was rough from the get-go for Northwestern today. Just about nothing good happened in the first two quarters as California took a 24-7 lead into halftime. The Wildcats staged a big rally, but ultimately fell 31-24 in the season-opener.
Part of what caught the ‘Cats off guard was the two-quarterback rotation that Cal successfully used in the first half.
“The two-quarterback thing was the first time they’ve ever done that,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When we finally got the adjustment, we felt solid.”
Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian couldn’t hit his targets, and the running game didn’t do anything for the Wildcats early in the game. At halftime, it was about as lopsided a game as it could be. Northwestern was held to just 153 total yards in the first half, while Cal racked up 267.
“[Seimian] squeezed the ball a little bit and sailed some that were uncharacteristic,” Fitzgerald said. “We had a lot of drops. There’s enough blame to go around timing, execution, things of that nature.”
The second half started just as grimly, until the offense finally got going after some tough runs from freshmen runningbacks Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault. If there’s anything positive to take from this game it’s that there is a bright future for these two.
“[The freshmen] were excited to be out there, I think,” Fitzgerald said. “There were some wide eyes after the game.”
The ‘Cats put together a rally behind a Collin Ellis interception and an incredible wide receiver screen pass-back that went for a touchdown. That rally, however, ultimately fell short while on the game-tying drive. The ‘Cats came back from a deficit of 31-7, but couldn’t quite close the gap.
Northwestern will now face the softest part of their schedule in the next two weeks, facing Northern Illinois and Western Illinois at home. If they have any hope of making a bowl game this year, those two are must-win games.
“[Next week], we’ve gotta go out and do the things that winners do early,” Fitzgerald said.
Freshmen RBs – Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault made their presence felt, especially in the second half. Jackson led the team in rushing for the game, and although that total was only 40 yards and a touchdown, he did it on just eight carries. His most impressive was on a run late in the third quarter, where he was stuffed at the line and seemed to be wrapped up, but shook off about three defenders and rumbled for a good gain. Vault made appearances all over the field today. He showed up in both the receiving and rushing game. He nearly pulled in a circus catch that would have been a touchdown, but made up for it the next play by pounding the ball up the middle for a clutch first down. He finished with 25 yards on five carries.
Collin Ellis – This dude has it in for Cal. After getting two pick-6’s in last year’s opener, he opened the door for a Northwestern comeback today. On the first play from scrimmage following Jackson’s touchdown, he picked off Cal’s Jared Goff, and set Northwestern up for the quarterback-throwback play that scored a touchdown just one play after that.
NU fans on Twitter – Now, to be honest, I’m guilty of this as well, but as the ‘Cats toyed with all of our minds, Twitter experienced an emotional roller coaster. When Cameron Dickerson caught that 54-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, end-of-the-world tweets turned into “we’ve got this!” tweets in a matter of seconds. It was truly hilarious.
Broadcasters – You know it’s bad when they are comparing Jared Goff – Cal’s second-year quarterback who has a total of 13 starts and 2 wins – to Peyton Manning. But there it was, among other gems such as “negative plays really hurt a team’s ability to score,” “Northwestern students aren’t even in school yet, but Cal is taking the Northwestern football players to school today!” and theorizing that Northwestern made the grass longer in order to slow down Cal’s high-speed offence. Seriously. This was on national TV.
Cal fans – Yes, there was some controversy in last year’s victory over the Golden Bears with a large amount of Northwestern players going down with injuries. But today, every time any ‘Cat went down for any period of time, the Cal fans booed mercilessly. That includes when the Wildcats were in the middle of staging their huge almost-comeback and at the very end of the game when they were very obviously actually injured.
Drops – I would go on about the first half and how terrible that was all-around, but that’s already been well documented. The drops were a huge part of the struggle to sustain a real drive early in the game. Despite the huge touchdown catch, junior wide receiver Cameron Dickerson had a key drop on third down that killed what was then a very productive drive. Drops can’t happen. Especially when Siemian can’t consistently hit his targets, dropping those that he does get in the right spots is killer.