Cal opener presents unique challenges

Northwestern opens its season with three straight games against teams with head coaches in their first year with the program. Pat Fitzgerald sees it as just another challenge.

Say what you want about Ohio State. At least Northwestern will have the adequate tools to prepare for its opponent.

Until then, NU and Pat Fitzgerald can only guess. The Wildcats open the season with three consecutive games against teams with first-year head coaches. That presents obvious problems in general, with unique problems in each situation.

"It puts more on your plate," Fitzgerald said at his Monday press conference. "They've got everything on us. They've got a definite advantage from the standpoint of what the coaches have to do to teach their players."

So they can stick to blueprints. On Saturday, NU will encounter Sonny Dykes and his signature Air Raid offense on the road. Fitzgerald and the entire program are displeased to begin the 2013 season with a West Coast night game. Still, the greater challenge–of course–should take place on the field.

This influences preparation. All offseason, opponents can focus on NU trademarks. They have an entire year worth of tape from the successful two-quarterback system. They can try to pick apart holes in the NU defense—with the Wildcats proactively fighting back with thorough film room work. The uncertainty is an additional problem.

"We've had to do a lot more in the summer, in the offseason and our studies to get ourselves prepared for these weeks," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald refuses to take credit for his spotless opening day record, calling it "luck." Though this coaching staff is widely praised for helping to guide a focused team, openers can be touchy subjects.

Last year, even, NU was bailed out by a questionable late-game call en route to the thrilling–and almost disastrous–victory at Syracuse. The Wildcats blew a 22-point lead before their speedy recovery, and eventually won out in the non-conference slate.

"A year ago was a great example," Fitzgerald said of week one challenges. "…All of a sudden, we lost momentum and we had to find a way to make a couple of plays down the stretch in all three phases to win the game. We'll anticipate something like that."

With new challenges ahead, Northwestern refuses to look past the first week. The same will be true of the second and third. To reach those lofty aspirations, it's imperative that the Wildcats go undefeated in their non-conference schedule.

Really, there's a precedent for some things.

Note: Jordan Bernfield contributed reporting.


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