In a game marked by big scores and derailed by injuries, No. 22 Northwestern (1-0) edged Cal 44-30 Saturday at California Memorial Stadium.
The Cats saw a slew of starters get dinged up, including Kain Colter, Venric Mark and cornerback Daniel Jones in the game's first half alone, but were buoyed by linebacker Collin Ellis's two tipped interceptions returned for touchdowns.
"To see him crying on the field after the game was pretty tough to watch. I love the man like a fourth son and I'm just really happy for him," Pat Fitzgerald said in a postgame press conference. "He's a special young man."
It was indeed a special night for Ellis, who was officially named Northwestern's starting strong side linebacker just one week ago. Ellis' first "pick six" of 56 yards halted a momentous progression for Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff, who was 8-of-10 for 150 yards and had notched the first two touchdowns of his career to start the second half. The other, a 40-yarder, gave NU a decisive 10-point edge with 7:57 to play.
"The coaches always preach, ‘tips lead to picks.' When they're there, you've got to snag them and take a run," Ellis said, cracking a smile. "I had a lot of fun today."
Offensively, Northwestern was pushed by Trevor Siemian, who took over under center when Kain Colter was knocked from the game after sustaining a concussion on his first drive. Siemian threw for 276 yards and a touchdown, while tailback Treyvon Green added two scores and 129 yards on the ground to supplement a hobbled Mark.
Down 37-30 late in the fourth quarter, Cal had a chance to pull the upset. Defensive back Alex Logan handed Siemian his second pick of the night, but Goff gave the ball back on the very next play, tossing his fourth interception at the hands of Ibraheim Campbell. Northwestern never looked back, charging for the extra touchdown behind a 55-yard dash from Green.
"We need to retake the fourth quarter. Today was a positive first step," said Fitzgerald.
Cal wasted no time on its opening possession, gashing Northwestern with three straight Brendan Bigelow runs for a total of 55 yards. Shoddy open-field tackling plagued the Wildcats, but a botched snap and two sniffed-out screen passes forced the Golden Bears to line up for a field goal at Northwestern's 10 yard line. As the left side came crashing in for a block, however, holder Jackson Bouza flipped the ball to Vincenzo D'Amato and flanked right, catching his kicker's wobbly pass and ducking in on the fake. Two no-huddle offenses wouldn't disappoint, though, and the Cats answered with a 33-yard Treyvon Green touchdown scamper just five plays later, thanks to a hole paved in the middle by Ian Park, Brandon Vitable and Paul Jorgensen.
"It's all about opportunity," Green said. "The offensive line did a great job tonight, they kept plugging at it."
Knotted at 7-7, Trevor Siemian's pass intended for Pierre Youngblood-Ary was picked off by safety Avery Sebastian, on a play that appeared to be ridden with contact. It was one of three turnovers on the day for a team that touted a plus-14 turnover margin in 2012. Siemian would avenge the interception with three straight smooth completions, ending in a 19-yard touchdown strike to Tony Jones gaining separation on a fade route, putting Northwestern up 14-7 in the second quarter. Without Colter and Mark, the junior went 10 for his first 11, picking apart a porous Golden Bears secondary with a squeaky-clean pocket. The running game, meanwhile, mustered just 38 yards on 18 carries in the first half, apart from the Green score.
Northwestern held Cal to a paltry 40 yards on 22 plays over its next five drives, but struggled in the half's final two minutes. Bigelow rolled off the back of tackler Collin Ellis, seemingly taking a 5-yard run to the house, but the play was ultimately reviewed and called back. A pass interference call on Daniel Jones on the very next play set up Cal for a chip field goal before half, and the play costed more than three points: Jones was carted off and didn't return, with PW's Nick Medline reporting that the junior corner "blew up" his knee.
Those injuries hit hard to start the second half. Despite a steady drive from the Wildcats after kickoff, Colter's absence stalled Northwestern in the red zone, where Cal was able to sit on Siemian and sniff out the read option. And after Budzien converted a second field goal, Goff wasted no time testing Jones' replacement, Dwight White, hitting wideout Chris Harper for a 52-yard bomb that left the true freshman with his first career touchdown pass and the redshirt freshman corner eating dust. Stephen Buckley fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Goff attacked White yet again, this time connecting with Bryce Treggs for 36 yards down to Northwestern's 7 yard line. A play later, Goff doubled his career touchdown total with another score to Harper, this time over a leaping Nick VanHoose on play action to take a 24-20 lead.
Ellis' two returns put Northwestern up 37-27, but another D'Amato field goal drew the Golden Bears to within 7. Despite the costly fourth interception, Goff dazzled in his first start, completing more than 60 percent of his passes for a whopping 445 yards.
"I'm glad we only had to play [Cal's ‘Bear Raid' offense] once. We were only out there for 4,000 plays?" Fitz joked. "We had zero empirical data on what their offense was going to do."
Outlasting a scare on the field and in the training room, Northwestern leaves Cal undefeated in opening games in the Fitzgerald era. But the coach knows there's much to improve upon before Northwestern kicks off its home slate against Syracuse next week.
"We're far form a finished product, you always know that going into a game like the opener," he said.