Just for a little while, Northwestern looked like it was finally figuring it all out. A Collin Ellis interception led to a Jayme Taylor touchdown pass to Trevor Siemian to bring the Wildcats within 10 points of Cal. But it was too little, too late as Northwestern fell to the Golden Bears 31-24 in its season opener.
Northwestern struggled right away, giving up 24 points in the first half to a Cal offense led by quarterbacks Jared Goff (21-34, 281 yards, 3 TD) and Luke Rubenzer (2-5, 19 passing yards, 48 rushing yards).
As the defensive front failed to pressure Goff, the secondary was unreliable. The safeties and corners that anchored the Northwestern defense through last year's disappointments looked out of place and unprepared to contain a receiving corps led by Kenny Lawler (5 catches, 38 yards), Darius Powe (4 catches, 65 yards), Trevor Davis (3 catches, 93 yards) and Bryce Treggs (3 catches, 20 yards).
As Goff and company picked apart the Wildcat defense, Northwestern failed to fire back, only scoring once in the first half on a 54-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Dickerson halfway though the 2nd quarter.
But the Wildcats fought back. Cal had a 31-7 lead with nine minutes left in the third quarter before Northwestern responded with 17 unanswered points.
It started with a rushing touchdown from true freshman running back Justin Jackson (8 rushes, 40 yards). Linebacker Collin Ellis picked off a tipped pass in Bear territory on the following drive to set up a beautifully executed double pass touchdown from superback Jayme Taylor to Siemian (23-42, 229 yards, 1 TD). With 5:18 left in the fourth, kicker Jack Mitchell's 24-yard field goal put Northwestern within a touchdown.
With the score 31-24 and 4:12 left to play, Siemian brought Northwestern to the Cal 27-yard line. Siemian was then sacked for 11 yards and sailed a pass into heavy coverage, which was picked off by Cal linebacker Jalen Jefferson to end the game.
Northwestern will play Northern Illinois next Saturday, Sept. 6 at Ryan Field.