If this is what the Sonny Dykes Era at Cal is going to be like, fasten your seat belts. The California Golden Bears showed an exciting brand of football Saturday night in the season opener -- both in a good way and in the not-so-good-way -- and gave Cal fans a glimpse of both a bright future and the growing pains of a young team. In the end, the Northwestern Wildcats (# 22 AP/# 22 USA Today) made more big plays and fewer mistakes and won the game, 44-30, to spoil Dykes' Cal head coaching debut. But as opposed to last season's soul-crushing opening game loss to Nevada in the final season of the Jeff Tedford era, this one had a different feel to it. Sure, it was a loss and losing is never good. But if there's one thing you can say about the Bears after the season opener, it is that there is hope once again. And hope floats. (I don't even know what that means; I just used it there.)
One of the many criticisms about the later part of the Tedford era was the perception that Tedford's offenses had lost the edge they had in the beginning of his tenure as Cal coach. Gone were the trick plays, gone was the aggressiveness, and gone was the innovation that had marked the early years of Coach Tedford's time at Cal. You want that kind of stuff back? Well then you must have enjoyed Cal's opening drive. Speedy Cal running back Brendan Bigelow gained 55 yards on Cal's first three plays. And then when it looked like the Bears would settle for a field goal, Coach Dykes played the trickeration card. Holder Jackson Bouza threw a no-look pass to kicker Vincenzo D'Amato that would have made Jason Kidd proud, then caught a touchdown pass from D'Amato to give Cal a 7-0 lead. Just 3:25 into the game, Cal fans got a long look at a guy they saw too little of last year (Bigelow) and saw an aggressive gadget play that had been missing from Cal's repertoire for years.
FAKE FIELD GOAL!
As pleased as Cal fans were after the opening drive, the concern was quick to set in. Northwestern answered Cal's opening drive with an easy 80-yard march in which the Wildcats sliced through the Cal defense with ease. A 33-yard touchdown run by Treyvon Greene (remember that name) capped the drive and tied the game. On the drive, it looked as though Northwestern suffered a significant loss when starting quarterback Kain Colter left the game with a head injury following a hard hit from Cal safety Avery Sebastian. Colter would not return, meaning that the other quarterback in Northwestern's two-QB system, Trevor Siemian, assumed the entire quarterback workload for the remainder of the game.
That was not a good thing for the Bears as it turned out. Siemian lived up to his reputation as being the better passer as between him and Colter. Siemian completed 15 of 20 passes for 199 yards in the first half, including a pretty 19-yard scoring pass to Tony Jones in the right corner of the north end zone over Cal cornerback Isaac Lapite. Cal's defense had few answers for the Northwestern offense in the first half and concerned Cal fans with an inability to bring Northwestern's ballcarriers down with first contact. As Northwestern took a 17-7 lead in the second quarter, it looked like the Bears might be in for a long night despite their promising start.
But freshman quarterback Jared Goff would not let the Bears go down easily. Goff led the Bears to a field goal before halftime to cut the lead to 17-10 at the break. Then, after the Wildcats opened the second half with a field goal to extend the lead to 10 points, Goff aired it out. The freshman found sophomore WR Chris Harper with a perfectly thrown 52-yard touchdown pass that Harper caught in stride to cut Northwestern's lead to 20-17. Then, after Cal's Hardy Nickerson recovered a Northwestern fumble on the ensuing kickoff, Goff connected with Harper again, this time on a 7-yard scoring strike. Harper outleaped the Wildcat defender for the touchdown and Cal suddenly had a 24-20 lead to the delirious delight of the Cal faithful at Memorial Stadium.
Uncle Momentum was wearing a Cal jersey after the Bears defense stopped Northwestern on the ensuing drive and when it looked like Cal was marching toward another score. But momentum is a fickle jerk who can turn at any moment. And turn he did with 4:40 remaining in the 3rd quarter. With the Bears on the move, Northwestern's Collin Ellis caught a deflected pass and returned it 56 yards for a go-ahead touchdown to put the Wildcats ahead 27-24.
Cal regrouped from that gut punch, however, and answered with a 14-play, 58-yard drive that culminated in a D'Amato field goal to tie the game. And the Bears looked like they might get the ball back in good field position when Northwestern faced third down inside its own 10-yard line on the next possession. But then the Bears suffered a double whammy. Siemian found Christian Jones for 10 yards to get the first down, and 15 more were tacked on for a roughing-the-passer penalty on Cal's Chris McCain. To boot, the officials ejected McCain under the new "targeting" rules in college football, meaning McCain missed the remainder of the game against Northwestern and will miss the first half of the Bears' next game. The call was marginal at best, took away Cal's best pass rusher, and gave Northwestern a first down at the 35 yard line after the Wildcats had been backed up inside their 10-yard line. Northwestern parlayed the drive into a field goal to take a 30-27 lead with 8:49 remaining in the game.
Goff, who completed 38 of 63 passes for 445 yards, tried to rally the Bears. But the deflection gods once again frowned upon Cal and shined brightly upon Northwestern. On a first down play from the Cal 36, a Goff pass went off the hands of Darius Powe. Ellis was once again johnny-on-the-spot for Northwestern, catching the deflection and rumbling 40 yards for his second touchdown of the night. All of a sudden the Wildcats had a 10-point lead with 7:57 remaining.
Cal added a D'Amato field goal to cut the lead to 7 points and then looked like it had momentum on its side again after safety Alex Logan intercepted a Siemian pass at midfield. But Goff returned the favor immediately, throwing an interception into double coverage as he tried to hit Harper on a deep post route inside the Wildcats' 10-yard line. Northwestern took over and used a 54-yard run by Greene to bust Cal's morale. Greene capped the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run that salted the game away for the visitors.
But for two pick-6's that turned the game around, Cal might very well be celebrating a victory tonight. But Cal made the mistakes and Northwestern capitalized on them, just as any good football team should do. Cal also shot itself in the foot with penalties, committing twice as many as Northwestern (10 to 5) for 79 yards. On one drive where Cal settled for a field goal, the Bears committed three false starts by three different offensive linemen. The Bears also gave up 129 yards rushing to Greene and allowed Siemian to have an efficient night passing the football, two interceptions (one by Sebastian, one by Logan) notwithstanding. Siemian completed 18 of 29 for 276 yards with 1 TD, 2 INT and seemingly scorched the Bears' defense with throws to wide open receivers.
Still, the Bears managed to stay in the game until late in the 4th quarter. Some of the reason for that may have to do with tempo -- Cal ran a whopping 99 offensive plays, the third highest total for single game in Cal football history. And even the most jaded Bears fans should recognize the great potential that Goff has as a quarterback, particularly when considering the receiving talent he has to work with in Bryce Treggs (13 rec, 145 yards) and Chris Harper (11 rec, 151 yards, 2 TD). Goff displayed a strong arm, poise, and a consistent accuracy that is refreshing after the up-and-down years at quarterback that Cal has had in recent years. And his 445 yards passing were the most ever for a Cal freshman in a single game and marked the second highest single-game total in Cal history (Pat Barnes, 503 yards, 1996).
Yes, Cal is still searching for the first win of the Sonny Dykes era and the first win of any kind since last October. But for the first time in awhile, there is some reason to feel good about Cal football. If these Bears can build upon the positives that were out there on Saturday night, there will be some success on the field.