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Palms of Victory: Cal starts fast, hangs on for 31-24 win at Northwestern

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It might be a little much to say that our long Cal football nightmare is over. But for now, let's just say our long Cal football nightmare is over.

David Banks

Yours truly, along with a smattering of CGBers and a few hundred of our closest friends wearing blue and gold, attended the "official" California Alumni Association tailgate party before Saturday's game between the California Golden Bears and Northwestern Wildcats.  Cal interim Athletic Director Michael Williams introduced himself to our group and offered us some of his insights about the Cal team and the upcoming game.  He gave us a vague and intriguing parting shot as he departed our conversation to meet other alumni:

"Sonny [Dykes] has a surprise for today," Williams said to us.

Immediately, visions of trickeration danced in my head.  What would this "surprise" be?  On the game's third offensive play, we had our answer.  And it had nothing to do with trickeration.  On first-and-10 from the Cal 32 yard line, a player made his debut in a Cal uniform. Luke Rubenzer entered the game for starting quarterback Jared Goff.

Nope, no redshirt for the true freshman quarterback. And the rookie immediately announced his presence with authority, dashing 11 yards for a first down on a designed quarterback run. Rubenzer was in the game for four more plays on the opening drive, which Goff capped with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Bryce Treggs on a 4th-and-goal.

A surprise appearance from the backup freshman quarterback, an 18-play, 6+ minute opening drive, and a touchdown on a fourth and goal play: quite a start to the 2014 season.

"They gave me an idea that they were going to put me in depending on how well the game goes, so I didn't know exactly when it was going to be," said Rubenzer.  "But I knew it was probably going to come eventually."

CLICK HERE FOR GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PAC-12 NETWORK

Rubenzer's surprise notwithstanding, this is still Goff's team.  Rubenzer offered the Bears a nice change of pace, but Goff is the one who completed 21 of 34 passes (with a few drops among the incompletions) for 281 yards and three touchdowns.  Goff made three particularly memorable throws during a first half that saw the Bears take a 24-7 halftime lead:

  • On 3rd-and-12 from the Cal 31 on the Bears' second offensive series, Goff scrambled and bought himself what seemed like an eternity before finding Darius Powe Jr. for a 40-yard gain;
  • Five plays after the pass to Powe, Goff zipped a pass through a tight window for a 7-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Lawler; and
  • On the first play after Northwestern cut Cal's lead to 17-7, Goff threw a picture-perfect deep ball to Trevor Davis, who caught the ball in stride and finished a 76-yard touchdown play.
As well as the offense played in the first half, the story of the game may have been the defense, given Cal's well-documented struggles on that side of the ball in 2013. In the first half on Saturday, Cal stopped Northwestern on a fourth down, forced three punts, intercepted a pass (Griffin Piatt), and yielded only one touchdown. The seven points Cal gave up in the first half were the fewest the Bears had yielded in a half since November 2, 2012.

The second half opened with as much promise as the first half.  The Cal defense opened the second half with a three-and-out, followed by a horrid 17-yard punt that gave Cal the ball on the Northwestern 49-yard line.  The Bears took advantage of the great field position, marching on an 11-play drive capped by a Khalfani Muhammad one-yard touchdown run.  The Bears led 31-7 and seemed in complete control of the game.

But we have been conditioned as Cal fans to know that very little comes easy.  And Northwestern made a game of it, helped along by a mistake by the Cal offense. After the Wildcats scored a touchdown to cut Cal's lead to 31-14 late in the third quarter, the Bears gave Northwestern life with a turnover.  Daniel Lasco bobbled a Goff pass, which landed in the hands of...you guessed it...Northwestern's Collin Ellis (his third interception against Cal in the last two years).  Though Ellis did not return this one for a touchdown, the Wildcats didn't take long to cash in the mistake.  Northwestern executed the double pass perfectly on the very next play, with quarterback Trevor Siemian playing the role as receiver and scoring the touchdown.  With more than a full quarter to play it was 31-21 and old Mo was wearing purple.

Cal would not, however, be denied its first victory in nearly a year and its first victory over an FBS opponent since October 13, 2012.  The Cal defense stopped Northwestern on a fourth down in Cal territory to preserve the 10-point lead with 10:04 remaining and then managed to hold the Wildcats to a field goal after stalling a promising Northwestern drive at the Cal 7-yard line with 5:18 left.  And then, on Northwestern's final possession of the game, Cal's defense stepped up to win the game after the Wildcats marched to the Cal 27-yard line with under two minutes remaining.

After mounting very little pass rush for much of the game, Bears linebacker Jalen Jefferson sacked Siemian for an 11-yard loss, setting up the Wildcats with a 3rd-and-17 at the Cal 38.  Jefferson struck again on the next play, intercepting a Siemian pass tipped by fellow linebacker Michael Barton and giving Cal the ball.  The Bears ran out the clock and the Bear Territory chants started in earnest among the Cal faithful who made the trip to Evanston.

"We had some mistakes out there, but I thought for a first game in a new system we played smart and understood what was going on," Coach Dykes said after the game. "The big thing was the guys played hard and you know they were competing until the end and trying to make some things happen. The key is not to panic and that's the thing we talked about all week, 'Don't panic'. Just play one play at a time and I think that's something that the guys did a good job with."

Sure, there are some concerns about this team that remain after this game.  After taking a 31-7 lead, the Bears offense was pretty much quiet for the last 24 minutes of the game.  Cal's leading rusher in the game was Rubenzer, the change-of-pace quarterback, with the Cal running back quartet of Muhammad, Lasco, Tre Watson, and Vic Enwere combining for 77 yards on 24 carries (3.2 ypc).  And even though Cal looks to have improved greatly on defense under new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, the consistent lack of pressure on the Northwestern quarterback is a theme that the Bears hope to not repeat over the course of the season.

But let's not dwell on the negatives.  Please.  We have waited a long time for a win.  Let's enjoy this one.  And get another next week in the home opener against Sacramento State.

PALMS OF VICTORY.