Wild, wacky Wildcat win . . . of course

Welcome back to Northwestern football.

The Wildcats’ 2013 season opener featured all the tell-tale signs of a typical Wildcats football outing. There were the deep passes to broken coverage for easy scores. The giving up of long third down conversions because of coverage that was too soft or a defensive line with not enough people rushing the quarterback to bother him. The frustrating play calling that was too conservative when aggression might have been more necessary.

There were the wacky plays — two tipped pass interceptions by Collin Ellis that the linebacker took to the end zone for a pair of touchdowns.

It was all in there in Northwestern’s 44-30 win over California at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif.

This was different though. There were enough differences, at least, to show that Northwestern has grown as a program.

How else can you explain the Wildcats still managing 508 yards of total offense with Kain Colter on the sideline with the nebulous “upper body injury” after just two plays from scrimmage and Venric Mark limited to 29 yards on 11 carries, two of Northwestern’s most dynamic offensive players were clipped off the board? Then there was the hyper aggressive pace Cal played on offense, causing defenders to go down with cramping left and right and crumple under the passing from freshman quarterback Jared Goff.

Depth was a big part of it. That was a key difference. Trevor Siemian stepped in to complete 18 of 29 passes for 276 yards, adding a touchdown and two interceptions as he captained NU’s offense the rest of the way. Treyvon Green, returning from an injury that knocked him out all of last season, rushed for 129 yards on 16 carries with two touchdowns — the opening 33-yard scamper and the bruising six-yard run that capped the game off.

It would have been difficult to envision either of these things happening even a year ago for such an extended period of time.

The Wildcats were not the typical Wildcats, although it might have looked it at times (and certainly the team will have to clean up some familiar mistakes in the coming weeks). NU dug deep and found a way to win despite everything working against them.

Goff, California’s freshman quarterback, set a Cal freshman record with 445 passing yards on 38-for-63 passing. He took advantage of Daniel Jones’ absence, who suffered an apparent knee injury late in the second quarter, and victimized freshman cornerback Dwight White on two consecutive touchdown drives in the third quarter.

Those two deep strikes — one to Chris Harper for a score and another to Brendan Biggelow for a big gain — seemed to suggest doom for Northwestern. The Wildcats defense was absolutely gassed as the offense struggled to move the ball for much of the second half, trying too hard to establish Mark in his limited time on the field or going too conservative trying to protect a lead (or give the defense some time on the sideline). The defense was playing its usually conservative strategy and it hurt as Cal converted on 10 of 21 third downs.

It was frustrating, but Northwestern’s defense came up with big plays at key moments — a sign perhaps that this team is preparing to do and be something different.

Ellis had his two interceptions, coming off of tipped passes from Dean Lowery and Tyler Scott. He took both to the house for game-changing and momentum-building interceptions. Ibraheim Campbell came up with a big interception too, coming over to steal a pass in Goff’s desperate attempt to get Cal back into the game. Northwestern then went on a 91-yard drive to seal the game with about two minutes to play.

The defense gave up 548 total yards, but made the plays when it had to win.

And winning is all that matters. Questions about the targeting rule (it played a big role in Northwestern’s game-sealing 91-yard drive), injuries that occurred to the defense during Cal’s hurry up offense and questions about Northwestern’s actual injuries did not matter in the end.

The Wildcats made the plays when they had to on both ends of the ball. This is a team used to playing in tight games and going through a roller coaster of emotions. Somehow, someway, Northwestern beat those odds and ground out a victory.

Like most good teams, the Wildcats found a way to win.

Perhaps, they are on the way to becoming a good team. A really good team.

  • cece

    A win is a win. 1-0 is what counts.

    but there is one big after from this one, injuries. which ones are long term, which ones are twinges, and which ones were conditioning questions…was it warm out there?

    while the disruption of the CalBears tempo was welcome, no one likes to see any player injured in any way. what happened to the players will be very interesting to take in.

    • cece

      radio says Twitter from Trevor says concussion for Kain. not good.

      • chitown2424

        Well the good thing is we know we can win with Trevor! If we can get pass Syracuse next week we play Maine and Hopefully Kain will be back!

    • chitown2424

      I think it was tempo of Cal and being the first game.The weather was cool and you had our linebackers doing a lot of covering. Great win with our best two players out!

  • David

    How was there no horse collar penalty called on the option at the goal line….the defender drug Mark down by the collar.

    • chitown2424

      We didn’t get a lot of calls tonight but I agree. The sad part is we need to put the ball in the end zone and can’t settle for field goals but I’ll take the Win!

    • LTP

      That one makes my “disappointing” list. Agreed.

    • Just the Facts

      I think the replay shows that the tackler grabbed the back of the jersey and pulled down. It can have a similar effect as a horsecollar, but I don’t think it was. The tackler must get his hands inside the pads for that.

    • NUMBalumDave

      He had the shirt, and as long as the refs see shirt pulling him down, no horse collar will be called.

  • LTP

    Can you think of a “costlier” win?

    • Dan

      Iowa 2010

    • J.R. McCullough

      Iowa 1995

      • Houston Wildcat

        Definitely Iowa 1995. Nebraska 2012 would be a distant second (Van Hoose)

        • Old Fat Bald Guy

          Except that Nebraska 2012 wasn’t a win. I vote for Iowa 2010 because it hurt NU through the end of the 2011 season.

    • David

      The closest thing to this game would be the loss at IU in 2008. We lost both Sutton and Bacher.

      • Old Fat Bald Guy

        I flashed on that one during the game last night, too.

  • Timc

    OK, feel like I’m obsessed with this point but, What do we take away from the strange V situation? Is it that he’s only an effective running back in the Kain part of the option scheme? In that case for the next couple of games he’s a diminished role player. Could the coaches have adapted and leveraged his strengths last night INCLUDING returning kicks. That hurt us last night with the fumble. Seeing him on the sidelines on the bike made me question whether or not he was 100%. Green was the effective RB between the tackles no doubt.

  • Just the Facts

    My take from the game:
    Game Balls
    Jeff Budzien — Started where he left off last year with a perfect 3/3 on FG and 5/5 on XP. Also, for those worried about his new kickoff duties, he did a good job.
    Offensive Line — A lot of concern with the new starters was dispelled at least for this game. Only one sack allowed, and many plays where they gave Siemian loads of time to pass. Also created holes in the running game when needed.
    Treyvon Green — Showed great patience waiting for the holes to develop and had some nice runs.
    Wide Receivers — After concern over drops in the preseason, they did a good job catching and getting open.
    Dan Vitale — Another great game with a highlight reel play that was half his catch vs Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl and half the Dunsmore rumble in the Outback Bowl.
    Collin Ellis — Sure the balls were tipped, but he was in the right place, made the catches, and make a sweet move to break free on the first pick 6.
    Trevor Siemian — Yes he had two picks, but one was a great play by the defender, and the other effectively a punt on 3rd down. Once again moved the team effectively in tight situations.
    Kick Coverage — There was one good KR allowed but the rest were solid tackles.
    Concerns
    The injuries — Colter goes out, Mark seemed to be injured (if not his lack of involvement in the offense was strange), and Jones.
    Secondary — They were actually doing fairly well until Jones went out. Then White was victimized twice. On both plays Campbell came down shallow so I don’t know if White was supposed to play farther off, or Campbell came down too low. After the two big passes, they hung in there although they really started playing bend not break (even more so than usual) in the 4th quarter. This should be corrected as White has more playing time (assuming Jones doesn’t come back).
    Delay of Game — Getting a delay of game penalty in the red zone after a timeout when the game would be locked up with a TD. There was no sense of urgency.
    Trick Play — Getting snookered yet again on special teams was not a good feeling.
    Final Thoughts
    Well, if you were wondering what the 2014 Cats would look like on offense, you had it much of the night. With Colter out, and Mark limited, we saw what the Cats might look like next year (a year early). Pretty impressive offensive performance all things considered. Not many teams could absorb losing their starting QB and limiting their starting RB and still be effective, let alone still be fairly dynamic on offense. Biggest question is the injury situation. If Jones is out for substantial time, the thinnest part of the roster gets a big test. If White can step in and they avoid communication errors (and no more injuries), they should be OK in that area. Considering that the opponent was a quality opponent, the Cats were on the road, first game, last start, uptempo (and then some) for opponent’s O, the defense did well. Same can be said for the Cats’ O considering the lack of Colter and Mark.
    Go Cats!

  • Timc

    Did anybody notice the post game coaches “handshake”? Looked like Sonny Dykes gave Fitz an earful about the flops. Would love to know what Fitz replied.

    • NUMBalumDave

      I hope Fitz told him to lecture his players on targeting.

      • David

        That….and I will see you at 9:00 AM.

    • James Klock

      The Tribune today quotes Fitz as saying, “If anybody were to question the integrity of myself, our program or our players, I question theirs.”

      Seems like enough of a response, to me. Accusing our players of faking injuries, in a game where a starting QB went out with a concussion on play #2, and a Cal player was ejected for executing a hit that has been deemed unreasonably likely to cause an injury? Totally loser talk. Let’s not get mired in it.

  • NUMBalumDave

    a) A good win, not a great one, but I know everyone will take it.
    b) A costly win, as Kain Colter’s status becomes a huge question mark.
    c) Speaking of Mark….
    d) Physically demanding. So much so, that I, for one, am concerned about readiness against Syracuse.
    e) The media coverage. Anyone have a barf bucket? It ranged from “Wildcats’ questionable defense” to “Cheater! Cheater! Pumpkin Eater!” to “NU lucky as hell to win” to bordering on “Don’t worry, Northwestern is a sucky nuisance team that will go away in a few weeks” to “Those lousy Wildcats made Sonny Dykes cry!” Dislike. As usual.

  • NUMBalumDave

    I want to say one more thing: ejecting McCain was the right thing to do. It was a proper use of the new rule, and he was clearly head hunting our backup quarterback. So, don’t shed me any crocodile tears about fake injuries in the second half when Cal seemed quite interested in causing real one.

    • David

      The player should have been ejected on the kickoff at the end of the half. That was targeting more than the defensive end. On replay the returner did not change positions and the defender launched leading with the crown of his helmet.

      • Catatonic Joe

        Agree completely. Refs did not want to call it.

    • UltimateCranston

      I thought that call was a tad harsh, but I guess it was letter of the law.

      • NUMBalumDave

        Both calls were reviewed. I’m not sure they got either call wrong. I think the refs were doing a credible job, overall. My point remains: Cal was targeting and all the carping about injuries was therefore b.s..

        • Old Fat Bald Guy

          I believe there’s an automatic video review of ejections under this new rule. I think it’s a good rule and I think that was a good call.

        • David

          The kickoff targeting was not reviewed…because they did not call it.

      • Chasmo

        I agree with UltimateCranston. The kid rushing the passer at full speed was right on top of the quarterback as he released the ball with no chance to pull back. Pass rushers throughout their careers are taught to hit the quarterback high to disrupt the throwing motion. It was a hard hit but was it “targeting”?
        If the call had gone against a Northwestern defender, I would have been very upset about it. And I am willing to bet most NU fans would have complained about the call had it be called on a NU pass rusher.

    • Philip Rossman-Reich

      I don’t get how the announcers failed to mention that Cal was the one that made faking injuries to disrupt offensive tempo fashionable. Their team has the most famous incident of that against Oregon a few years ago. It is what it is. You should be able to win at any tempo. If tempo is how you are going to beat teams, it is a gimmick and your team is probably not very good.

      • Chasmo

        Northwestern has also complained in the past about teams “faking” injuries to slow down its fast-paced offense. I remember Fitz both his arms in a dismissive gesture to show his displease toward the opponent’s bench during a game when defensive players went down on play after play on one NU drive.
        It’s impossible to know if a player is “faking” but it’s very easy to get frustrated when your offense is being taken out of its rhythm by injuries that keep the injured party out for only 1 or 2 plays.
        The Cats have shown their displeasure when it has happened to them and now it’s the Bears’ turn to be suspicious.
        C’est la vie.

        • David

          Can you site one of the games you are alluding to? I know Fitz get animated each season when we are getting the “Michigan benefit of the doubt” treatment. For example the Michigan game last season or the Michigan game in 2011. I do not recall any games where teams have faked injuries on us.

  • J.R. McCullough

    The announcers were horrible homers. It was outrageous. Also — NEVER agree to a night game on the West Coast again!

    • Mark Jones and Brock Huard were just incompetent, saying things like “3rd and long” when it was 3rd and 5, not talking about Venric Mark not playing much, saying “Van Noose” instead of “Van Hoose,” misidentifying players… pretty terrible.

      • David

        The discussion about whether Campbell’s face mask penalty should be considered targeting was amusing.

        • JoJo

          The clear Cal fumble that was blown dead was also amusing when they watched the replay and said absolutely nothing.

          • Old Fat Bald Guy

            I think Huard said “Hm” on that replay, but did not elaborate. :) Wasn’t that on the drive that ended with Ellis’ first pick-six? Sometimes a bad break isn’t.

          • David

            You are correct on both the hm…and the pick 6

        • Philip Rossman-Reich

          It showed they had no idea what the targeting rule is about. I am going to look into it more this week. Clearly played a big part in the game with McCain getting tossed.

      • MikeH

        And that cell phone in the ice bath story. Three times it came up. How is that related to football?

    • Catatonic Joe

      Last year, after the opener in the Sauna Dome by Carrier, Fitz said “never again” would he take his players there. Hopefully, this year he is saying “never again” if scheduling a west coast game permits the home team to schedule a midnight game.

      • UltimateCranston

        The time of game was about TV. I can’t blame Cal for that.

        • Catatonic Joe

          No, TV did not determine the time. Cal asked for the night game because a day game would have resulted in parking issues in Berkeley. Cal’s AD joked after the time was announced that she expected NU to schedule a 9:00 a.m. game to get even next year.

          • UltimateCranston

            I think we should schedule early. Thanks for clarification.

    • NUMBalumDave

      The only worse homer I’ve heard lately is Brent Musberger and anyone announcing a Notre Dame game. Those were objectively lousy announcers last night.

      • David

        Musburger is a NU Alum….thus not a ND homer. Also since ND plays on NBC and Musberger works for ABC…he does not call many of their games.

  • Catatonic Joe

    Kudos to the Cats’ depth. It was a good news/bad news story with players stepping up when needed.

    And I appreciated seeing Fitz out there checking on Daniel Jones’ injury. The players know he really cares. a lot of other coaches would just have used the extra time to talk to the team on the sideline.

  • Tommy

    it’s very generous to say this is a good team or possibly a really good team. This team won because two throws bounced into ellis hands. A good team, even one with odds against it (night game, 1st game, pac team etc) puts this game away by making stops in the 3rd and giving the ball to an offense to seal it. Do something to show you are are better team,don’t just wait to have it handed To You. Fitz and Co didn’t show the improvement we need in pass coverage to make me think we’ve changed from last year. Offense might be good unfortunately they weren’t on the field enough because of the d plus the injuries

    • Philip Rossman-Reich

      I was trying to say that good teams find ways to win even when they don’t have their best. That is really what separated this game from past games (even last year). I think NU loses this game 2-3 years ago, maybe even last year. Last night, they found a way to win despite all the issues.

      If I had said Colter goes out two plays in and Mark is a non-factor, you would think no way NU scores 40 points and probably no way the team wins.

      There is a lot to clean up for sure. Maybe it was the adrenaline or being up until 3 in the morning (Eastern Time), but I was feeling pretty OK with things.

    • charlie watts

      Ellis’ run-back on the first pick-6 was very impressive. How many other linebackers would have made the quick cut to find the open lane and then have the speed and determination to get to the endzone? Ellis almost had another pick when he was the first to have his hands on that multi-player tip drill that eventually became an incompletion. Ellis is putting himself into position to make plays, and when opportunities arise, is taking advantage of them.

  • Fed Up Taxpayer

    victory without honor.
    thanks NU – this game will be the poster child for the NCAA to create a rule similar to the helmet come off rule takes you out for one play. if you are injured, you should miss the rest of the series and come back until the next series of downs.
    as the announcers pointed out, many of the so-called “injured” NU defense players did not even get medical attention on the sidelines after their alledged injury

    • David

      You are laughable. They referenced one player who was allegedly “not worked on”. The comical part was as he was doing his hard hitting commentary…Proby, who had just came out of the game was being worked on right behind the reporter.

    • Cranston

      I’m confused about how players getting injured on like seven of 99 defensive plays is a sign of faking. One of the players was carted off; two of the players went down twice and seemed to miss the entire rest of theg game after the second injury.

      I’m going to need a bit more evidence than that. The time when the announcers said they weren’t getting medical attention they showed Will Hampton or Damien Proby, who had just left the game, getting medical attention.

      If you’re going to accuse a program of cheating (which is what this is), I need more evidence than: “Sonny Dykes thinks so.”

      • James Klock

        It’s called “loser talk.”

        DIdn’t win the game, and looking for a reason why. Blow it off– it’s meaningless.

      • Chasmo

        It’s not called “cheating;” it’s called “gamesmanship” or “unsporting” and I guarantee you that had Cal players been doing that when NU’s high-tempo offense was on a roll and NU ended up losing the game, NU fans would have been hurling the very same accusations at the Cal players that Cal fans are making now. As I said in a post above, I have seen Fitz make disparaging gestures toward opponents when he suspected that the real reason players when down after big gains by NU was to slow the Cats down. Sonny Dykes is no different.
        Most fans think the announcers and referees always favor the other team. It’s why they are called fanatics — because they are rarely rational when discussing their own team.

        • David

          As mentioned above…please site one specific game you are referencing. I have seen Fitz get animated when all the calls are going against us. I do not recall a single instance where a competitor faked injuries against us.