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.