Northwestern continues quest for dream season after surviving Cal
BERKELEY, Calif. -- For the first time since Pat Fitzgerald took over as Northwestern's head coach seven years ago, the Wildcats enter September with lofty expectations. Anything less than a trip to the Rose Bowl, at least on some ambitious level, will be considered a disappointment this season.
Fans and media types alike are calling for big things from Northwestern, and for good reason. It's fresh off a 10-win campaign and a victory over Mississippi State in last January's Gator Bowl, the program's first postseason win since 1949. Fifteen starters are back from the 2012 squad, including second-team All-Big Ten running back Venric Mark, all-conference honoree Tyler Scott and both halves of the Wildcats' uniquely successful two-quarterback system, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. The Wildcats have depth on both sides of the ball, and smart football people -- including Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times, who placed Northwestern No. 10 in his national preseason rankings -- have taken notice.
"So look at these guys now?" Dufresne wrote in August.
Still, all the offseason hype hung in the balance last Saturday at Cal, as Northwestern became the first team to face new coach Sonny Dykes' up-tempo "Bear Raid" offense. Excited Wildcats fans flocked to Memorial Stadium -- rough estimates pegged Northwestern's fan contingent at 7,000 -- and local alumni staged a sprawling tailgate before the game, the biggest Fitzgerald can remember since Northwestern's 1996 trip to the Rose Bowl. The 'Cats were outnumbered, but not unrepresented; even historically jeered Northwestern fans can be summoned to support their favorite team on the road with the proper motivation.
After five lead changes, six turnovers, 74 points and a controversial targeting rule ejection, Northwestern eventually beat the Bears 44-30. Now, having overcome its biggest nonconference test, the focus has shifted. Big Ten play -- and a tantalizing home matchup against No. 2 Ohio State on Oct. 5 -- looms on the horizon.
Of course, in the immediate aftermath of an exasperating win, neither the Wildcats nor Fitzgerald were eager to address a big-time conference showdown four weeks away. Still, Northwestern's coach did offer a few postgame words of advice to Buckeyes headman Urban Meyer, who will lead his team into Berkeley on Sept. 14.
"This is not an easy place to play," Fitzgerald said on Saturday. "It's tough when you have to go across time zones like we had to go. [Cal is] a very talented team. Obviously I think coach Meyer and his staff will have two or three weeks' worth of information. I think that'll help them."
He added: "No disrespect to those guys. I'm going to worry about us."
The first order of business is addressing the rash of injuries that occurred on Saturday night. Junior cornerback Daniel Jones, who limped off the field near the end of the first half while defending a pass, will have surgery on his left knee and miss the remainder of the season. His absence depletes a secondary that finished 84th nationally in pass defense in 2012. Meanwhile, Colter, Mark and cornerback Matthew Harris are currently "day-to-day," though all were listed on the Week 2 depth chart released on Monday afternoon.
The Wildcats also struggled to consistently generate a strong push from their defensive tackles. Their corners and safeties lost track of speedy Cal receivers Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs, who combined for 24 catches, 320 yards and two touchdowns -- a hint that the Wildcats pass defense, so troubling in recent years, could come back to haunt them again this fall.
Dealing with the pace of Cal's offense was another issue. While Dykes' no-huddle attack was eventually contained, Northwestern's method for stopping it became a topic of speculative controversy. Specifically, there were accusations that Northwestern faked injuries as a means of slowing Cal's attack.
"It seemed like every time we got a first down they had an injury. I hadn't seen that, wasn't expecting to see that, was disappointed that I saw that," Dykes said after the game. "But that's the way it goes sometimes."
Still, for Northwestern, what's important is that it survived a perilous road game. With three ostensibly winnable nonconference fixtures on tap (Syracuse, Western Michigan and Maine), the Wildcats have every reason to believe preseason optimism will lead to favorable results. Even some of the players sense something different about this 2013 squad.
"I think we have a great season ahead of us," said sophomore superback Dan Vitale, who caught five passes for 101 yards against Cal. "Especially compared to last year -- we had a little bit of trouble finishing games and [Saturday night] we were able to do that.
"I think we got a new kind of swagger about us this year, coming off a [bowl] win last season, and we're just going to roll with that."
With Mark hampered, backup Trevyon Green carried 16 times for 129 yards and two touchdowns. Linebacker Collin Ellis returned a pair of interceptions for scores, including one with 7:57 remaining that helped seal last week's result. It's never wise to draw sweeping conclusions after one game, and beating Cal doesn't guarantee anything beyond a 1-0 record. But Northwestern has hurdled its biggest potential early-season stumbling block. The next gut check? The Ohio State game -- a matchup one source close to Northwestern's athletic department indicated has a "great chance" of serving as the hosting site of ESPN'S College GameDay if both teams enter that week undefeated. The festivities would fall right in line with Northwestern's rise in the college football consciousness, and a fan base coming to grips with its team's exalted national stature.
Northwestern hasn't proven anything yet, and for now, what it can achieve remains purely hypothetical. Yet after an encouraging Week 1 victory, it has its sights set on Syracuse, the next team standing between the Wildcats and reaching their lofty preseason goals.
"We are far from a finished product," Fitzgerald said.