After ESPN announced that Northwestern’s game against Ohio State will be broadcast in primetime, we discussed the very real possibility that Evanston could play host to ESPN’s College Gameday that weekend. The response from fans was cautious optimism: yes, it’s certainly possible, but NU must get through its four non-conference games, most notably Cal. That’s true, of course; the Wildcats will almost certainly need to be 4-0 heading into that game to get Gameday, but the schedule — at Cal, vs. Syracuse, vs. Western Michigan, vs. Maine — isn’t all that daunting.
Nonetheless, a number of NU fans seemed concerned about the Cal game. This surprised me. Yes, it’s an away game, but the Wildcats won their opener at Syracuse last year, and yes, Cal is in the Pac-12, but its hardly a juggernaut. Cal went 3-9 (2-7 Pac-12) last season and now has to adjust to the system of new head coach Sonny Dykes. Dykes is known for his prolific offenses and Cal has some players, but this will be the first game he ever coaches in Berkeley, and he will likely need some time to adjust. Plus, the defense needs a makeover even more than the offense, considering this team gave up 49 points to Utah, 59 points to Oregon and 62 points to Oregon State last year. Simply put, no matter what the future holds, Cal probably isn’t going to be very good this year, especially at the beginning of the season. So why the fuss?
I posed this question on Twitter, and NU sports information director Paul Kennedy pointed me to one possible answer: the West Coast is a scary place for Big Ten teams. At the beginning of last season, ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg pointed out that the Big Ten was 5-17 in true road games against Pac-12 teams since 2000. That dropped to 5-20 last year, as Wisconsin lost at Oregon State, Illinois lost at Arizona State and Nebraska lost at UCLA.
NU’s last trip out west was a 31-21 loss at Nevada in 2006, but that was Pat Fitzgerald’s first team, which started the season just 2-7 and won just four games all year. This Wildcat team is much better than that one, and that Nevada team (8-5) may have been better than this Cal team. NU’s last trip to Pac-12 territory was a 52-21 blowout loss at Arizona State in 2005. The Wildcats also went west-ish in the postseason that year, losing 50-38 to UCLA. Overall, since 1995, NU is just 0-1 in true road games against Pac-12 teams, but just 2-4 in games in the Mountain, Pacific or Hawaii time zones. The wins came against UNLV in 2001 and Hawaii in 1998, and the losses against USC in the 1996 Rose Bowl, UCLA in the 2005 Sun Bowl, Arizona State in 2005 and Air Force (52-3!) in 2002.
Obviously, the fact that NU lost 52-3 to Air Force in 2002 has no effect on the 2013 game against Cal. However, the Big Ten’s struggles on the road against the Pac-12 teams do show one cause for concern: the time change. That was the biggest issue Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz pointed out to Rittenberg:
“You’re dealing with the time change, you’re dealing with a whole different environment, certainly,” Ferentz told ESPN.com.
Ferentz’s teams have played out west twice — against Arizona and Arizona State. The Hawkeyes lost both trips to Pac-12 country, but won the games against those teams that were played in Iowa City. It’s a legitimate concern that a western road trip could put the better team at a disadvantage, with the time change possibly being the biggest culprit.
As mentioned above, this isn’t to say NU can’t or won’t win at Cal on August 31. After all, the Wildcats have a much better team and the Bears are breaking in a new coach and a new system. But as the old cliche goes, there’s a reason they play the game. Considering the recent results of Big Ten teams on the West Coast, “cautiously optimistic” might be the best mindset for NU fans as the Wildcats head to Berkeley, no matter what the matchups say on paper.