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Northwestern 17, Cal 10: First half thoughts

At halftime, Northwestern leads Cal 17-10. Some quick thoughts:

-       For the first three minutes and 25 seconds, all the fears of new Cal coach Sonny Dykes’ up-tempo offense seemed all too real: the Golden Bears moved the ball briskly and NU’s defense looked out of breath as true freshman quarterback Jared Goff orchestrated a 10-play, 82-yard drive, capped by a cheeky fake field goal run for a touchdown.

-       It didn’t take long for the Wildcats’ defense to settle in. Dykes’ system, once rapid and bewildering, stalled, and Northwestern was able to steady itself and contain Goff and company. Cal would only score a field goal the rest of the half.

-       On Northwestern’s second offensive play of the game, Kain Colter scrambled to his right and was crunched between two Cal defenders. He walked off the field wearily, removed his helmet and was soon taken into the locker room. Athletic department officials described his injury as an “upper-body” injury.

-       The Wildcats’ offense, led exclusively by junior quarterback Trevor Siemian after Colter left the game, hummed along efficiently. Junior tailback Treyvon Green, who seemed to fall behind in the running back pecking order last season, but had played well in spring practice and training camp, busted through the line for a 33-yard touchdown run to tie the score at 7. Green’s run did not mute questions about senior tailback Venric Mark, who was curiously uninvolved in the bulk of Northwestern’s offensive production. Mark finished the first half with four carries for four yards and did not field a punt or kick. Before the game, Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune reported Mark might be spared kick returning duties out of fears he might take too many hits. So his absence from the special teams game was not surprising; his lack of touches on offense was. Mark was held out of practice Wednesday but was not listed on the injury report.

-       At practice this week, redshirt freshman running back Stephen Buckley said, "I honestly do not know what my role will be." He said he had no measurable goals he wanted to reach this season, no touchdown or yards benchmarks. Instead, Buckley humbly said, "I just want to get on the field." Buckley has been used frequently and in different ways, which isn't very surprising: Buckley is a dynamic athlete who often lined up with the first-team offense in training camp.

-       Junior cornerback Daniel Jones left the game with under one minute remaining in the first half. There have been no updates on his condition. Redshirt freshman Dwight White, who showed great promise in training camp, replace him in the lineup.

-       Whenever Colter’s throwing accuracy was decried this offseason, Siemian’s was correspondingly praised. In the first half, he showed exactly why: Siemian finished 15-for-20 for 199 in leading the Wildcats to a comfortable 17-10 victory. He showed flashes of brilliance last season, but his accuracy was suspect at times. Seeing Siemian play this well, in light of Colter’s injury, is an encouraging development.

-       After a frenetic start, the Wildcats seemed to have regained their footing. It is not wise to discount any opponent’s chance of making up a deficit on Northwestern – as fans learned most poignantly during last season’s season-opener at Syracuse – but Northwestern plainly looks like the better team. The Wildcats appear to be in control.