There was 9:55 left in the third quarter and Cal was in control. True freshman quarterback Jared Goff was systematically picking apart the Northwestern secondary, minus cornerback Daniel Jones after he went down with an injury just before half. A 19-yard pass here, a 52-yard pass there, and suddenly the Golden Bears were within three.
Northwestern’s special teams came on the field looking to give the offense good field position to regain the 10-point margin. But redshirt freshman Stephen Buckley couldn’t hold on to the ball, and Cal recovered at NU’s 27 yard line.
After a 16 yard loss on first and 10, Goff once again targeted the space defended by cornerback Dwight White, the redshirt freshman who replaced Jones. Cal’s QB found Bryce Treggs for 36 yards.
From the seven yard line, Goff threw a bullet to Chris Harper for the touchdown. Cal had their first lead since the nine-minute mark of the first quarter.
The crowd was loud. Cal was confident. Northwestern looked gassed.
The Wildcats went three and out on the next series, and the defense took the field yet again.
Enter Collin Ellis.
Cal had marched from their own 13 yard line to NU’s 42, when Dean Lowry got above the offensive line and tipped a pass. Ellis was in a perfect position to grab the rebound and hit the open field, returning the interception 56 yards for a touchdown.
Northwestern regained the lead, 27-24, and momentum seemed to be turning.
Had Ellis’ night ended there, he would have been praised by coaches and fans alike for turning the game around.
But there was still over a quarter to play, and Ellis wasn’t finished.
Both teams traded field goals and with just under nine minutes left in the game, Cal was driving to try to take the lead. Goff’s pass on first and 10 at Cal’s 36 yard line bounced off its intended receiver and into the hands of the waiting Ellis, who took it 40 yards to the endzone for another pick-6 and a 10-point lead.
Cal never came closer than a touchdown the rest of the game.
"It’s always a good confidence booster (when) you go out and have a good day,” Ellis said. “Coaches are always preaching tips lead to picks, so when they’re there you’ve got to snag them and take off running.”
The touchdowns were the first scores for the junior linebacker in his collegiate career. The magnitude of the moment was not lost Ellis after the game.
“You know, Collin’s been through a lot of adversity in his life and to see him crying on the field after the game was pretty tough for me to watch,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I love the young man like a fourth son and I’m just really happy for him. I’ve got to keep my emotions in check here a little bit, but he’s a special young man, and to see the way he played today was really special for him, and obviously for the team too. I’m sure his mom’s looking at him and his dad’s looking down on him from Heaven.”