Northwestern's opener at Memorial Stadium was everything you could want in a football game. The outcome was left seriously in doubt for much of the second half, as Wildcats fans had to sweat through a serious lull midway through the third quarter. There were several intriguing storylines, including Jared Goff's increasing role in the Golden Bears' offense. And ultimately, for the fans in Evanston, there was a 44-30 win to give Northwestern a serious shot at a 4-0 mark heading into its contest against Ohio State. Here are my seven points from Saturday's affair:
1. Did the better team win? That's a tricky question. Obviously, for most of the purple and white fanbase, the better team — the ranked team — came away with the victory, but I honestly thought California was the better team on Saturday night. The Golden Bears completely shut down Venric Mark (29 rushing yards on 11 carries), leaving him no room between the tackles. The Wildcats' passing game hit a lull in the second half, as Trevor Siemian's best work unfortunately came a little too early in the game, while the Golden Bears seemingly moved the ball at will. They were particularly good on third down, extending drive after drive. After going 3 for 10 in the first half, they went 7 for 11 on third-down opportunities in the second half. Honestly, if it weren't for Collin Ellis' first pick-six, I think California would have run away with the ballgame, right then and there.
2. I don't know why Dan Vitale's improvement surprised me so much. He is a sophomore coming off a surprisingly active role in the Northwestern offense as a true freshman. Of course, I should have expected the superback to grow by leaps and bounds. I guess it was just hard to look at Vitale as a true freshman last year given the rapidity with which he adjusted to the collegiate game. He didn't look like a freshman then, and he doesn't look like a sophomore now. The Wildcats set the tone early with that beautiful option to Vitale, right as quarterback Kain Colter was about to absorb an enormous hit. They also let Vitale run a bit. Whereas he was used mostly on screens and short passes last year, he had that beautiful catch up the middle for a 53-yard gain in the second half, which showed a new versatility to his game.
3. Trevor Siemian, unfortunately, played his best football in the first half. He went 6-for-6 on the drive in which Northwestern took its first lead at 14-7. Combined with the Wildcats' ensuing drive, in which they notched a field goal to go up 17-7, Siemian went 9-for-11. For the rest of the game, he went 9-for-18. In short, he was very, very sharp for a bit, and rather pedestrian for the rest. He wasn't great in the red zone, either. But one thing is for sure, the redshirt junior can throw the ball. He had some laser-tight throws to the middle of the field early on, and when he gets in a groove, like he did on the Wildcats' second touchdown drive, it can be a little frightening to see. The talent is all there. And of course, he wowed me — and the ESPN2 broadcast crew — with one particularly tough throw from the left hash to the right sideline, which was per usual, delivered on a rope. Siemian also is somewhat unfairly painted as a pass-only quarterback. He's no Kain Colter, but he's above-average in pocket presence, I would argue, and he had several nice scrambles out of the pocket on Saturday.
4. Treyvon Green had some really nice runs on Saturday, particularly that first touchdown run, in which he beautifully ducked the tackler, slightly bending his head to avoid contact before sprinting off to the promised land. He finished with 16 rushes for 129 yards, though 33 of those came on that one play. Another 55 came on his game-clinching run in the fourth quarter. That shouldn't obscure an otherwise mediocre day of run blocking. We all know what Venric Mark can do when he's given a lane to run through — just ask Minnesota. Unfortunately for Mark, he couldn't pick up a head of steam on Saturday as he was frequently stopped one step or two steps into a carry. Aside from a 23-yard run, he had six yards on 10 carries. California silenced him Saturday, and I'm not sure any of us were expecting that.
5. People never give special teams enough credit, but did anyone else notice how good Northwestern's kickoff coverage got toward game's end? After yielding returns of 34 and 28 yards in the second quarter, Jeff Budzien nailed a couple of touchbacks and the coverage team took care of the rest, ensuring that there were no more returns longer than 18 yards the rest of the way. As a result, Cal was suddenly starting at the 20 and 25, not midfield. Given Northwestern's bend-not-break defense — this certainly doesn't appear to be a shutdown unit yet — the more space to make a stand, the merrier.
6. Spend a season around Pat Fitzgerald, and what you will hear is a lot of talk about playing 60 minutes. Honestly, most coaches will spin a yarn or two about that. Well, Saturday was far from a perfect 60 minutes. Northwestern showed a lot of that frustrating start-and-stop offensive play and inconsistent defensive play that doomed it against Michigan and Nebraska last season. No team is going to be perfect, obviously. No one is going to score on every drive, and shutouts are rare for a defense. That's why I really don't mind Dwight White's blown coverage on the Golden Bears' go-route touchdown. But when you see a defense go from forcing punt after punt in the first half, to giving up third down after third down in the second half, that's both alarming and frustrating. Just look at the drive chart. The Golden Bears punted five straight times in the first and second quarters. Then, they score on four of their next five drives. Or with the offense, when you see Siemian go from delivering strike after strike to giving way to punt after punt, that's alarming as well. After consecutive 11-play drives for 147 yards and 10 points, the Wildcats managed just 91 yards and three points on their next five offensive series. Those types of moments, when a team stalls like that, that's when a game can get away from you, and it nearly did get away from Northwestern on Saturday. That on-and-off play might be enough for California, but I'm not sure it will be enough for Ohio State.
7. Going for the extra point here, let's talk about Sonny Dykes for a little bit. Obviously, the California coach didn't look too happy on the sideline as his no-huddle offense was slowed time and time again by fallen Northwestern players. He didn't seem too happy in his post-game comments either, noting the coincidental timing of Wildcats' injuries right after his team picked up first downs. The impulse is to yell at him, because sure, there's no choice, the referees can't tell a player to get up and suck it up, because the one time he is truly injured, you could cause him further damage. As Fitzgerald said, he tells his players to stay down if they're hurt to avoid further injury. It's the safest thing to do. Surely, Dykes' anger was wasted, since it's not a solvable situation. And at least some of those Wildcats players were banged up; certainly, Daniel Jones wasn't faking anything. That being said, with some of those guys returning to the game and later making tackles — like Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo — and the ESPN2 sideline report describing somewhat minimal measures taken on some of those supposedly fallen players, you have to wonder a little bit. If it was intentional, it's great gamesmanship, but it does make that win seem a little less — I don't know — pure. Especially, because there's no doubt that those injuries messed with Jared Goff's game, and gave that defense, which spent most of the third quarter out on the field, needed rest. So, at the end of the day, what can we say? All we can say for sure is real or not, those injuries definitely played some role in Northwestern not getting blown off the field.