Northwestern has suffered some big losses in the last couple week, but they remain slight favorites in their season opener at home against Cal. Here's a look at three big things Northwestern will have to do to get the victory against the Golden Bears:
1. Set the pace
As we saw last year in Berkeley, Cal likes to go fast, very fast. They are going to use a hurry-up offense early and often to keep the Wildcat defense on the field, and they are going to pass a lot. Northwestern's defense held up pretty well last season, at least until they suffered multiple injuries in the second half. Cal coach Sonny Dykes questioned the legitimacy of the injuries since they often occurred as Cal was driving and took the Golden Bears out of rhythm. Pat Fitzgerald insisted Northwestern did not fake injuries, and by no means should they. What they can do is establish the run and mix up their defensive looks. By establishing the run, NU runs some clock, owns the time of possession and keeps Cal's air raid attack on the bench. Mixing up defensive looks will prevent Cal from gaining consecutive first downs and using that hurry-up offense.
2. Win the turnover battle
This tends to be a key to winning any football game, but it proved particularly important in last year's match-up with Cal. Collin Ellis returned two interceptions for touchdowns and Ibraheim Campbell also picked off quarterback Jared Goff once. However, a Stephen Buckley lost fumble allowed Cal to score 14 unanswered points and take the lead in the 3rd quarter. Then with four minutes left to play, a Trevor Siemian pass was intercepted, giving Cal the ball back down just seven. Luckily for NU, Campbell's pick came on the very next play. Northwestern may not be so fortunate if they turn the ball over at such crucial junctions of the game again. Picking off Jared Goff should also get the young quarterback out of his groove and throw a wrench in Cal's offensive rhythm.
3. Special teams success
Special teams is the biggest question mark on Northwestern's depth chart. Hunter Niswander, NU's only scholarship kicker, isn't ready for play so redshirt sophomore Jack Mitchell will be the Wildcats' starting kicker. Mitchell hasn't seen any game action, and he has incredibly big shoes to fill after Jeff Budzien's graduation. The starting punter will be junior Chris Gradone, who started the final three games last season. Field position is going to be vital and in close games, like this one is expected to be, every point matters. A missed field goal might be the difference in the game. Considering how much Northwestern struggled with finishing drives last year, Mitchell could be on the field a lot Saturday. There's one more x-factor though, Miles Shuler. The speedy return man is just as explosive as Northwestern's kicking unit is unproven. Shuler has the ability to put the 'Cats in excellent field position every time he touches the ball, if he gets some solid blocking. How Shuler, Mitchell, Gradone and the entire Northwestern special teams unit fare will be a huge factor in the game Saturday.