It was supposed to be a day in which the questions surrounding Northwestern would officially end. At the start of the week, the Wildcats were 13-point favorites over Cal, a 1-11 team they beat last season. By game time, the line shifted to just 8 points and, early on, the Golden Bears showed why it may have.
On the opening drive, Cal marched down the field with a long 16-play drive, ending in a Bryce Treggs touchdown from quarterback Jared Goff. Cal moved the ball really efficiently down the field, keeping Northwestern off balance by using both Goff, a more traditional quarterback, and Luke Rubenzer, a player more adept to running.
Cal scored again on its next possession, an 11-play drive that ended with another Goff touchdown pass, this time to Kenny Lawler, putting the Golden Bears up by 14 at the end of the first quarter.
After Cal tacked on a field goal, the Golden Bears were driving again in Northwestern territory. Then, safety Ibraheim Campbell made a diving interception as Rubenzer tried to throw the ball away. Northwestern capitalized as quarterback Trevor Siemian found wideout Cameron Dickerson on a slant. Dickerson took it 54 yards to the end zone.
Northwestern's glory didn't last long as Goff found Trevor Davis for a 76-yard score on the very first play of Cal's next possession as Cal took a 24-7 lead into the half.
After a three-and-out on Northwestern's first drive of the second half, Cal went on another 11-play drive that ended in a touchdown following a big fourth-down conversion.
Down 31-7, Northwestern's offense was finally able to sustain some success, moving the ball on a 12-play, 72-yard drive that ended in a Justin Jackson rushing touchdown, the first of the freshman's career.
On the very next possession, with Cal pinned in their own zone, Collin Ellis intercepted Goff on swing pass, giving Northwestern a huge opportunity inside their opponent's 20-yard line.
While Northwestern had done nothing to inspire any creativity in its play calling, that all changed when Siemian threw a backwards pass to superback Jayme Taylor, who lofted it back to Siemian, who ran it in for one of the more unorthodox touchdowns Northwestern fans may have ever seen.
That score put the Wildcats within 10 with momentum shifting heading into the fourth quarter. After trading empty possessions, Northwestern took over at its own 34 yard-line. The Wildcats took a well-orchestrated drive down to the Cal 8, where it stalled. A short Jack Mitchell field goal cut Cal's lead to just seven at 31-24 with 5:18 left in the game.
Getting the ball just about minute later after a Cal punt, Northwestern picked up a couple of first downs, but was intercepted on a third down pass intended for Pierre Youngblood-Ary in Cal territory. Cal picked up a couple first downs and sealed the seven-point victory.
What went right:
Northwestern's tandem of true freshman tailbacks -- Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault -- was really one of the few bright spots for the Wildcats. In a bit of a surprise, Jackson received the season's first carry and Vault got the second after it was expected that incumbent starter Treyvon Green would see the first touches. Green finished with the most carries, but Jackson led the team with 40 rushing yards on just eight carries and Vault added 25 yards on five carries. Green, in contrast, averaged just 2.8 yards per carry in the game.
What went wrong:
Well, a lot. The defense couldn't stop Cal at all in the first half but did slow down the Golden Bears in the second half to give the Wildcats a chance for the comeback. Jared Goff picked on cornerback Nick VanHoose all day, beating him for a couple early touchdowns. Traveon Henry also took a really, really bad angle on a long Goff touchdown pass.
It was a really sloppy day for the defense as a whole as Cal racked up 414 yards of total offense with 275 of them coming in the first half. The adjustments made at the intermission were encouraging, but Northwestern's defense will need to put together a complete game to avoid falling into major holes.