The Golden Bears head into Chicago with a chip on their shoulder, considering the events that unfolded in last year's matchup at Memorial Stadium. Last year's game featured two pick 6's from Northwestern LB Collin Ellis which proved to be the difference in the contest, the game ended as a 44-30 victory for the Wildcats despite 454 yards from Jared Goff in his first career start.
There is a distinct sub-plot that developed as a result of last year's game and it comes on the insinuation by Sonny Dykes and other members of the Golden Bears that Northwestern players were faking injuries to slow down Cal's up-tempo, no huddle attack. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald took exception to these accusations and this feud just adds fuel to the fire for this year's edition of the contest.
Both Cal and Northwestern come into the 2014 season seeking to bounce back from disappointing campaigns last year. Fitzgerald's Wildcats started the season 4-0, and then dropped 7 straight ,eventually finishing 5-7 (1-7 in the B1G 10) and missing out on a bowl berth, and we all know the debacle that was Cal football in 2013.
What Northwestern brings to the table
Pat Fitzgerald has never lost a season opener as head coach of the Wildcats, opening up his tenure with 8 straight victories in such games.
Northwestern fields a team that returns all five starters along its offensive line, and boasts its 'best defense' in years. This is a solid Wildcats team and despite dealing with key losses of star tailback Venric Mark on a transfer and leading receiver Christian Jones to a season ending knee injury, they still figure to be in the mix for a bowl game at the end of the season according to ESPN's B1G 10 bloggers.
Quarterback Chris Siemian returns to lead the offense on his own after splitting duties with the newly departed Kain Coulter, and he performed very well in last year's opener in Berkeley after Coulter went down with a concussion very early in the game. Treyvon Green, this year’s starter, filled in for Venric Mark in last years contest and rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. In theory, these same players will be able to produce at a similar level and pace the home team to a comfortable victory.
Why Cal can pull the upset
Cal comes into this game as 11 point underdogs on the road but do have a chance to surprise some folks. It won't come easy, but it is possible. If this very young and 'hungry' Golden Bears team is able to translate some of the improvements made in the spring and all the way through fall over to the playing field, then don't count out the chance of an upset. This is not last year’s game or team. Cal is an improved side, and has had an entire offseason to prepare for this matchup.
The Bears, like Northwestern return their entire offensive line from a year ago and believe that the added experience will lead to improved performance. Jared Goff and his band of very talented receivers, are now in their second year in Tony Franklin's system and will need to create some explosive plays and sustain drives/ avoid three and outs to have any chance of knocking off the Wildcats.
First year defensive coordinator Art Kauffman's unit will have a big role to play as well in this one. The defense gets the chance to finally take the field and hopefully put last year's misfortune behind them.
Cal was very close to pulling off this upset last year, and if not for the two tipped passes that led to return touchdowns in key moments by Collin Ellis, they just might have. If I were Northwestern, I wouldn't count on getting those kinds of breaks again.
This might just be blind optimism but the Bears have the chance to get the program headed in the right direction right off the bat. I think that they will play Northwestern tough and will have a chance to pull out a victory at the end of it all!
IT'S GO TIME
I honestly can't wait for this matchup and this season to get underway. It should be a hard fought, close game between two teams that are in the beginning stages of forming a rivalry since the matchup last season. Both coaches and both teams really want this one as they begin their bounce back; Fitzgerald went as far as too even guarantee victory.
We'll see how Cal responds on the field, at 12:30 PT Saturday on the ESPN Networks.