After challenges of last year, Northwestern extra-ready for Cal

After challenges of last year, Northwestern extra-ready for Cal
August 25, 2014, 2:15 pm
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Vinnie Duber

Northwestern went to Cal last year and won. But it wasn't easy, not on the Cats and not on their sleep cycles.

Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern coaches put the team through a rigorous practice schedule last season to get ready for a game thousands of miles away that wouldn't start until 9 p.m. CT. It meant night practices and little sleep.

This year, thankfully for the players, none of that is necessary. The game's in Evanston, and this time, the Cats are preparing normally. No more nighttime practicing. No more sleep deprivation. Just football like usual.

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"We obviously had to change our entire routine to go up there to play on the West Coast, the timing and all that," Fitzgerald said Monday. "I thought that was a really difficult challenge for the entire program. I thought the guys, in particular, handled it well. Obviously our goal is to win the game and find a way to win, and we got that accomplished. But that was a harder challenge than I think we led on, and I think the guys really handled it well."

That game last season went just about how you'd think a game between two high-powered spread offenses would go, finishing in a 44-30 shootout. The Cats had a good day, even if some defensive players wish it would've gone a little differently. Quarterback Trevor Siemian — then still splitting time with Kain Colter at QB — threw for 276 yards and a touchdown. But the star of the night was linebacker Collin Ellis, who intercepted two passes and returned them both for touchdowns.

"No. 1 memory was seeing my mom after the game," Ellis said. "I like broke down in tears. It was just a culmination of all the work I'd put in to that point. And then having a great game and getting to see my mom was awesome.

"The two interceptions for touchdowns were pretty cool. I had never done that before."

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So Northwestern is familiar with Cal. And the Golden Bears' uptempo offense. Maybe uptempo is putting it lightly. Head coach Sonny Dykes is famous for his lightning-quick offensive pace, and it's on display in nearly every Cal game. Saturday's season-opener in Evanston should be no different.

The Cats are hardly worried about it, believing their pace of play to be somewhat comparable, sufficiently preparing the defense in practice.

"I think they were fine last year, I don't think it was an issue at all," Fitzgerald said. "We practice at a very uptempo pace. Our practice tempo is pretty ridiculous, and I think the guys handle that really well. Obviously Cal does a great job playing fast, playing uptempo, but it's not we're a dramatically different style of an offense. We see it every day."

There are plenty of off-the-field questions going into this game for the Cats. How will they handle the losses of Venric Mark and Christian Jones? How will Siemian fare in his first outing as the only quarterback? Will Fitzgerald get his handshake revenge on Dykes, who told Fitz after last year's game he believed Northwestern players were faking injuries? But there's one certainty. The Cats are focused. They're ready. And this time, they'll be rested.