“They came in here and started fast, and we didn’t.”
Pat Fitzgerald hit the nail on the head.
Northwestern showed plenty of life in the second half in their season-opener against Cal on Saturday in Evanston. But by the time they finally did, it was already too late.
Cal was ready to go from the get-go, while Northwestern slumbered on both sides of the ball. Each of the Golden Bears’ first two drives ended in touchdowns. The Cats were just plain out of sync. It was 14-0 after the first quarter. It was 24-7 at the half.
“I think our inability to get into a rhythm and our inability to be efficient offensively early in the game — the guys were pressing a little bit,” Fitzgerald said. “Any time you see somebody press, you see some uncharacteristic things happen, and that’s what I saw in the first half and even the first drive of the first quarter.”
[MORE BIG TEN: The good, the bad, the B1G: Illini 28, Youngstown State 17]
Northwestern did wake up in the third quarter. Justin Jackson, the true freshman running back out of Glenbard North, had one of a few impressive runs for the Cats’ second touchdown. Then Collin Ellis came down with an interception — yes, he did it again against Cal — that put the Cats in prime scoring position. Next came an insane trick play, with quarterback Trevor Siemian passing to Jayme Taylor, who threw back to Siemian. The QB then ran 17 yards, weaving through defenders and diving for the pylon for a touchdown. It made it a 10-point game at 31-21.
But even though the defense strengthened up and Northwestern cut it to a one-possession game with a field goal, there was no overcoming that initial hole the Cats dug for themselves.
They say it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Well, Saturday, that ol’ chestnut was proven wrong.
“Are we gonna be the team that decides to spot a team a bunch of points or the team that responded and came back and got some momentum going, moved the ball offensively and all those things,” Fitzgerald said. “From that standpoint, we’ve got to make a decision. I assume from the leadership that we’ve had to this point, the guys will be about the right things and come back ready to go and be better next week.”
[MORE BIG TEN: The good, the bad, the B1G: Penn State 26, UCF 24]
The offense was ineffective early on, with Siemian really unable to get much of anything going in the passing game. In addition to his shakiness — he threw a pair of interceptions, including the game-clincher in the fourth quarter — his receiving corps had a bad case of drop-itis. The running game was also without much effect, with the team totaling just 108 yards on the ground. Northwestern cycled in four different backs, with Jackson being the only one to truly stand out. He still only finished with 40 yards.
Meanwhile, the defense seemed confounded by a Cal offense they thought would be pass, pass, pass. Instead, the team that threw 65 times in these two teams’ matchup last season was reasonably balanced. Defensive players even realized the irony post game, that they were burned with the run by a team they thought was going to do little more than pass.
Even special teams had its problems, with punter Chris Gradone delivering one short kick after another.
In the end, it meant the Cats were 0-1, with plenty of reasons as to why. There’s certainly quite a bit to clean up before the next game. That’s against Northern Illinois, a team that dropped 50-plus points in its opener. This one was against Cal, a team that won one game last season.
“From this point on, I’m thinking about the next game,” Ellis said. “We’ve got a great opponent coming in, and we’ve got to learn from what we’ve done. We had a lot of guys out there for the first time, a lot of guys playing new positions. … It sucks, but this game’s done and now we move on to the next one. I’ll start watching film tomorrow morning.”