Don’t Hate the Player: Week 1 at Cal

WNUR Sports Online Content Director Cameron Songer (@CameronSonger) “predicts” the winner of Northwestern’s weekly football game using the occasionally-realistic medium of EA Sports NCAA Football 14.

Welcome to the first week of my simulated season in NCAA Football 14! This column was ridiculously fun for me to write last year, so it’s back for year two. Last season, the results were reasonably accurate. One thing to keep in mind is that this week will pretty much be the most accurate this season will get. The simulated season will have different injuries and results than real life as the season goes on. As a result, the rankings you see here are what the game shows, not AP or BCS polls in real life.

Here’s the plan: I set up the 2013 NCAA Football season in the game. I’m controlling the Northwestern Wildcats and all the settings are set to default (5 minute quarters, Varsity difficulty.) Rather than play out the games and show off my “mad skills on the sticks,” I let the game’s Supersim function decide the winner. I watched the game carefully, taking the notes you’ll see in each recap. The end result is a tangible outcome for each of Northwestern’s football games before they take the field. After breaking down the final score of Northwestern’s game, I’ll briefly share what happened around the NCAA and Big Ten in simulated action that week.

If you don’t like a result, don’t blame me. I’m just reporting what happens in the game EA created. (Disclaimer: this column is not endorsed or sponsored by EA Sports.)

Key Players on Northwestern:
SS Ibraheim Campbell (JR): 91 Overall, 88 speed
QB Kain Colter (SR): 90 Overall, 86 agility
HB Venric Mark (SR): 89 Overall, 92 speed

Key players on Cal:
P Cole Leininger (Soph): 87 Overall, 91 kick accuracy
DE Deandre Coleman (SR): 87 Overall, 87 tackling
WR Bryce Tiggs (Soph): 87 Overall, 97 speed

Northwestern: Overall: B, Offense: B, Defense: B
Cal: Overall: B, Offense: B, Defense: B-

Northwestern Game Recap
I think the folks at EA Sports didn’t know what to think of Cal this season either. The team carries a similar rating to Northwestern’s, despite their youth, coaching change and record last season. Their best player is a punter, for crying out loud!

Cal got the ball first and opened up their playbook right away, showing no desire to balance the run and the pass. That strategy paid off, as they needed just 8 plays (including only 1 run) to score the game’s first touchdown. Northwestern went three-and-out on their first possession thanks to a holding penalty, and Cal went right back to work, converting a long third down en route to notching a field goal. It was 10-0, Cal, late in the first quarter. The Wildcats again went three-and-out and Cal again picked on Northwestern’s secondary to stretch their lead to 17 before the first quarter even ended. The second quarter didn’t start well for the Wildcats either. Their first 1st down came through a pass interference on Cal and Kain Colter threw a pick two plays later. Less than two minutes later (remember, 5 minute video game quarters), Cal had scored again to make it 24-0. I’ll spare you the details of the rest of the first half, which featured the teams swapping touchdowns.

At the break, Cal led 31-7. The Golden Bears dominated time of possession by a factor of two to one. They converted a monster 77% on third downs to NU’s 33%. The Wildcats mustered a paltry 3 first downs to Cal’s 14. Cal freshman quarterback Zach Kline attempted 30 passes in the first half, completing 20 for 289 yards and 2 touchdowns. I’m pretty sure the in-game commentators called those “video game numbers,” so that humor helped lighten the situation a little bit, I guess.

Cal’s offense in the second half started out a bit more subdued, and Northwestern scored on a short Venric Mark run on their second possession of the third quarter. The virtual ‘Cats inexplicably went for two after that score and threw an incomplete pass, leaving the score 31-13 midway through the third quarter. Cal threw a pick on their next drive and Northwestern marched back down the field, taking nine plays to score at the start of the fourth quarter. They went for two again, this time handing off to Mark for the yards and converting. 31-21, Cal, with most of the fourth quarter to go. Northwestern forced Cal to punt with about four minutes to go and got the ball deep in their own territory. Kain Colter used his legs to convert a fourth-and-short early in the drive and the ‘Cats used short passes and a no-huddle offense to score on a 13-yard strike to Christian Jones with 2:23 to go. The Wildcats had ripped off 28 straight points at that point and the crowd at Cal’s Memorial Stadium had fallen eerily silent, as if they could sense the impending disaster. Trusting the defense, Northwestern kicked deep and forced a 3rd and 8. Cal spread the field with five wideouts and got the necessary yards on a slant route. Northwestern finally forced a punt with about 15 seconds left in the game, a touchback that gave the ‘Cats the ball on their own 20 with 9 seconds left, no timeouts, and a three-point deficit on the scoreboard. As one might expect, Northwestern couldn’t score in this situation, and the Wildcats left Berkeley with a heartbreaking 31-28 loss.

Final Thoughts
Maybe this is kinda obvious, but falling behind by 31 points is never a good idea. That’s what Northwestern did in this game, and even though Northwestern held a small edge in terms of ratings going into this game, you wouldn’t know it from the first quarter. The limits of the video game simulation are immediately evident: Trevor Siemian didn’t see any snaps as the “backup” and the Wildcats had 16 run plays and 44 pass plays. Part of that stems from the whole “playing from behind” thing, but in real life, a team doesn’t automatically forget the running game when trailing at halftime. Again, I blame the five minute quarters, which drastically punish runs that don’t result in clock-stopping first downs.

Maybe the game didn't go as planned, but those white helmets look fantastic.

Maybe the game didn’t go as planned, but those white helmets look fantastic.

It’s hard to say exactly how accurate these two teams are in the game. While Northwestern’s secondary is by no means elite, I doubt that they would give up 350 yards to a freshman QB in Zach Kline (who won’t even be Cal’s starter in real life… thanks EA!) One thing the game has right is that the Wildcats’ Christian Jones is a beast. The wide receiver reeled in 11 passes for a ridiculous 204 yards and a TD. To paraphrase Keyshawn Johnson: “give him the darn ball.”

Big Games This Week
UNC at #8 S. Car: UNC wins, 17-14.
Virginia Tech vs. #1 Alabama: Alabama wins, 38-14.
#5 Georgia vs. #9 Clemson: Georgia wins, 31-28.
#12 LSU vs. #17 TCU: TCU wins, 49-21
Central Michigan at #19 Michigan: CMU wins, 31-24

Around the Big Ten
Illinois and Indiana both had matchups against FCS schools, so they won. Nebraska dominated Wyoming. Purdue handled Cincinnati. Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State won their games against MAC schools. #19 Michigan and Iowa also played MAC schools, but lost. For Iowa, it was against #24 NIU, so that’s not too much of a shocker, but the mighty Wolverines lost their home opener to the lowly CMU Chippewas. All things considered, it was a bad first week in the Big Ten, as Penn State lost to Syracuse and Minnesota lost to UNLV. Including Northwestern’s loss, five Big Ten teams lost nonconference games this week.

Heisman Top 5:
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

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