WNUR’s Greg Mroz (@wizard_of_mroz) continues our opening week coverage, previewing the matchups to watch in Northwestern’s season opener against the Golden Bears.
The 2013 Northwestern Wildcats and the 2013 California Golden Bears left much to be desired (Northwestern 5-7, Cal 1-11), but maybe the most exciting win for Northwestern (and competitive loss for Cal) came in the primetime Saturday night opener at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley between these two squads. Behind two pick six scores from Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis, Northwestern staved off 540 yards of total offense from Cal quarterback Jared Goff to win a tight two touchdown margin game, 44-30. We will go position by position to see who has the ultimate advantage in this matchup.
As a freshman, Cal quarterback Jared Goff was all you could ask for from a freshman. Despite the Golden Bears going 1-11, the former high school standout at Marin Catholic threw for over 3500 yards and 18 touchdowns, but Goff had trouble on 1st down last year. Of the 10 interceptions that he threw in 2013, 5 of them came on first down. Goff was also much better at home, throwing 16 of his 18 touchdowns at Memorial Stadium. This year Goff is the unquestioned starter, has gained 20 pounds, and has looked like the quarterback that Cal fans want to run Sonny Dykes’ Bear Raid offense.
The Golden Bears’ are a pass first offense, and their receiving corps is lead by two guys that Northwestern could not stop for the life of them last year. Junior wideouts Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper combined for 293 yards receiving last year, with Harper catching two touchdown passes from Goff. Both receivers have great speed, although Treggs is known more as the burner. These two receivers were hard to stop last year, they could give NU even more trouble this year. Khalfani Muhammad is the returning number one running back, and while he didn’t get a lot of action last year, he still averaged 6.0 yards per carry, and that could pose a problem to a Northwestern front line that is without their best defensive tackle Sean McEvily for the season.
Like Goff, Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian goes into 2014 as the unquestioned starter, but unlike Goff, Siemian is a senior, and has two years of experience under his belt as a full time quarterback alongside former co-starter Kain Colter. As it was revealed in Pat Fitzgerald’s press conference after last year’s win at Illinois, Siemian had been playing most of the season with an injured heel that limited his mobility. Siemian also had a significant problem of locking into his first read, which lead to many of his 13 interceptions. Against a less than stellar Cal defense, Siemian threw two picks in last year’s opener, and had multiple interceptions in three of his twelve games played. From all accounts the 2014 Trevor Siemian will be the best Trevor Siemian that Northwestern fans will ever see.
Losing Venric Mark hurts, but the man that nobody seems to be talking about is senior bruiser Treyvon Green. Last year against the Golden Bears, Green had 129 yards on 15 carries for 2 touchdowns. Green and Stephen Buckley will be the 1-2 punch for Northwestern, but watch to see if sophomore Warren Long or true freshman Justin Jackson get any bulk of the carries.
With no Christian Jones, the receiving corps will be lead by Tony Jones, who is the Wildcats number one returning wideout in terms of yardage from 2013. Jones is a speedster who can run a variety of long and short routes, and is the unquestioned number one target for Trevor Siemian. After that, the question marks spring up. Can Kyle Prater be what fans expected when he transferred to NU two years ago? What can you expect from Miles Shuler after his transfer? With no Christian Jones, there are a lot of questions.
Northwestern, because of depth, has a slight edge in the running game. But Jared Goff, Chris Harper, and Bryce Treggs are a better passing combo than Trevor Siemian, Tony Jones, and….TBD.
Andy Buh lasted one year as Cal’s defensive coordinator, making way for Art Franklin to take over the Golden Bears defense. Last year, California couldn’t stop anybody. They gave up 45.9 points per game, which ranked 125th among NCAA FBS teams (there are 128 teams). Michael Lowe leads the secondary as a senior safety, and he will be guy that gives Cal a chance to stay in the ball game. Austin Clark is a 6th year guy starting at defensive tackle, with a very unique story in that he was a former walk on who stuck it out through injury to compete for a starting spot. Clark is a feel-good guy to follow, but he’s undersized for a defensive tackle (5’11”, 270 LBS). This is a Cal defense that has to be somewhat better, because they couldn’t be much worse.
Northwestern has questions of their own on the defensive side of the football, but most of those questions come along the defensive line. Sean McEvily is done for the year, and Greg Kuhar is expected to start at defensive tackle alongside CJ Robbins. Robbins played a good amount last year, but will he and Kuhar be able to be an effective run stopping duo up front. Dean Lowry is a lock at defensive end, but there is question as to whether Deonte Gibson or Ifeadi Odenigbo will start at the other end. Both are good pass rushers, which is critical against a team like Cal who will throw more than 55 times a game. In WNUR’s predictions for this game last year I said the key guy to watch would be Ibraheim Campbell, and I’m sticking with that prediction. Matt Harris is another guy to watch, he will more than likely be the guy that matches up with Bryce Treggs with.
Northwestern has question marks on defense, but Cal had one of the worst defenses in the country last year. No team can make that exponential of an improvement in one season.
For three years Northwestern had the luxury of using the same kicker and punter combination. Jeff Budzien was one of the most reliable kickers in school history, and despite his senior struggles, Brandon Williams was a solid punter for most of his time with the Wildcats. Now, the kicking duties fall on Jack Mitchell, Northwestern’s only two sport athlete, who has spent more time on the baseball diamond the last two years than the gridiron. Chris Gradone saw action at the end of last year, but it remains to be seen how he will transition into being the guy full time.
Vincenzo D’Amato has graduated, and he was Cal’s Mr Reliable. In last year’s game against Northwestern D’Amato even threw a touchdown pass on a fake field goal attempt. In his place steps Matt Anderson, a redshirt freshman who the outsider knows nothing about. Cole Leininger is the returning punter for Cal, who averaged 41 yards per punt last season.
Without Venric Mark, the return game is a question mark, and Khalifani Muhammad is a burner who will be very adept at handling return duties. There are too many unknowns to really say which unit is better
Pat Fitzgerald and Sonny Dykes do not like each other, which is why this will be a very well coached game on both sides. Each coach is going to game plan well for one another because both want to win. Dykes accused Northwestern of faking injuries during last year’s game. Fitzgerald had several recruits taken from him by Dykes. Dykes coaches a great offense but not a great defense. Fitzgerald is more about strategy, and he has leaned towards the more conservative side, whereas Dykes is considered by most to be a risk taker. This could be a game where whoever scores last wins, and to score late, you need to be aggressive.
Last year Northwestern won this game by 14 points, but how different this game would’ve been had Collin Ellis not intercepted two passes and ran them back for scores. Cal’s offense has pretty much everybody back, and Northwestern has a ton of unanswered questions on offense. The Golden Bears’ defense will be better, and Northwestern’s defense will keep them in the ball game. At the end of the day, the 2013 Northwestern Wildcats got a little lucky in how they defeated Cal. Don’t let last years 1-11 record fool you, Sonny Dykes team will score, and unless Jared Goff throws 3 interceptions again this year, Cal will score a lot
California 49, Northwestern 42