Aug 31, 2013
With gameday finally upon us, Skip Myslenski provides some last-minute nuggets of Northwestern Football goodness to help ease the wait to Saturday's late-night kickoff.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The 'Cats launch their new season Saturday night at Cal.
"In the opener," Pat Fitzgerald avers, "you've got to find a way to win on the road. We're not the NFL, we're not college basketball. Every game counts, every minute counts, every rep counts, and we've got to find a way to peak at 7:30 out there. You've got to find a way to win the opener, and then you find out what your team is all about, how you're able to respond. We're probably going to face the most adversity this team has faced here on Saturday. It's always a challenge to have the opener on the road. We've done that multiple times in my eight years here and I think we've handled it decently. A year ago (at Syracuse) was a great example. We didn't execute well in the first quarter, second and third quarters played really well, all of a sudden lost momentum, then we had to find a way to make a couple plays down the stretch in all three phases to win the game. We anticipate something like that again."
Fitzgerald is 7-0 in season openers, but the last three of those victories have not come easily. In 2010, at Vanderbilt, his `Cats won by two. In 2011, at Boston College, the margin was seven. Then last fall, at Syracuse, they escaped by a point. Now they must not only face a BCS opponent on the road and at night two time zones removed from their own. They must also contend with the unknown that is first-year Cal coach Sonny Dykes, who came to Berkeley from Louisiana Tech.
"It puts more on your plate," Fitzgerald says of facing that unknown. "They've got everything on us, so they've got a definite advantage from the standpoint of what their coaches have to do to coach their players. So, advantage to Cal. But if it was just this week that we had to prepare, it would have been a more difficult challenge. But we've been working through this process not only for Cal, but for Syracuse next week and then Western Michigan -- all three have had coaching changes in some way, shape or form. So we had to do a lot more in the summer in our studies to get us prepared for these weeks."
THE PREPARATION: The 'Cats, for at least two weeks now, have had at least some Cal prep sprinkled into their practices. They have also, all through the preseason, labored ardently on fundamentals, hoping this allows them to quickly make the adjustments that are always needed in a season opener against an opponent with a new head coach.
But, Fitzgerald noted this week, "You get some paralysis by analysis with all this time. So I'll have to be all over the coaches a little bit. It's this and bowl games. You just have too much time on your hands to worry about a bunch of stuff. But we've been together long enough as a staff for them to know what my expectations are."
Is it a coach's issue or a player's issue, that paralysis by analysis?
"It's not a player issue at all. They don't give a crap. They just want to know when we're leaving, when we're getting thee, when we eat, cool, let's go play. I remember when Vandy (Ron Vanderlinden) was d coordinator here (during Fitzgerald's playing days). He'll deny this. But we'd go over the game plan Friday morning and he'd be, `If they do this, we've got to do that.' `All right. I got it.' Saturday morning walk through, `If they do this, we've got to do that.' All right. I got it.' Saturday, we come off the field after pre-game warmup. `Now listen.' `I don't want to hear anymore. Just zip it. We'll figure it out.' So I think it's always a coach's problem. But in an opener, the in-adjusting is more important. `What are they doing?' Especially with a new staff, `What are they doing with their personnel different than they did at La Tech?'"
THE DANGER: Fitzgerald had been asked about Jared Goff, the true freshman who will start at quarterback for Cal. He tossed him the obligatory bouquet, but then noted, "I think sometimes, especially in the opener in college football, you get too caught up in what you have to do to your opponent and you forget how you win football games in an opener. That's execution. That's doing what you do and doing it to the best of your abilities, and expecting and planning to have to adjust.Then find a way to win the game and get out of Dodge.
"It's amazing how much of a better coach you are week two going into the second game, especially for the guys who've played the first time. They're going to listen a little bit better, they're going to pay attention a little bit more. With the amount of training camp practices that you have, there's a certain point where you get diminishing returns and you kind of become Charlie Brown's teacher. The guys are tired of hearing from you, they're tired of playing against the same guy over and over, and they're ready to go out and be challenged against an opponent. For us, I'm thankful we've got a great opponent, I'm thankful we've got a great challenge, I'm thankful we're going against all these questions that make it very easy for me to motivate our football team."
QUICKLY NOTED: The 'Cats, of course, are noted for their hurry-up offense, but get this. Last season they averaged 74.1 plays per game while Dykes' team at La Tech averaged 87.8. That is why Fitzgerald said often this week that "Cal's going to put a ton of pressure on our defense from the tempo they play at."
In three of their wins last year, Dykes' Bulldogs scored 56 points against Houston, 52 against Illinois and 44 against Virginia. In one of their losses, to Alabama-slayer Texas A&M, they scored 57 and fell by two.
On the season, those Bulldogs led the nation in scoring offense (51.50 ppg) and total offense (577.92 ypg). They also averaged 350.75 passing yards per game, third best in the nation.
In his high school career at Marin Catholic, which is located just outside of San Francisco, Cal true freshman quarterback Jared Goff went 477-of-767 (62.2 percent) for 7,687 yards and 93 touchdowns while throwing just 18 interceptions.
AND FINALLY: The `Cats only other meeting against Cal came in the 1949 Rose Bowl, where they defeated the Bears 20-14. The Cal coach that day was the legendary Pappy Waldorf, who had coached the 'Cats (1935-1946) before departing for Berkeley. "I think it's a pretty cool little factoid about both programs," Fitzgerald says of these historical twists. "Obviously the success coach had here and then to go out there, it's kind of the folklore of college football."
Be the first to know what's going on with the 'Cats -- Follow @NU_Sports on Twitter, become a fan of Northwestern Athletics on Facebook, subscribe to the NU Sports Express e-newsletter and sign up to receive promotional text alerts for the latest news, schedule updates and video and to interact with NU. For more information on following specific Northwestern teams online, visit our Social Media page!