Aug. 31, 2014
Skip Myslenski was among those on hand to witness the Wildcats 2014 season-opener in person, and offers this review of the pertinent takeaways from an up-and-down affair for the home side:
There were any number of surprises Saturday during the 'Cats' season-opening loss to Cal at Ryan Field. There was, first of all, their slow start, which helped the Bears build a 14-point lead before the first quarter ended. "I thought the guys were great pre-game," Pat Fitzgerald would say when asked about that. "I thought they had a really solid week. I didn't see it at all during the last 48 hours. They were really focused, locked in. Naw (I didn't see it coming). I thought they had a great week."
Then there were the drops by Northwestern receivers and the uncharacteristic performance of quarterback Trevor Siemian, who would end the afternoon 23-of-44 passing (52.3 percent) with one touchdown and a pair of interceptions. "I think all of our offensive skill (players), when we get to the passing game, they're going to look back and wish they they (this game) back again," Fitzgerald said of this. "He squeezed the ball a little bit and sailed some (passes) that we uncharacteristic.
Finally there was the rushing success, especially early on, of Cal backup quarterback Luke Rubenzer, a true freshman who intermittently and often-effectively replaced starter Jared Goff. "We expected him to run and the moment he went in, we're alerting the guys that they're going to run the ball and throw quick," Fitzgerald said of him. "We expected to have a running quarterback. You just don't know what plays they're going to run. So you're fitting some new plays, some new things you hadn't practiced. I thought our guys settled in and once we got it fitted up pretty well, we handled it OK. But early on we weren't very good at it."
Cal received the opening kickoff and, on their third play from scrimmage, Rubenzer rumbled 11 yards on a quarterback draw. Now, on successive plays, Goff threw for eight, Rubenzer ran for one and -- on third-and-one -- Goff snuck for the first down. Here the 'Cats stiffened, holding the Bears without a yard on first and second down, but then Goff threw for 13 and they had yet one more first down.
That was the pattern on this opening drive, which ended with Cal scoring on a fourth-and-goal from the one when Goff faked a run left, rolled right and found Bryce Treggs in the end. The Bears had run 18 plays, five of them Rubenzer rushes for 23 yards. The Bears had taken 6:18 off the clock. The Bears had converted three-of-four third downs and converted on their one fourth down. "We have to get off the field on third down," Ellis later said, echoing an earlier statement of his coach.
And what of Rubenzer's success?
"It's something we've practiced. It's something our offense has done too. We've played other opponents (who've done it)," he said. "So, myself, I've seen it before. But we weren't really anticipating exactly the scheme they were doing. But at the end of the day, it's all the same stuff, just out of different formations. So it wasn't anything we hadn't seen before. It's just out of different formations."
The 'Cats, on their first possession, drove 54 yards to the Cal 22. But there, on fourth-and-one, Warren Long tried left tackle and was stopped, and now the ball again belonged to the Bears. Quickly they faced a third-and-one, which Rubenzer converted after linebacker Drew Smith missed him in the backfield, and then they faced a third-and-12, which turned into a busted play after defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo flushed Goff. Here the Cal quarterback rolled to his right, rolled some more and waited, finally launching a 40-yard completion that Darius Powe caught over well-positioned Wildcats safety Kyle Queiro. Five plays later, with just three seconds remaining in this opening quarter, they completed their drive, and the 'Cats were down 14.
"You can't," Fitzgerald would later say, "spot a team a touchdown when we had multiple third downs on the first drive to get off the field. Then we get into a scramble situation, we get in backyard football and we lose a guy, and we've got a young man right there to make a play. That was a big play. Now you're in a hole and you're chasing somebody and that's never a great place to be in."
The 'Cats, their offense struggling, would ultimately go down 17; break through when Cameron Dickerson took a short crossing pattern 54 yards for a touchdown; then go back down 17 again on the very next play when Goff threw 76 yards for an answering touchdown. That's how it stood as the first half ended, but then, at the start of the second, the 'Cats went three-and-out, Cal scored again and now they were down 24.
"Our guys were pressing a little bit," Fitzgerald would say of his offense through these first 36 minutes. "Anytime you see somebody press, you see some uncharacteristic things happen. That's what I saw in the first half and even the first drive of the third quarter. After that we settled down a little bit."
"I'd agree," said receiver Tony Jones when asked about his coach's assessment. "We had a lot of guys out there, it was their first time out there. So probably a little bit nervous."
"We were a little antsy," safety Treveon Henry would say of the defense through those same minutes. "You know, it's the first game of the season, everybody's emotions are running high and everybody wants to make plays. Then we just really buckled down and did our own assignments and really believed in ourselves and trusted in ourselves.
We settled in. That helped us a lot."
His defense would settle in and shut out Cal over this one's last 24 minutes, and now the offense stirred itself enough to pull the 'Cats to within seven with 5:18 remaining. The defense did its part here, holding the Bears to a three-and-out, and so out came the offense again, this time just 52 yards away from a tying score. It picked up one first down on a fourth-and-two, another on a pair of Siemian completions to Dan Vitale and Kyle Prater, and suddenly that score was just 31 yards away.
Now, with the clock ticking under three, he found running back Justin Jackson for four. But then he was sacked for a loss of 11 and, on third down, he threw into a crowd toward Dickerson and was picked and the 'Cats would not see the ball again. "I think it should hurt," Fitzgerald would soon be saying when asked about his team's reaction to this loss. "Obviously, we expect to win every game and when we don't start the way that we want to, like I told the guys in the locker room, it's starts with us as coaches and then permeates through the locker room.
"And then what kind of team are we going to be? Are we going to be the team that decided to spot a team a bunch of points? Or the team that responded and came back and got some momentum going and moved the ball offensively and all those things? From that standpoint we have to make a decision and I assume from the leadership that we've had, the guys will be about the right things."
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