Northwestern braces for Cal's uptempo attack
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Anyone with a Northwestern education would know not to feed the Bears. But what about fear the Bears?
At his news conference this week, NU coach Pat Fitzgerald made it sound as though Saturday's season-opening opponent, the Cal Bears, will be picking off Pac-12 opponents like unattended picnic baskets.
"It's a huge challenge for us, probably one of the more difficult challenges of any top-25 team, any BCS team," Fitzgerald said. "We're not afraid to do it, and we're going to know more about our football team than any team in the Big Ten after this opening week."
OK, it is a Pac-12 opponent on the road, but here's the reality: Cal is coming off a 3-9 season, bills itself as the "second-least experienced team in the nation" and will start a true freshman at quarterback against the Wildcats.
The inexperience is everywhere. The Bears are slated to start one senior on offense and one on defense. The offensive line features two freshmen and two sophomores. They lost last year's top two rushers and No. 1 receiver.
If there's reason for Northwestern to be afraid, it's fear of the unknown. Saturday's game will feature the debut of head coach Sonny Dykes, who will bring some interesting twists to Berkeley.
Dykes comes from Louisiana Tech, which last year led the nation in scoring (51.5 points per game) and total offense (578 yards). The Bears will utilize the same fast-paced, no-huddle offense — something the Wildcats are not used to.
Last season Tech averaged 87.8 plays per game, while NU opponents ran 72.
"I don't anticipate us having the kind of growing pains that some people think we will," said Dykes, whose father, Spike, coached at Texas Tech. "We want to come out and play as fast as possible and execute and play at a high level."
Cal's quarterback is 6-foot-4 Jared Goff. He was a three-year starter at nearby Marin Catholic High School, then enrolled in time for spring practice. His father, Jerry, played baseball at Cal and was a major-league catcher from 1990-96 for Montreal, Pittsburgh and Houston.
Asked if he'd be nervous taking the field Saturday, Goff acted as though he has been in this spot before.
"I used to always create myself on 'NCAA Football' — make myself the Cal quarterback," Goff said. "I was always throwing for 600 yards with 8 touchdowns. This year I didn't have to do that."
The Bears won't be able to turn up their player ratings Saturday, so it's not exactly clear what level of challenge Northwestern will face.
"They're going to be a very fast-paced team," Fitzgerald said. "I'm thankful that we've got a great opponent. I'm thankful that we've got a great challenge. I'm thankful that we're going against all these questions that, to me, make it very easy to motivate our football team."
This will be the first trip to California for the Wildcats since the 1996 Rose Bowl. Coming off a 10-3 season, NU has the potential to return to Pasadena, with QB Kain Colter, RB Venric Mark and an experienced set of receivers back.
The biggest question is the offensive line, which features three new starters — junior tackle Paul Jorgensen, sophomore guard Geoff Mogus and redshirt freshman guard Ian Park.
On defense, the secondary has been an issue in recent years. So even though the Cats have two experienced corners in Nick VanHoose and Daniel Jones, getting the job done is no sure thing.
NU will start three veteran linebackers in Damien Proby, Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis. Big Ten sacks leader Tyler Scott is back at defensive end, but will he miss the pressure from the middle supplied by departed senior Brian Arnfelt?
To prepare for the 9:30 p.m. Central time kickoff, the Wildcats held nighttime practices at the lakefront lacrosse field and also started their day later.
"We all love to sleep. When you're in college, you can sleep all day," center Brandon Vitable said. "So when they're telling us to actually sleep and not get up and get going — it's pretty cool."
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