GAME NOTES: The 22nd-ranked Northwestern Wildcats are hoping to make some serious noise in the Big Ten this year, and they'll open the 2013 campaign in Berkeley when they square off with the California Golden Bears.
Northwestern is coming off a 10-win season and a victory over SEC school Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. The bowl victory was the program's first in a 64-year stretch dating back to the 1949 Rose Bowl, which also happened to be the last time these two teams squared off on the gridiron.
"We're not satisfied with just going to bowl games anymore," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That's not acceptable. That's the expectation. And to be a consistent winner, to be a consistent postseason team and playing in bowl games is the expectation. Now obviously we raised the bar a year ago from winning a (bowl) game and getting that monkey off our back, but at the end of the day the expectation is to win championships."
The Wildcats are opening their season on the road against a BCS-conference foe for the fourth straight season, and they were victorious in each of the past three tries.
Former Cal head coach Jeff Tedford was sent packing after last year's 3-9 finish, which was only his second losing season in 11 years at the helm. A string of five straight losses to end the 2012 campaign sealed his fate, and the school went out and hired offensive guru Sonny Dykes (Louisiana Tech) to run the show.
"Anytime you take over a coaching job at a new university, the biggest thing you worry about is what's going to be the buy-in," Dykes said of his experience taking over. "Sometimes it takes a long time for those guys to buy into your program. To their credit, the buy-in occurred on day one."
NU's quarterback reps have been split between the athletic Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, a more traditional pocket passer. Coach Fitzgerald likes to deploy packages where both are on the field at the same time, but Colter's numbers from last season give him a slight edge in the competition. In addition to running for 891 yards and 12 touchdowns, Colter also beat out Siemian in completion percentage (67.8 to 58.7) and efficiency rating (129.3 to 115.6).
Venric Mark converted from slot receiver to running back last season, and all he did was go on to rush for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns, becoming the school's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. Along with Mark, NU returns five of its top six receivers, and that doesn't include former USC five-star recruit Kyle Prater. Sophomore H-back Dan Vitale came on strong at the end of the year and figures to be more involved from the get-go. While virtually all of the skill players are back, the offensive line must replace three starters, two of which were all-conference selections.
Seven starters return in the Wildcats defense. Up front, defensive end Tyler Scott is back for his senior season after posting a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks. At linebacker, senior leader Damien Proby is coming off a 112-tackle campaign and is flanked by junior Chi Chi Ariguzo, who emerged as a playmaker with 91 tackles (10.5 TFL), two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. In the secondary, junior strong safety Ibraheim Campbell followed up his freshman All-America season by recording 89 tackles and a team-high 12 pass breakups to go along with two picks. Cornerback Nick VanHoose notched seven pass breakups in 10 starts last year as a freshman. While there is some talent in the defensive backfield, the Wildcats had a few too many late breakdowns in pass coverage in their losses last year. But with a year under their belts, that could change in 2013.
Wanting to restore some potency to an offense that had gone stale in recent seasons, Cal went after coach Dykes who earned quite a reputation at Louisiana Tech. In his third and final season with the Bulldogs, Dykes oversaw the No. 1 offense in the country as his unit averaged a staggering 577.9 yards per game en route to a nine-win campaign. However, he'll now turn over the keys to Jared Goff, who won the quarterback job in fall camp and will become the first true freshman QB at Cal to start his first collegiate game.
"We have had a fiercely-contested competition for our starting quarterback position," Dykes said in a statement. "It's important to name a starter and give them the reps they need to be prepared to play. We feel that right now Jared Goff gives us the best chance to be successful as a team, but we are very fortunate to have three outstanding quarterbacks we feel we can be successful with."
Last year's top target, Keenan Allen, is no longer around, but Chris Harper (41 receptions, 544 yards) and Bryce Treggs (21 receptions, 216 yards) figure to be heavily involved. The backfield has also undergone some turnover with last year's top two rushers having moved on. Brendan Bigelow (431 yards, 9.8 ypc) gets the first crack at that gig but will be running behind a line that must replace three starters.
A new scheme and a new coordinator are on campus for the Golden Bears' defense. New defensive coordinator Andy Buh, who was most recently the linebackers coach at Wisconsin, has installed a 4-3 formation to replace the 3-4 of years past. Defensive lineman Deandre Coleman (48 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) is the heart and soul of the defense, although Chris McCain (50 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) and Brennan Scarlett (40 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks) have also been productive.
Nick Forbes recorded 84 total tackles and was also effective in getting into the backfield, recording 4.5 tackles for loss as he returns for his junior season at linebacker. Helping to ease the transition under Buh will be Jalen Jefferson, who totaled 48 tackles last season and has starting experience.
The secondary is another story. Free safety Michael Lowe, who had 69 tackles and tied for a team-high with three interceptions, will be called upon to lead the way for a group that is very green. Fortunately, cornerback Stefan McClure is back after taking a redshirt last year following an injury in the 2011 regular-season finale.
The Wildcats beat some tough opponents last year, but they could have accomplished even more. The three losses came on the road against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan, and the Wildcats held fourth-quarter leads in each of those contests. They are a virtual lock to go bowling for a sixth straight season, and that starts here with a formidable but winnable matchup on the road against a transitioning Cal team.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Northwestern 38, California 23