Football: Slow start dooms Northwestern in season-opening loss

Bobby Pillote, Reporter

The Cardiac Cats are back.

Confirming multiple stereotypes about its athletic programs at the same time, Northwestern (0-1) lost its season opener 31-24 to Cal (1-0) on Saturday at Ryan Field in simultaneously embarrassing and heartbreaking fashion.

There were highlights for the Wildcats – like a 54-yard touchdown reception by junior wide receiver Cameron Dickerson or a gutsy double pass that saw senior quarterback Trevor Siemian lumber into the end zone for a receiving touchdown of his own – but for most of the game, they looked like a team that was wholly unprepared to play competitive football.

The offense’s performance was marred by inaccurate throws and poorly-timed drops, with Siemian completing a dismal 54 percent of his passes for 229 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. The second pick came with NU driving into Cal territory for the potential tying score, dashing hopes of a dramatic comeback.

The Cats’ defense set that stage early on with a remarkably poor performance during the game’s first 40 minutes. The secondary, believed to be a strength, consistently missed assignments throughout the first half and surrendered a 76-yard bomb to Bears’ receiver Trevor Davis.

Worse still was the defensive line, which was porous early against the run but also disappointingly struggled to generate pressure on the quarterback, mustering just one sack.

The defense looked befuddled at times against Cal backup quarterback Luke Rubenzer, who came in as a run specialist and finished with a game-high 48 yards rushing on just 11 carries.

Thanks to some big plays and some luck, including yet another tipped-ball interception by senior linebacker Collin Ellis (he had two against Cal last year), NU was able to keep it interesting. But the offense was seldom able to string together positive plays, and it all added up to a loss to a team that didn’t win a single game against Football Bowl Subdivision competition last season.

Looking ahead NU will have to establish a better ground game to support a still-inconsistent Siemian, as senior running back Treyvon Green produced a lackluster 37 yards on 13 carries. True freshman Justin Jackson actually took the team’s first carry and showed flashes of the hard running that made him such a valuable recruit. He and fellow rookie Solomon Vault both saw significant action and should continue to see action as the offense searches for a big play threat.

The Cats also need to improve their punting and punt return games. Junior punter Chris Gradone booted several ducks, no doubt influencing coach Pat Fitzgerald’s uncharacteristic three fourth-down attempts during the game.

On the other side, the team lacks a true punt returner. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell was usually back deep but didn’t field a single punt, often costing NU yards by not even coming up to make a fair catch.

The Cats’ bowl game aspirations took a serious blow with this loss, but they will have a good opportunity to resurrect their season in their next two games against in-state opponents Northern Illinois and Western Illinois.

They need every win they can get before plunging into an always-difficult Big Ten slate.

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