Northwestern's furious second-half rally came up just short Saturday afternoon at Ryan Field as California raced out to a big early lead then held on for a 31-24 victory in the season-opener for both teams.
The loss was the first suffered in a season-opener during the head coaching tenure of Pat Fitzgerald, who began the day with an 8-0 career mark in NU season-openers. It also marked the end of Northwestern's 16-game home winning streak in nonconference play, which dated to the start of the 2008 season.
Cal got off to a fast start, receiving the opening kick and mounting an impressive 18-play drive that culminated on a fourth-and-goal play from the Wildcats' 2-yard line. After a timeout, quarterback Jared Goff put the visitors on the board with his two-yard touchdown pass in the flat to Bryce Treggs, finishing a drive that ate up more than six minutes of clock time.
After a Northwestern drive into Cal territory stalled on a failed fourth-and-1 conversion attempt, the Golden Bears took a 14-0 lead when they scored on a seven-yard pass by Goff to Kenny Lawler over the middle of the end zone. The Wildcats were forced to punt from the shadow of their own goal post on their ensuing drive, setting up a short field that Cal used to move into position for a 20-yard field goal that grew the lead to 17 points.
Northwestern's offense found a rhythm midway through the second half as Siemian found junior wideout Cameron Dickerson on the post pattern, with Dickerson breaking past the second line of defense and skirting 54 yards for NU's first touchdown of 2014.
The Bears answered in short order, however, when Goff went over the top on the ensuing play from scrimmage to hit a streaking Trevor Davis for a 76-yard touchdown pass, giving the visitors a 24-7 lead that they carried into the locker rooms.
The score grew to 31-7 when Cal began their first possession of the second half one yard shy of midfield and covered the 49 yards to paydirt on 11 plays, the last of which was a 1-yard scoring run up the middle by Khalfani Muhammad.
Among the Wildcats making their debuts in the game were true freshmen tailbacks Solomon Vault and Justin Jackson, who tag-teamed the ball-carrying responsibilities on a 12-play scoring drive late in the third quarter. Jackson had the honor of punching it in with a powerful 7-yard scoring run to cut Northwestern's deficit to 31-14.
On the ensuing 1st-and-10 play for the Bears, Goff attempted a bubble screen to Bryce Treggs which Treggs bobbled into the air to set up an interception by Collin Ellis in a play reminiscent of both of Ellis' pick-sixes at Cal one year ago.
Though Ellis wasn't able to score on this interception, the Wildcats scored on the next play with a trick double-pass on which redshirt freshman Jayme Taylor sent a perfect return pass to Siemian, who wove his way 17 yards to the right pylon for the score. The play left Northwestern trailing by 10 with 2:06 to play in the third quarter, and that remained the count as Northwestern took over on offense with 8:30 left in the fourth.
The Wildcats marched down the field in an 11-play drive that culminated with Jack Mitchell's first career field goal from 24 yards out, trimming the deficit to just seven with 5:18 remaining.
Northwestern got the defensive stand it needed on the ensuing drive and following a personal foul penalty on Cal, the Wildcats started from their own 48-yard line. NU had 2-and-6 from the Bears' 28, but Siemian was sacked for an 11-yard loss and then was intercepted on the next play. Cal was able to run out the clock to secure the road victory.
Northwestern returns to action at Ryan Field next Saturday, Sept. 6 as it takes on Northern Illinois. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at NUsports.com or by calling 888-GO-PURPLE.