BERKELEY, Calif.— Asked about Collin Ellis, who returned two interceptions for touchdowns, Pat Fitzgerald nearly broke down. Fitzgerald said his “fourth son” cried after the game, understandably overwhelmed by the moment.
Ellis faced the media minutes later, tears dried and demeanor still in place. For years, Northwestern asked for the true playmaker—one guy who could finish games. It came from a surprising source, from one of the last named starters.
Then there was Treyvon Green, about one year removed from his traumatic fall camp injury. It looked as though he might never regain his stride. Last spring, he was NU’s fifth-best running back in the crowded depth chart.
But he worked for it. Green earned back the faith this coaching staff placed in him during his productive freshman year. It showed up in Kenosha, because he arrived home and was handed the ball—over and over. On Saturday night, he outplayed Venric Mark with an excellent 129-yard, two-touchdown game.
“So proud of you!” Fitzgerald tweeted to Green after the game.
One player was welcomed to the spotlight. Another was welcomed back. Amid the sadness, there was so much triumph. When other stories went wrong, went ugly and bordered on tragic, NU showed the resolve other schools dream of.
Before most of this success, Daniel Jones went down with a brutal knee injury. Surrounded by these players, you can’t help but feel something. Just weeks ago, I spoke with Jones about his excitement for the upcoming season. Gone from the shadow of last year’s Michigan game, he played his best football during training camp.
It all seemed wrong. Our eyes turned to the yellow flag, incorrectly thrown with Jones in coverage: pass interference. They then squinted towards press box televisions, where you could watch the injury take place. His season might be over.
NU might never match the Ohio States and Michigans of the world in terms of pure talent. So Dwight White let one talented receiver blow past him. So Nick VanHoose had the worst game of his career. The Wildcats–as they should do–picked each other up. They may have lingered on the ground, too, said others. Please, regardless, that misses the mark when it concerns a team founded on character.
NU lost one of its starters at corner, and watched the health unravel from there. Kain Colter was re-evaluated at halftime (concussion) and faced even more uncertainty as it concerned Venric Mark. The elite running back gained only 29 yards while also left off of return duties. So the Cats could have backed down, cursed their fates or wilted against an impressive “Bear Raid” attack.
This time, NU looked stronger than ever in the face of adversity. Aside from bits of timid play calling, the adjusted offense found success. These defensive ends lived up to their lofty billing—with Tyler Scott excellent again.
Then there are the sweet stories of Ellis, Green and however many others felt their contributions to be special. NU will need this throughout the season: guys who–even for a moment–play out of their minds. That happened tonight.
Collin Ellis cried. Treyvon Green found redemption in an unlikely place. For so many minutes of Saturday night, we felt helpless. Even if they win, I thought, how could anyone downplay this awful collection of injuries?
They did win, 44-30. They did celebrate, with a relieved Fitzgerald preparing to watch game film during the plane ride home. Looking at the room, and at the players who filed in after, I realized that the good and the bad could never be separated.
The injuries were in the past. To regroup, NU needed some unlikely and perfect heroes. A challenge in Berkeley–and an onslaught of setbacks–left the Cats vulnerable.
Those two guys in particular responded, with many more assists. It is more than the “next man up” strategy. When one went down, really, NU had something to prove.
So when Green iced the outcome with his fourth-quarter touchdown, everyone took solace in the gutsy win.
Bandages aside, Northwestern left Cal stronger than ever.