No sweat for Cats

No sweat for Cats

Steven Goldstein makes strong points in his Monday Insider column.

Perhaps your heart jumped when Daniel Jones sprung from his coverage, extended his arms to mimic the incomplete signal and then crumpled to the turf.

If that didn't get you, the touchdown bomb against Jones' replacement, Dwight White, probably did some 30 minutes later. Even those with nerves of steel eventually flinched at the bang after every Cal score.

Between the injuries and the prolific Golden Bear offense, watching Saturday night's game wasn't easy. But it's not often that you find fans worrying about week one performances, and it's even less often that you find fans brooding over a win.

When I got out of California Memorial Stadium and regained cell service, I was hit by a flood of texts all revolving around the same idea: we got lucky; we need to improve a lot before October 5; we're just not that good.

Really?

Pat Fitzgerald, who's 8-0 in season openers, acknowledged that every team is far from perfect in its first game of the year. But that wasn't what his postgame presser was focused on. In fact, Fitz spoke relatively little of what Northwestern did wrong Saturday night.

Instead, he kept using a word that he doesn't toss around lightly: "proud." Fitzgerald was proud of Treyvon Green, who overcame a brutal concussion last summer to pace the Cats with 129 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Fitzgerald was proud of Collin Ellis, the newly-minted starter on the strong side who all but won the game with two inspired pick sixes. Fitzgerald was proud of the Wildcats, who charged into hostile territory, overcame adversity to claim a win and walked away with nothing more than a limp.

Perhaps there was an expectation that accompanied Northwestern's first bowl win in more than six decades, and perhaps the preseason ranking meant that the Wildcats were a lock to win in Berkeley. But when the predictions were shed and the game actually kicked off, the team had to prove that it was worth the hype. Regardless of how many yards you saw Venric Mark going for, I think they did prove it.

We didn't know what to expect from Northwestern's new offensive line, but it was absolutely dominant Saturday. We had no idea what the passing game would look like, and we saw three receivers snag five passes, each for at least 70 yards. Despite the struggles in the secondary, we still saw the Cats come down with three interceptions and record four sacks from four different defensive linemen. And Trevor Siemian wasn't guaranteed to match or exceed his performance from last fall, especially without Kain Colter to supplement him; he finished with 276 yards, and at one point, strung together 10 completions on 11 attempts.

Losing Jones for the year hurts, but by all accounts nobody else will be missing significant time. And watching Cal keep things closer than expected is frightening in the moment, but it says nothing about the readiness of Northwestern come Big Ten season, or even come this weekend against Syracuse.

When it's all said and done, we saw a once-paltry passing game excel and a reformed offensive line gel. Some may choose to see Saturday as Venric Mark disappointing; I see it as Treyvon Green giving the offense an important extra dimension.

Saturday's win wasn't much unlike last year's opener in Syracuse, and an unranked Wildcat team wasn't facing any criticism then. Northwestern won on Saturday, and many of the things we expected to happen reassuringly materialized. Better yet, some things we never saw coming emerged as positive takeaways. No, Colter was gone and Mark was ineffective, but doesn't that make the win all the more impressive?

And as for that secondary? This week's game is just another opportunity for someone to make Fitz proud.

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