BERKELEY — With a freshman quarterback, a new coaching staff and overhauled systems on both offense and defense, California comes into its season opener against No. 22 Northwestern on Saturday night with the element of surprise on its side.
Whether that will be enough for the Golden Bears to get off to a fast start in the first year under new coach Sonny Dykes after a disastrous 3-9 campaign under Jeff Tedford a year ago remains to be seen.
“I think the scheme stuff is pretty standard, but who’s going to be in what spot and how we’re going to use them and what are these guys going to major in and all of that is the unknown,” Dykes said. “It gives us a little bit of an advantage. That part is something in our corner but it will certainly be offset by their experience and them knowing what they have.”
Northwestern has extensively scouted last year’s Louisiana Tech offense run by Dykes and new Cal coordinator Tony Franklin as well as tape of the Bears’ spring game in order to get up to speed but coach Pat Fitzgerald is prepared for some new wrinkles.
“We’re not sure how they’re going to use the personnel at Cal and how differently they’re going to use it compared to what they did at La Tech,” Fitzgerald said.
Here are five other things to watch in the season opener between Northwestern and Cal:
1. DIFFICULT DEBUT: Jared Goff will become the first true freshman ever to start his first game at Cal. He won’t get much of a chance to ease into the new role going up against a nationally ranked opponent that has seven returning starters. Goff won the job by showing great poise and accuracy in spring and fall practice that showed he’s not a typical freshman. But Dykes knows he will have to make some concessions with his game plan in order to ease Goff’s transition. “We have to do a good job of protecting him early,” Dykes said. “We’re not going to ask him to drop back and throw it 50 yards down the field early in the ballgame play after play after play. We feel like we need to complete passes and take a little bit of the pressure off him and try to develop a little bit of confidence.”
2. TWO IS BETTER THAN ONE: While Cal settled on its starting quarterback midway through fall camp, Northwestern plans once again to use two signal callers. Kain Colter is back as the starter, providing a rare triple threat as a runner, passer and receiver. Colter threw for 872 yards and eight touchdowns last season, added 894 yards rushing and 12 scores on the ground and even caught 16 passes for 169 yards. Trevor Siemian comes off the bench as the more natural passer in the duo and led game-winning fourth quarter drives against Syracuse, Michigan State and Mississippi State last season. “In a lot of ways, it’s like preparing for two or three different offenses,” Dykes said.
3. BIG-PLAY BIGELOW: Cal fans are hoping to see a lot more of running back Brendan Bigelow than they did a year ago. Bigelow was spectacular when he played, averaging 9.8 yards per carry with electrifying runs of 59 and 81 yards on his four carries at Ohio State. But Bigelow got only 44 carries and caught seven passes all season as he struggled to grasp Tedford’s intricate offense. He figures to get the ball a lot more under Dykes’ offense and will team with Daniel Lasco in an unproven backfield full of potential.
4. STAYING UP LATE: Cal could get an advantage with the late start at 7:30 p.m. PDT, which will feel even two hours later for the Wildcats. Northwestern typically practices in the morning but Fitzgerald moved that to the late afternoon in fall camp. This week, the Wildcats have been practicing until about 11 p.m. CDT in preparation for the late kickoff. “We’ve decided to take this approach,” Fitzgerald said. “Hopefully come Sunday morning, we’ll have been successful executing it.”
5. WHITE OUT: The Wildcats will have a new look — literally — when they take the field against the Bears. Northwestern will wear white helmets for the first time since 1980 to complement the team’s new white uniforms. Cal also will be wearing its redesigned uniforms for the first time in a game as well as a No. 42 decal on the helmets to honor Chuck Muncie, the former Bears running back who died in May.