Cal football tops Northwestern, 31-24, for first FBS win of Sonny Dykes era

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Cal quarterback Jared Goff looks to pass during the first half against Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois.

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EVANSTON, ILL. — It’s been said that Cal football head coach Sonny Dykes’ offense is gimmicky. The extreme hurryup is a fad. Throwing on every play is bound to collapse on itself. Trick plays are fun to watch but are not sustainable.

Tell Dykes these things last year, and he would’ve told you to trust him. I’m always better in my second year, he’d say. It takes a year to learn the system, imprint it in your bones, wear it and truly grasp it. When it’s working, we’ll be running a bunch. Watch next year, he’d say, you’ll see. He’d say this, and it’d be hard to believe him. Not after last year’s Chernobyl of a season. Seeing is believing, after all.

“Our system is a bit unique,” Dykes said. “It does take a little bit of time. We tell people that. They never really want to hear it, we especially don’t tell our players that. It takes some time. I expected them to play well.”

What unfolded before 34,228 pairs of eyes in Evanston on Saturday was a living, breathing, sprinting, snarling manifestation of “I told you so.” Strong from the opening possession, the Bears dispatched Northwestern, 31-24, on Saturday afternoon at Ryan Field, holding off a late surge by the Wildcats.

Indeed, looking at the final score, the points jump out first. The offense was exactly what it promised to be, racking up 414 yards and 23 first downs against the Wildcats. Predictably, quarterback Jared Goff led the way, throwing for 281 yards and three touchdowns in the win. More impressive than Goff’s raw numbers, though, was the way the sophomore went about compiling them. On touchdown throws to Kenny Lawler and Trevor Davis, Goff guided the ball to the exact place it needed to be — hitting Lawler through a tight window in the redzone and Davis in perfect stride on a streak down the middle of the field.

But to specifically spotlight Goff as the key to this particular victory is to ignore all of the elements that make this win such an encouraging one for Dykes and his staff. Yes, Goff and the receivers are good — this much is known. But the offensive line mauling holes for the running game is new. So too is a defense that doesn’t simply bend … and break, but occasionally bends but doesn’t break, and other times full-on generates three-and-outs. The secondary, for probably the first time in the last couple of years, forced an opposing quarterback — this time Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian — into multiple throw-aways and incomplete passes. Cal wasn’t going to improve significantly by remaining good at what it was already good at — it needed to take steps forward in previously abysmal areas. If Saturday’s game was any indication, those goals are off to promising starts.

That isn’t to say the Bears looked like Pac-12 conference contenders — many of last season’s flaws peeked their heads out at inopportune times over the course of the contest. A blown coverage in the first half gifted Northwestern its first points of the game, interrupting a near-perfect first 30 minutes that ended with a 24-7 Cal lead.

All looked well until the second half, when the Cal defense showed its first real signs of weakness, allowing the Wildcats to embark on a 12-play drive to bring the score to 31-14. Faced with their first real sniff of adversity, the Bears faltered immediately. Goff spotted Daniel Lasco in the flats and tossed a low ball near Lasco’s feet. Lasco bobbled it, attempting to pull it in, and in swooped Collin Ellis, who grabbed the pick at the Cal 18-yard line. Northwestern scored on the next play, pulling the Wildcats within 10 near the end of the third quarter. A potential Bears’ blowout switched to a potential collapse within seconds.

Northwestern eventually brought it to within 7 with a field goal with 5:18 left in the game, leaving the Cal offense a chance to put the game away with a sustained drive and points. They did not do that, going three-and-out after two drops, but the defense did — specifically, Jalen Jefferson, who came up with a huge sack on 2nd down to force the Wildcats into 3rd and 17, and who came up even bigger on 3rd down with an interception to effectively seal the win.

“Over the last year, everything bad that can happen to a group of guys has happened,” Dykes said. “From getting academics corrected to their work ethic and to even losing a teammate. I’m really proud to see the hard work pay off.”

Michael Rosen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @michaelrosen3.