Sonny Dykes won over Cal’s fans with a touchdown off a fake field goal on the first series against No. 22 Northwestern.
He still hadn’t lost them nearly four hours later after the Golden Bears’ 44-30 defeat in their season opener at Memorial Stadium.
Even while becoming the first rookie Cal coach to lose his debut game at home since Marv Levy in 1960, Dykes showed a crowd of 58,816 this will be a team worth watching.
More importantly, he convinced his young players they can be something.
“I thought we needed to play incredibly aggressive. I thought our players needed to see as coaches we were playing to win, not to not lose,” Dykes said of his decision to use a trick play on the field goal.
“It was important to send that message to our players and, quite frankly, to our fans.”
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The message was received by all a year after Cal staggered to a 3-9 record.
The difference in the game was two interception returns for touchdowns by Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis, both on passes that were deflected.
In between, there was plenty of reason for hope.
That started with the play of true freshman quarterback Jared Goff, whose 445 passing yards was the most by a Cal quarterback in a regulation-length game. Only Pat Barnes, with 503 yards in a four-overtime game against Arizona in 1996, has thrown for more.
“A heck of a performance by a young kid,” Dykes called Goff’s performance.
“We’ve got a lot to build on with how well we played,” the 18-year-old from Novato said. “We learned a lot of stuff. I had some bad luck, but that’s no excuse. We’ll come back stronger.”
The Bears kept offensive coordinator Tony Franklin on the sidelines for this one — normally he will be in the booth — figuring he could help counsel Goff.
“He kept his composure, even during times of adversity,” said wide receiver Bryce Treggs, who caught 13 passes for 145 yards. “If we would go three-and-out, he came back the next time and made plays. That showed signs of a great quarterback.”
The uptempo Bears ran 99 plays, netting 548 yards, and might have had more except for a series of injuries by Northwestern defensive players that stalled the action.
“It seemed like everytime we got a first down they had an injury,” said Dykes, who acknowleged his team’s rhythm was affected, but stopped short of saying it was an intentional ploy by the Wildcats. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald bristled at that suggestion.
The Bears threw 64 times mostly because they couldn’t sustain a consistent running game. Brendan Bigelow gained 55 yards on three runs to open the game, but Northwestern adjusted and Cal’s backs totaled 56 yards on 25 carries the rest of the game.
“We’re disappointed the way we ran the football,” Dykes said. “That unit up front’s very young. It’s going to be a heck of a unit, but part of their maturation is going to be learning how to finish blocks.”
There were other issues. The Bears were penalized 10 times for 79 yards, including false starts by three different offensive linemen in the same second-quarter series.
They also lost defensive end Chris McCain to a fourth-quarter ejection when he was called for “targeting” Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian. By rule, McCain must sit out the first half of Saturday’s Portland State game.
As a result, the Bears could start that game without as many as five defensive starters. Defensive end Brennan Scarlett (hand) and linebacker Nick Forbes (back) sat out the opener and safety Avery Sebastian (ankle) and linebacker Khairi Fortt (head) both were sidelined during the game.
Dykes had no immediate report on the status of the injured, also including Bigelow (head) and guard Matt Cochran (shoulder).