California Golden Bears

Cal’s climb back to respectability starts Saturday at Northwestern

The last time Cal played in the Rose Bowl, they lost to Northwestern. That’s also the last time Northwestern actually won the Granddaddy Of Them All. It also was Northwestern’s first bowl appearance, and their only bowl win until 2013. That game was played January 1st, 1949. In addition, it was their only meeting until last August at Strawberry Canyon, when the ‘Cats spoiled Sonny Dykes’ first game as Cal’s head coach. And that was just the beginning of the spoilage of Dykes’ fall season, seeing as how Cal went oh-fer-eleven versus D-I teams. This Saturday (12:30 PT, ABC/ESPN2, depending on where you are), the Bears travel to Evanston with the hope of starting 2014 properly.

While the Bear Raid will put up points, I’ll be looking at Cal’s defense this weekend. The Bears’ new defensive coordinator, Art Kaufman, has a rep as a defensive fixer — the college football equivalent of Harvey Keitel’s “The Wolf” from Pulp Fiction — so it seems appropriate that he would take the Cal job. He comes to Cal after just one year at Cincinnati, where the Bearcats finished 14th in points allowed with 21.0 per contest. Yet the Bears clearly are looking two years back for Kaufman, when in his only season in Lubbock, he took a Texas Tech defense ranked 114th in total defense the season before and bumped them up all the way to 38th.

With the Bears being so bad on defense last season (allowing 46.2 points per game, 125th out of … 125 teams), every area is key, but the defensive backfield merits special mention because so many guys got hurt last season (in total, Cal players missed 138 games due to injury).

Michael Lowe, seemingly the only guy who played a full 2013 on defense, gets the nod at strong safety, and he leads the Bears active list with 150 tackles. The Bears are also counting on free safety Stefan McClure. McClure is a junior, but hasn’t played a full season since 2011. He missed the complete 2012 season because of an injury in the final game of 2011, and after a phenomenal start to 2013 (30 tackles against Ohio State), was out for the season again after game five. Backing him up in Week 1 is Moraga native Griffin Piatt, who has not played a down in college — after redshirting in 2012, he missed 2013 because of injury as well — and he’s a convert from wide receiver to safety, because the Bears have wideouts coming out of their ears.

As for the Northwestern offense facing Kaufman’s D, they have a new-but-not-new quarterback in Trevor Simian, making his fourth career start. Simian started Northwestern’s final game of 2013 at Illinois and promptly threw for 414 yards, tenth in the Wildcat single-game record book, and four scores. For comparison’s sake, Jared Goff had more than 450 yards passing three times last season. I also don’t think the Wildcats have had a slinging quarterback since future Cleveland Brown and NFL Hall of Famer Otto Graham in the early 1940’s.

Despite Northwestern’s widely-known football struggles, they have won nine consecutive season openers and 16 straight home games against non-conference opponents. This is a touch misleading, considering they didn’t win a single Big-10 game last year. Also, their home non-con slate the last two years has included Boston College when they went 2-10, Vanderbilt, Syracuse, and FCS school Maine (although the Black Bears did finish the year ranked 12th and made it to the second round of the playoffs).

Their head coach is a great feel-good story. Pat Fitzgerald was a linebacker and the heart of the 1995 Northwestern team. That team won the Big 10 and made the Rose Bowl, their first appearance since beating Cal in 1949, and also their second bowl appearance, period. He eventually became an assistant coach and took over at age 31 when then-head coach Randy Walker died of a heart attack in the summer of 2006. That made Fitzgerald the youngest college football head coach at the time, and here he is entering his ninth season. I rooted for Northwestern in that Rose Bowl, and after he took over as head man under those horrible circumstances, how could you not want him to succeed? (Unless he’s coaching against your team. Like this week, for instance.)

I won’t make any sort of prediction about Saturday, like total points and who wins and all that sort of jazz. I will merely say that I expect Cal to be “better” than last year, and that the defensive backfield will be tested … whether they succeed or not, we shall see. And hopefully nobody gets hurt.

Oh, one more bit of Cal-Northwestern football history: Cal’s head coach in that 1949 Rose Bowl was Pappy Waldorf, who the Bears hired away from Northwestern. During his time with the Wildcats, he’s the one who convinced Otto Graham to play football.

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