BERKELEY, Calif. – The starting quarterback went down with a concussion on the first drive. The defense was gassed after being on the field for 99 plays.
Northwestern used a couple of fortunate bounces to overcome those hurdles and win the season opener.
Collin Ellis returned two interceptions after deflected passes for touchdowns to help the 22nd-ranked Wildcats spoil Sonny Dykes' debut as California coach with a 44-30 victory on Saturday night.
"We were going to face adversity for the first time so how were we going to handle it," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We have to trust our training, trust the things we've worked on. Guys have to pick up the flag and pick up the slack. That's what you saw tonight from our team."
Ellis had a 56-yard return in the third quarter and then put the Wildcats (1-0) in control when he took another one back 40 yards midway through the fourth to take a 10-point lead.
Those were rare blemishes on an otherwise strong debut by Jared Goff, who became the first true freshman ever to start the season opener for the Golden Bears (0-1). Goff went 38 for 63 for 445 yards and two touchdowns and Cal also scored on a fake field goal on the opening drive in an entertaining start to Dykes' tenure.
Goff had the second most yards passing in Cal history, trailing only Pat Barnes' 503 against Arizona in 1996, but also threw three interceptions, included the two deflected passes that went for Northwestern touchdowns.
"We definitely played well for most of the game, the ending there was a little disappointing," Goff said. "We have a lot to build on now with how well we played."
Despite the win, it was a taxing opener for the Wildcats, who were ranked in the preseason poll for the first time since 2001. They lost starting quarterback Kain Colter to a concussion after their second play from scrimmage and then saw starting cornerback Daniel Jones go down with an apparent leg injury late in the first half.
A number of other players went down with more minor injuries to the dismay of the Cal fans who felt the Wildcats were trying to slow down Dykes' no-huddle offense.
"It affected it a lot," Dykes said. "You know it was just unusual, it seemed like every time we had a first down they would have an injury. I hadn't seen that, didn't expect to see that, was disappointed that I saw that but that's the way it goes sometimes."
Fitzgerald dismissed accusations of faking injuries, saying his players are taught to go to the ground any time they are hurt.
Trevor Siemian, who normally splits time with Colter, went 18 for 29 for 276 yards and a touchdown in a more extensive role.
"He's poised and ready to go," Fitzgerald said. "We have starter 1A and 1B for a couple of years. Although he doesn't go out there on the first play he still operates as if he's the starter."
Treyvon Green ran for 129 yards and two TDs with starter Venric Mark hampered by an injury.
The game turned early in the fourth quarter when the Wildcats were backed up on their 10 facing third-and-3 with the game tied. Siemian connected on a 10-yard pass to Christian Jones just before being hit by a rushing McCain. Officials ruled the helmet-to-helmet contact, which led to a 15-yard penalty and an ejection under a new rule.
Siemian then hit Dan Vitale on a 53-yard pass on the next play to help set up Jeff Budzien's third field goal of the game to give the Wildcats the lead.
On the next drive, Goff's short pass went off Darius Powe's hands and right to Ellis who raced in to make it 37-27.
"Coaches are always preaching tips lead to picks so when they're there you have to snag them and take off running," Ellis said.
Goff led Cal to a field goal and had the Beats in position to tie the game when Ibraheim Campbell intercepted a deep pass at the 9 with 3:42 to go.
Green iced it with his second touchdown.
Goff gave Cal the lead early in the third quarter when he threw a pair of TD passes to Chris Harper in a 47-second span that included a fumbled kickoff return by Stephen Buckley in between the two touchdowns.
Northwestern went back ahead when Dean Lowry deflected a pass by Goff into the hands of Ellis, who ran the interception back 56 yards for a score.
The Dykes era got off to an exciting start when the Bears took the opening kickoff and drove 82 yards for a touchdown. The drive ended with a nifty fake field goal. Holder Jackson Bouza, who is also a receiver, flipped the ball back to D'Amato, who shot putted a pass back to Bouza for a 10-yard touchdown that delighted the crowd.
That start was reminiscent to the way Jeff Tedford's tenure started 11 years ago. The Bears scored on a trick play on the first play from scrimmage that day when Terrell Williams threw a 71-yard halfback option pass to David Gray against Baylor.
The rest of the opening half didn't go as well for the Bears after Colter left the game following hard hits on the first two plays. Siemian led Northwestern to 17 straight points, including a 19-yard TD pass to Tony Jones.