Big Ten: Chris Harper
Northwestern lost quarterback Kain Colter minutes into Saturday's game and never had full use of star running back Venric Mark.
One of the nation's most dynamic offensive backfields wouldn't be a factor in a tricky road opener against Cal and its potent "Bear Raid" offense.
So what did Northwestern do? It found another way to win. Linebacker Collin Ellis recorded two interceptions for touchdowns, tight end Dan Vitale sparked the passing game and third-string running back Treyvon Green stepped up for Mark on the ground.
Aaaand ... there might have been a few injury flops involved.
It added up to an exhausting 44-30 Northwestern victory against a plucky Cal team that gave the 22nd-ranked Wildcats all they could handle. Bears true freshman quarterback Jared Goff passed for 445 yards and two touchdowns, but he showed his age with three second-half interceptions, including the game-changer, which Ellis returned 56 yards to the end zone late in the third quarter.
Ellis, who beat out Drew Smith for Northwestern's third starting linebacker spot, was all over the field in an effort that at least will earn him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. Northwestern also generated a decent pass rush, and safety Ibraheim Campbell picked off Goff in the closing minutes.
Cal made plenty of plays, attacking through the air with talented receivers Chris Harper (11 catches, 151 yards, 2 TDs) and Bryce Treggs (13 receptions, 145 yards). Despite a limited playbook, the Bears showed how dangerous they could be.
Northwestern was limited, too, but not by design. Colter left the game early after taking a shot to his head and his left shoulder. He was re-evaluated at halftime but ruled out, left to stew on the sideline, unable to run the nearly unstoppable zone-read with Mark.
As for Mark, the All-America returner wasn't used on returns and only played for stretches. He wasn't listed on the team's injury report and practiced throughout the preseason. It'll be interesting to see what Coach Pat Fitzgerald says about Mark's status going forward.
Northwestern surged on special teams in 2012, but Cal held a decided edge in the kicking game, scoring its first touchdown on a fake field goal and recovering a Wildcats fumble on a kickoff return. At least All-Big Ten kicker Jeff Budzien came through three field goals.
The little-used Green also stepped up late with a 55-yard burst to take Northwestern out of its own territory. He finished off the drive with a 6-yard plunge. Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian had a big first half in relief of Colter but struggled a bit down the stretch.
Injuries were a big story for Northwestern throughout the game, both real and (possibly) imagined. Wildcats players were down after many plays in the second half. Cal coach Sonny Dykes clearly thought something was up (the Bears, ironically, were the team accused of faking injuries against Oregon). Northwestern also caught a break when Cal standout linebacker Chris McCain was ejected for targeting.
A wild game for the Wildcats, but it usually is just that. They survived and advanced in a Pac-12 stadium, not an easy place for Big Ten teams to win.
It's a good bet Northwestern enters its Oct. 5 home showdown against Ohio State at 4-0. The Wildcats still have never lost an opener under Fitzgerald.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
This isn't surprising at all, considering Smith left Minnesota to spend more time with his son back in Kansas. Also, Smith's father played wide receiver at Kansas State.
The one holdup could be a scholarship with the Wildcats, and Smith might need to pay his own way for a semester. He might end up living with former Oregon quarterback Chris Harper, who also plans to transfer to K-State.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Oregon defensive end Will Tukuafu first heard the phrase from his junior college coach, Ken Giovando.
As Oregon backslid in the first half Saturday, making "enough mistakes to last the rest of the season," according to head coach Mike Bellotti, Tukuafu began to repeat the line: Adversity introduces a person to himself.
"Things aren't always going to go our way," Tukuafu said. "But when those things don't go our way, how are we going to react? I think we reacted pretty well today."
More than a few things haven't gone Oregon's way during the last month, but the 16th-ranked Ducks continue to find a way. They found several on Saturday to escape Purdue with a 32-26 win in two overtimes.
Consider the stumbling blocks and the Ducks' response:
- After losing projected starting quarterback Nate Costa to a season-ending knee injury, Oregon put up 110 points in its first two games behind Justin Roper.
- Left tackle Fenuki Tupou was suspended for the season opener for receiving improper benefits from an agent, but Oregon pounded Washington, 44-10.
- When the offense couldn't find the end zone for the better part of three quarters Saturday, the defense put up a wall at its own 40-yard line and wouldn't let Curtis Painter and Purdue cross it.
- As starting running back Jeremiah Johnson played with a recently separated right shoulder, backup LeGarrette Blount stepped up with 132 rushing yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner in the second overtime.
- When Roper went down with a sprained left knee in the first overtime, freshman Chris Harper led the winning touchdown drive.
"We got as close as you could get to losing, but still we got a victory," offensive coordinator Chip Kelly said. "In the end, you're 3-0 and in January and February, no one's going to talk about the Purdue game."
Most of Oregon's mistakes Saturday stemmed from Kelly's unit, but the defense faced its own hurdles. Purdue's Kory Sheets gashed the Ducks for an 80-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage and put his team up 20-3 on the first play of the second quarter.
But from that point, the Ducks' defense locked down. Purdue consistently got good field position but didn't advance past Oregon's 38-yard line on its next 11 possessions. The Boilermakers racked up just 22 yards on 17 plays in the second quarter.
"I challenged the defense to shut them out, and they did," Bellotti said. "They put the momentum on our side."
As Blount walked over to Kelly outside the visitors' locker room after the game, the coach embraced the 229-pound junior and said, "I'm proud of you."
Johnson insisted his shoulder was fine, but Bellotti acknowledged the back wasn't 100 percent. The Ducks needed Blount to step in, just as Roper did for Costa and Harper eventually did for Roper.
Though Jairus Byrd's 87-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the third quarter was undeniably the game's turning point, Blount changed field position and ignited the offense with a 72-yard dash from his Oregon's 4-yard line.
"He's one of a kind," Johnson said of Blount. "That's my boy. When I went out, he came in and did an excellent job today."
The heroics from Blount, Byrd and others helped Oregon survive a multitude of mistakes in all three areas of the game. Roper had two passes intercepted in Purdue territory, Oregon lost the turnover battle 4-3 and committed several costly penalties. The Ducks' inability to handle a short kickoff into the wind set up a Purdue touchdown.
Late in the third quarter, Bellotti slammed his headset to the turf after the defense was nearly whistled for illegal substitution on consecutive plays.
"I can't think of a game anywhere that we played that poorly," Bellotti said.
"We weren't nearly as focused," Harper said. "I don't think we had the same intensity we had for Washington or some of those other games. We came out sluggish."
They'll have to be better starting next week against Boise State, and more adversity awaits. Roper is expected to miss the game, meaning Harper or Jeremiah Masoli will start at quarterback.
Relief was the general sentiment after Saturday's win, but there were lessons, too.
"It makes me want to work harder," said Tukuafu, who had two sacks and recovered a fumble. "We want to understand the mind-set now. We faced a little adversity and our mind-set changed. Our work habits, all those things, increased a lot more this week."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A month ago, the prospect of Chris Harper leading Oregon on a game-winning touchdown drive seemed remote, if not totally off the radar.
Nate Costa had been tabbed the team's next superstar quarterback after coming off a knee injury last fall. The Ducks also had Justin Roper, the 2007 Sun Bowl hero who was more than capable of carrying the load.
Harper seemed destined for clipboard duty and the occasional appearance in custom packages or during mop-up time.
But there he was Saturday, piloting Oregon's offense in the second overtime against Purdue. Despite the setting and the situation, Harper never flinched and the 16th-ranked Ducks prevailed.
"Justin was prepared last year, he came through in the bowl game," Harper said. "All of us have got to be prepared. I was ready to play, I did what I did in practice and we got in the end zone."
After taking a 5-yard loss on the first play, Harper rebounded with an 8-yard run to the Purdue 2-yard line that set up LeGarrette Blount's winning plunge. The 6-3, 230-pound freshman never got nervous, despite his first road game.
"I like playing on the road," Harper said. "I like the fans talking all that stuff. It kind of gets you fired up."
Harper will need to keep his poise next week against Boise State. Roper is expected to miss 2-4 weeks after spraining his left knee in the first overtime Saturday.
"He said after last week the game started to slow down a little bit," coach Mike Bellotti said of Harper. "I'm sure again, it's going to slow down even more now. That's a big-time pressure situation for a young man. He handled it extremely well. He had no problems whatsoever.
"Harp is one of the most dangerous guys on our team with the ball in his hands, so we want to create more opportunities for that."
Harper admitted he didn't think he would play a major role Saturday, but he never forgets what offensive coordinator Chip Kelly told him during spring practice.
"You've got to prepare like you're going to be the starter," Johnson said. "That's what me and Jeremiah both do and if something happens like it happened today, we're both ready to go in and help."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Oregon tried to give this one away, but Purdue couldn't take it.
Backup quarterback Chris Harper, a true freshman, led No. 17 Oregon on the winning drive after Purdue's Chris Summers missed his second field goal. LeGarrette Blount sealed the win with a 2-yard touchdown run. Harper came in after Justin Roper injured his knee in the first overtime.
The Boilermakers' big-game bugaboo continued as they couldn't knock off a ranked team, a streak running since November 2001. And Joe Tiller fell short of becoming the school's all-time winningest coach.
Full disclosure: I was a little bummed about covering this game on a day with so many appetizing matchups. By this point, I expected Oregon to have a win comfortably in hand. But this turned out to be a classic -- and a missed opportunity for the Big Ten.