Pac-12: Ibraheim Campbell

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.
We continue our series taking a closer look at each Pac-12 team's nonconference schedule.


Northwestern, Aug. 31
  • Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (50-39) eighth year
  • 2012 record: 10-3, 5-3 Big Ten
  • Returning starters: eight offense, seven defense
  • Offensive headliner: Running back Venric Mark returns after rushing for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns -- enough to earn him second-team all-conference. But he also makes his mark on special teams, where he was an All-American punt returner last season.
  • Defensive headliner: Safety Ibraheim Campbell is an all-league candidate after posting 89 stops last year with two interceptions and a team high 12 breakups.
  • The skinny: Since 2008, Northwestern is 17-10 on the road. With a good chunk of talent returning from last year's team -- which won its first bowl game since 1949 -- most are projecting the Wildcats to be a preseason top 20 team ... maybe even top 15. Sonny Dykes' first game as head coach won't be easy.
Portland State, Sept. 7
  • Coach: Nigel Burton (12-21, fourth year)
  • 2012 record: 3-8, 2-6 Big Sky
  • Returning starters: six offense, five defense
  • Offensive headliner: Quarterback Kieran McDonagh returns at quarterback after completing 54.5 percent of his throws last year with 14 touchdowns to 13 interceptions as a freshman. He also ran 89 times for 406 and nine touchdowns and he even caught a 22-yard touchdown.
  • Defensive headliner: Linebacker Jaycob Shoemaker is the top returner on defense after posting 70 tackles -- including a team-high 12 for a loss -- last season.
  • The skinny: The Vikings have been a familiar foe to the league in recent years -- having played Oregon State, Oregon, Washington State, ASU and Washington since 2005. They lost to Cal 42-16 in 2006. After a nice 2011 season, when they went 7-4, they took a step back last season. Part of that was holes in the pass defense. Cue up the Bear Raid.
Ohio State, Sept. 14
  • Coach: Urban Meyer (12-0) second year
  • 2012 record: 12-0, 8-0 Big Ten
  • Returning starters: nine offense, 4 defense
  • Offensive headliner: Quarterback Braxton Miller is going to get plenty of Heisman hype -- especially if he can keep the Buckeyes perfect. Last year he threw for 15 touchdowns and 2,039 yards ran for 13 touchdowns and 1,271 yards.
  • Defensive headliner: Cornerback Bradley Roby is considered one of the best in the country at his position. He broke up 17 passes last year with two interceptions and was third with 63 tackles.
  • The skinny: The Buckeyes will enter the season likely as the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the country. They ran the table in 2012 -- including a late fourth-quarter touchdown to beat the Bears in Columbus. The schedule sets up nicely for them to make another run at perfection -- and possibly a BCS championship.
Thoughts: Dykes knew it wasn't going to be easy when he took this job -- and this nonconference schedule, save Portland State, is vicious. He'll get two top 20 teams -- and potentially the No. 1 team in the country -- in his first three weeks. Throw in a quarterback who will be getting his first collegiate playing time and a defense transitioning to a new scheme and it could make for a couple of long Saturdays. Then again, they did give Ohio State a run last season and they get all three games at home. At least they get a whole week off before traveling to Oregon to start league play in the 28th. A 1-2 record seems the most reasonable. Beating either Big Ten team would be a massive confidence boost and 3-0 would send shockwaves through the rankings. 0-3 would be a disaster. The Bears aren't exactly lacking in talent -- and Dykes' system has shown it can work. At question is whether or not Cal is mature enough to handle such a demanding schedule so early in this time of transition.