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What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 1

8/31/2014

We never know. We learn.

We have ideas of what teams will look like, and we project based on returning talent, talking with coaches, watching practices and making educated guesses. But we never really know until we see what's on the field.

We're smarter Saturday night than we were Thursday morning -- mostly. The first week of Pac-12 Football 101, which saw the league go 10-2 in nonconference play, was chock-full of intellectual goodies.

Perhaps the team that enlightened us the most was the California Bears, who snapped a 16-game losing streak to FBS teams by going into Ryan Field and notching a 31-24 victory over the Northwestern Wildcats.

It's not that it was the first FBS win of the Sonny Dykes era, or that the offense looked balanced and explosive. It's the fact that they had a 31-7 lead and won 31-24. Dykes liked the idea that his team had to tip-toe through a little bit of fire to pick up the win. He watched his team evolve from soft to salty.

"I never got the feeling from one player or one coach of ‘here we go again,'" Dykes told the Pac-12 blog via telephone after the game. "The guys really believed in each other. And the reason they did is because they have worked so hard. They were prepared. And they knew someone would make a play to give us a chance to win the ball game."

As it turned out, someone made two. On Northwestern's final drive, Jalen Jefferson notched a critical sack on second-and-6 for a loss of 11 yards. On the next play, Jefferson snagged an interception that essentially closed out the game.

"It's been a long few months for us, but we're a tighter team than we were last year," Jefferson said. "A lot of those breaks we weren't getting last year, we got them. We can feel things changing for the better."

Added quarterback Jared Goff: "I think we learned about resiliency. We knew they would fight back and we didn't give up ... we learned how to finish a game."

It was educational, for sure.

We learned some things haven't changed -- at least not yet. While the Bears were protecting the fourth quarter from a Big Ten team, the Washington State Cougars were yielding the fourth quarter to another. And UCLA? Well, Brett Hundley is still getting sacked, and his offensive line still looks leaky. If not for three defensive touchdowns, the Bruins would be staring at 0-1.

We didn't learn much from the FCS games -- other than it was good to see Utah's Travis Wilson back on the field and that Oregon State seems to makes those games sketchier than they probably should be. We don't know a ton more about ASU's defense or Oregon's offense. We didn't learn much about Stanford's rushing attack. Ty Montgomery is really good. But we already knew that.

We learned USC still has the ability to hit the mute button on the outside noise. If there's one team that knows a little something about turmoil, it's the Trojans -- for what they went through last year. That's a team with scary potential.

We learned not very good is sometimes good enough. See Washington and UCLA, whose fans are crawling into bed at this moment feeling both relieved and probably a little jolted.

And the rest of the Pac-12 probably learned a little something about the Bears.

"We're capable of being pretty good, I think," Dykes said. "We have to execute better. We're good in spurts. We have to be good consistently and close people out."

Next week Cal gets FCS Sacramento State with a chance to start 2-0 for the first time since 2011. The schedule ramps up with a pair of high-profile games, including Michigan State at Oregon and USC at Stanford.

Looking forward to what we'll know by this time next Saturday.