BERKELEY, Calif. -- No. 22 Northwestern lost its starting quarterback early in the first quarter and had trouble handling Cal's spread offense run by true freshman quarterback Jared Goff.
But the Wildcats were saved by linebacker Collin Ellis, who returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the second half, helping Northwestern to 44-30 victory over the Bears on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium and ruining the debut of Sonny Dykes as Cal's head coach.
It was an emotional outcome for Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and Ellis, who lost his father to a suicide.
"To see him crying on the field after the game was tough for me to watch," Fitzgerald said. "It's hard for me to keep my emotions now."
Both of Ellis' picks came off tipped passes thrown by Goff.
"The coaches always preach, 'Tips lead to picks,'" Ellis said.
His first interception came in the third quarter, and he returned it 56 yards to give the Wildcats a 27-24 lead. His second came in the fourth quarter, and he returned that one 40 yards to boost the Wildcats' lead to 37-27 with 7:57 to go.
Cal reduced the margin to 37-30 on Vincenzo D'Amato's 37-yard field goal with 4:45 left, and the Bears regained possession on an Alex Logan interception at the Northwestern 49.
But Ibraheim Campbell intercepted a Goff pass at the Wildcats' 9-yard line with 3:42 remaining and the Wildcats then marched 91 yards for the clinching score.
"It came down to the team that made the fewest mistakes," Dykes said. "We made more mistakes down the stretch than they did."
Goff, the first true freshman to start a season opener for Cal, put up good numbers. He completed 38 of 63 passes for 445 yards and two touchdowns in the spread offense that Dykes brought with him from Louisiana Tech, which led the nation in scoring and total offense last season. But the three interceptions were costly.
"There were a few nerves," Goff said, "but I got over it really fast. I got the first completion in and the first touchdown and (after that) I was over it pretty fast."
The Wildcats had trouble slowing down the Bears' hurry-up attack, and the Cal crowd booed when a series of injuries to Northwestern defensive players prevented Cal from getting off plays as quickly as planned in the second half.
"It seemed like every time we had a first down they had an injury," Dykes said. "I didn't see that, haven't seen that. I was disappointed I saw that."
Dykes declined to comment whether he thought Northwestern was faking those injuries, but Fitzgerald denied it.
"If anyone would question the integrity of us or our players, I would question theirs," he said.
The Wildcats lost starting quarterback Kain Colter early in the first quarter to an upper body injury. As a result, Trevor Siemian, the passing half of Northwestern's two-quarterback system, handled the quarterback chores the rest of the game. He finished 18-for-29 for 267 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
"He was ready to go," Fitzgerald said of Siemian. "We've had starters 1-A and 1-B for a couple years."
Northwestern tailback Venric Mark, who rushed for 1,366 yards last season, was limited to 29 yards on 11 carries. Fitzgerald said he has been "dinged up" lately, so he wanted to be judicious in his use.
But Treyvon Green ran for 129 yards and two touchdowns for the Wildcats.
Cal had two receivers with more than 100 receiving yards. Bryce Treggs had 13 catches for 145 yards and Chris Harper had 11 receptions for 151 yards and two scores.
Cal, coming off a 3-9 season that cost Jeff Tedford his job, overcame a 20-10 deficit to take a 24-20 lead on two touchdown passes by Goff in the third quarter.
After Ellis' first touchdown put Northwestern back in the lead, Cal tied it 27-27 on D'Amato 38-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter, but Northwestern regained the lead 30-27 on Budzien's 32-yard field goal.
The play of the game came on Cal's first possession.
Facing fourth-and-5 at the Northwestern 10, the Bears lined up for a field goal attempt. But after taking the snap, holder Jackson Bouza flipped the ball back to D'Amato, who tossed a short pass back to Bouza, who ran it in for the game's first score.
"What a great call that was," Fitzgerald said. "We're stealing that one."
NOTES: Northwestern CB Daniel Jones was taken off the field on a cart after suffering an apparent leg injury late in the first half. . . Cal DE Chris McCain was ejected from the game for his hit on Siemien in the second half, a result of the new rule . . . The only previous time Northwestern and Cal met was in the Rose Bowl after the 1948 season. Northwestern won that game 20-14 . . . Two Cal defensive starters -- DE Brennan Scarlett (hand) and ILB Nick Forbes (back) -- did not play in the opener because of injuries. No key Northwestern players missed the game with injuries . . . Coming into Saturday's game, Fitzgerald carried a 7-0 record in season openers as Northwestern coach . . . The Wildcats wore white helmets for the first time since 1980.