EVANSTON, Ill. -- There will be plenty of time for Cal to dissect all it did wrong Saturday in its 31-24 victory over Northwestern in front of 34,228 fans at Ryan Field.
The Golden Bears, their psyches still fragile after a 1-11 season in 2013, were in full celebration mode afterward.
For now, it didn't matter that they gave away most of a 31-7 lead early in the third quarter, or that victory wasn't secure until linebacker Jalen Jefferson intercepted a pass 15 yards from the end zone with 1:38 left and freshman quarterback Luke Rubenzer converted a subsequent first down run to let the clock run down.
What these players will remember about the program's first win over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent in 686 days was the atmosphere in the locker room afterward.
"Haywire, hectic," said quarterback Jared Goff, who threw three first-half touchdown passes. "We did the Bear Territory chant about eight times. Sang the fight song."
Safety Stefan McClure said the team practiced singing the fight song after a mock game in fall camp. "But it's nothing like singing it when it's for real, when you just got a win."
Coach Sonny Dykes, whose club lost 44-30 to Northwestern at home last season in his debut, understood the complicated nature of the victory.
"We made it a lot harder on ourselves than we needed to, but I expected that," he said, pointing to Northwestern's experience. "For us to have to win a ballgame like that on the road is impressive. I think our guys really believed in themselves and believed in their preparation and the hard work."
The Bears, who held the lead for a total of just 9 minutes, 36 seconds in 11 games against FBS teams last season, never trailed and were in front 31-7 after a 1-yard TD run by Khalfani Muhammad with 9:05 left in the third quarter.
But Northwestern dashed all notions of an easy Cal win by scoring two touchdowns in a span of 25 seconds late in the third quarter to pull within 10 points. An interception on a tipped ball set up a nice trick play where quarterback Trevor Siemian threw a lateral pass to wideout Jayme Taylor, who then threw back to Siemian for a 17-yard touchdown.
When Jack Mitchell delivered a 24-yard field goal with 5:18 left in the fourth quarter, Cal's lead was just 31-24.
"I was like everybody else in the stadium that was rooting for Cal. I started to get a little uncomfortable, just to put it mildly," Dykes said. "I just had a feeling that somebody was going to be able to make a play."
Jefferson was that guy, with an assist from fellow linebacker Michael Barton.
Northwestern had driven to the Cal 27 when Jefferson sacked Siemian for an 11-yard loss. On the next play, Barton tipped Siemian's pass into traffic and Jefferson intercepted.
"I gave him a lot of love after the game," Jefferson said of Barton. "We actually made a bet of, whoever got the first pick would get each other's per diem, so I get his per diem now."
When it was jokingly suggested that the friendly wager may constitute an NCAA violation, Cal deputy director of athletics Solly Fulp responded, "We'll self-report it."
The game still wasn't over. Cal started on its 15 and NU had two timeouts remaining. But Rubenzer, who came off the bench to provide a running-threat counterpunch to Goff's passing, iced the win with an 8-yard keeper for a first down.
"I was kind of going a little crazy there, for a minute, but it was just a big play," said Rubenzer, who was the game's leading rusher with 48 yards on 11 carries, three of which earned the Bears first downs. "I was real excited about that last one."
Rubenzer had gotten plenty of practice reps with the first team, but Cal's coaches said they weren't expecting him to play at Northwestern. Turned out, that was a bit of subterfuge.
"They told me a while back that he was going to do some of that stuff," said Goff, who was 21 for 34 for 281 yards. "If it helps us win, I'm all for it. And it did."
New defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, who inherited a unit that allowed 45.9 points per game last season, was encouraged by a performance that began with the Bears surrendering just one TD on NU's first eight possessions.
Kaufman said he told his players to be prepared for adversity to hit at some point. "I told them, 'Don't panic,' " he said. " 'Just play the next play.' I think that's something the guys did a good job with."
Warts and all, the performance added up to Cal's first win over an FBS foe since a 31-17 win at Washington State on Oct. 13, 2012, snapping a 16-game losing streak. And it gave the players a postgame blueprint they can try to replicate.
Cal, determined to generate a more potent running game after averaging just 122 yards a game last season, gave the ball to four running backs 26 times, but they generated just 77 total yards and none of them averaged 4 yards per attempt.
Goff's first-half TD passes were 1 yard to Bryce Treggs, 7 yards to Kenny Lawler and 76 yards to Trevor Davis.
Sacramento State (1-0) at Cal (1-0), noon. Pac-12 Networks