By Morris Phillips
Quite literally, if it weren’t for the familiar dark blue and gold uniforms, you wouldn’t recognize the 2015 California Golden Bears.
No longer are the Bears the quirky, disjointed football team from the two previous seasons. In fact, they’re as old school as old school gets these days: run the ball, don’t turn it over and play defense.
In beating San Diego State on Saturday, the Bears settled down after a rocky first quarter, hit the Aztecs with a heap of explosive offense in the second and third quarters, defended throughout, and coasted to a 35-7 win to go 2-0 on the season.
In the first three quarters of their first two games, the Bears have allowed seven points. Those seven points are also the only seven San Diego State scored on Saturday. Talk about a transformation: in losing six of their last seven, and seven of their final 10 games a year ago, the overly-generous Bears surrendered an average of 43 points a game.
The Aztecs played the role of the quirky team with unorthodox methods in this one, and SDSU’s smallish, unpredictable defensive front kept Cal on its collective heels early. With blitzes and pressure coming from all directions, the Bears and quarterback Jared Goff went scoreless for the first 17 minutes of the game. Then after a game-tying touchdown pass to Darius Powe, Goff was picked off on the following possession. One week after the Bears laid 73 on Grambling State, the early struggles could have left Cal out of sorts. Coach Sonny Dykes felt his team’s calmness was the major turning point of the afternoon.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” Dykes said. “Our guys had to fight through it, especially early in the ballgame. To their credit, they did. And like I said, there was no sense of panic or any of that setting in, which was encouraging.”
Instead of having Goff air it out—and be subjected to the blitzes—the Bears instead, settled in with their running game and their physical advantage along the offensive line. All of the distinctive statistical marks that Cal has come to be known for disappeared. SDSU maintained an edge in plays, time of possession and head scratching penalties, while the Bears took control on the scoreboard.
Nearing halftime, the Bears had settled. With the game tied 7-7, the Bears struck quickly after SDSU’s Christian Chapman was intercepted by Darius White. Three plays later, Cal had its first lead courtesy of Goff’s three-yard touchdown pass to Maurice Harris just 11 seconds prior to halftime.
Cal followed that up with a 75-yard, Trevor Davis catch and run on the first play of the second half and Cal suddenly led 21-7. On that play, Goff initially was shocked how open Davis was, but it didn’t take long for the quarterback to adjust, hitting his senior wide out in stride heading down the field.
“It seemed as if the safeties were rolling and not really looking at me running the post, and we saw that,” Davis recalled. “It happened both times (we ran that play).”
Goff finished with 321 yards passing on 17 for 24 passing. Not the usual mega numbers for the junior signal caller, but it leaves him just 15 yards shy of Troy Taylor’s school record for career passing yardage at 8,126 yards. For a quarterback, that hasn’t won as much as he’s compiled stats, Goff said he’ll operate with little anticipation of the record with Texas up next on Cal’s schedule.
“I’m going to prepare and try to beat Texas, and let all that stuff happen like it does,” Goff said.
SDSU’s compact and powerful back, Donnel Pumphrey gave Cal issues early with his quickness, but finished with only 86 yards on 21 carries. The Aztecs average per rush hoovered around three yards per carry during the first three quarters, right where Cal’s defense would prefer. Meanwhile, Daniel Lasco ran effectively throughout for the Bears, finishing with 123 yards on 19 carries. Lasco suffered a minor hip injury on his final carry, but is expected to be 100 percent for the Longhorns next Saturday in Austin.
Along with Chapman’s intercepted pass, the Aztecs hurt themselves with 12 penalties for negative 137 yards. With the game decided, SDSU picked up personal foul penalties on consecutive plays in the fourth quarter.
“The personal fouls on both sides of the ball are the sign of an immature football team,” SDSU coach Rocky Long admitted. “That’s my fault to get that many penalties on offense.”
The Bears have opened 2-0 for the first time under Coach Dykes, and will look to start 3-0 next week for the first time since 2010.