By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY — Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium was another example of what the heck’s going on with Cal football–winners of four of their last five games, bowl eligible and eager to see the Stanford Cardinal a week from now.
The quick take: the Cal offense won’t necessarily scare their opponents, but the fastidiously prepared, super opportunistic defense will sneak in and steal all your food and drink if you’re not careful.
After the Bears turned a meager 211 yards of total offense into 33 points, and a comfortable 12-point win over Colorado, head coach Justin Wilcox did his best to explain how pedestrian offensive statistics could equate to a milestone seventh win of the season, and the most anticipated leadup to the Big Game in a decade.
“It’s not always going to be pretty but we took care of the ball,” Wilcox said. “We needed to sustain some drives better. I think we all know that. We have some things that we’ve got to continue to address and develop the players on our team, help them as much as we possibly can and hold them accountable. But, we took care of the ball and found a way to make some plays that really were the difference.”
Cal delivered those big plays in a manner that no one could recall seeing: a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns in the game’s first two minutes, literally the fastest possible way to rip an opponent’s heart out with still 58 of 60 minutes remaining in a football game.
First, sophomore Elijiah Hicks stepped in front of Colorado senior Juwann Winfree and delivered Steven Montez’ telegraphed pass attempt to the house, a 34-yard interception and return just 1:11 after the opening kickoff.
Then with Montez facing 3-and-11 at his own 24, safety Ashtyn Davis came out of nowhere and delivered a pick followed by a 35-yard return that put Cal up 14-0.
Davis’ big play came 45 seconds after Hicks, and before the Bears had run a play on offense.
With plays that big, no additional hyperbole is needed. Thus Hicks explanation postgame.
“In practice we run that play all the time,” Hicks said. “I just had to cash in.”
Davis would go on to add another interception before halftime, as the Bears led 21-0, and 24-7 at the break.
So did Cal’s spectacular defensive display seamlessly lead to the offense? Well, no. With Colorado–losers of six straight coming in–providing gifts all over the field, Cal’s punting and punt coverage team took second billing in front of the sputtering offense.
After Cal’s first three offensive snaps went backwards, Steven Coutts unleashed a 47-yard punt that was fielded by Ronnie Blackmon, then knocked loose by Cal’s Traveon Beck. Quinton Tartabull recovered the loose ball, and Cal, already up 14-0 was back in business.
But seven plays from Cal’s offense didn’t bring them closer to an add-on score, it brought them to–after an offensive holding penalty–3-and-goal from the 18. But Chase Garbers’ nifty scramble gained 17 of those 18 yards, and his pass to Patrick Laird on fourth down resulted in a touchdown.
Unconventional? For sure. To recap, Cal led 21-0 with only 25 yards of offense.
When Colorado regained their wits after the early onslaught, they made a game of it. The Buffs defense responded, keeping Cal in check, while Montez and the offense made plays. Early in the fourth quarter, Montez hooked up with Winfree for a short touchdown pass and the Buffs trailed, 27-21.
At that point, the Cal offense had to do something, or be faced with an embarrassing defeat. And this time–with a Colorado mistake or two–they responded.
After Garbers scrambled for a short gain on 3rd-and-18, Colorado’s Drew Lewis got too aggressive, pushing Garbers after he was out of bounds. The resulting personal foul penalty and automatic Cal first down led immediately to Garbers touchdown pass to Moe Ways, his first as a Bear.