By Morris Phillips
In the absence of actual wins, the Cal Bears have been relegated to attempting to grab small victories wherever they can manage.
In losing to Arizona 33-28 on Saturday–and falling to 1-8 on the season—the Bears found themselves in a winnable game in the second half for the first time in Pac-12 play. In a season this trying, adversity on the scoreboard has been a constant. But this time out, the Bears experienced something new: down 26-21, with the ball, and a chance to take the lead, late in the third quarter.
The feeling didn’t last long as Jared Goff’s poorly thrown pass was picked by Arizona’s Jonathan McKnight deep in Cal territory. McKnight’s pick set up the Wildcats for the winning score, B.J. Denker’s 14-yard touchdown run four plays later. But afterwards, both teams acknowledged that they had been in a hotly-contested fight.
“The fact that we played better today against a good team shows them that we are certainly making progress and heading in the right direction,” Coach Sonny Dykes said. “They’ll take something from that. But our goal is to win the ballgame, regardless of who we play.”
“I anticipated some adversity,” Arizona Coach Rich Rodriguez said. “When you got a team that can throw it as well as they do and they can throw it well and have some explosive receivers, you know you’ve got a chance.”
The Bears lost their seventh consecutive game, but fell by fewer than 14 points for the first time in 2013. Is it a victory for a school with the recent history and NFL impact that Cal has had to not get blown out? Yeah, when this season’s team features inexperience at nearly every significant position, a new coaching staff installing a high-risk system, critical injuries and defections, it is.
Goff threw for 289 yards and four touchdowns, but saw two passes picked—both in the second half. And in the critical category for Dykes’ hyper attack, the Bears ran just 82 plays. What’s supposed to happen under Dykes’ Air Raid didn’t on Saturday: the Bears failed to seize momentum by missing on 12 third-down conversion opportunities and fell well below the preferred 100 plus plays and an edge in time of possession.
The game was basically lost in hefty chunks of the first two quarters where Cal failed to expand on a 7-0 lead built in the first five minutes. Instead, Ka’Deem Carey—who finished with 152 yards on 32 carries—and B.J. Denker ran the Wildcats to 19 consecutive points and a five-point halftime lead.
According to Rodriguez, in an attempt to stop Carey, the Bears loaded up inside aided by their superiorly-sized defensive tackles. But Arizona adjusted, running Carey to the boundaries where he picked up some healthy gains. Once Carey was established, Denker found room inside when he need to scramble, and the two-pronged attack exposed Cal’s glaring lack of quickness in their back seven once again.
Denker’s third rushing touchdown came on the read option, and given Cal’s depleted numbers on defense, the strategy of running right at the Bears seemed unfair and left Cal grasping throughout. Arizona rolled up 448 yards in total offense, but on a stat sheet with a lot of symmetry, Arizona’s ability to run and run often was the only difference. The Wildcats had 51 rush attempts, nearly doubling Cal’s 26, and that allowed Arizona’s engine to churn slightly smoother than Cal’s.
“Had we turned the ball over we would have lost,” Rodriguez admitted. “We’ve got some good players but we’re not going to overwhelm anybody. We’re just not there right now.”
Where the Wildcats are is in the thick of Pac-12 South’s race to the conference’s championship game. Arizona won for the second straight week on the road and they get UCLA back in Tucson next Saturday with a chance to improve to 7-2 and inject their team into the Rose Bowl conversation.
The Cats were recently in Cal’s shoes, trying to rebuild in an increasingly challenging BCS conference with little or no positive reinforcement on a weekly basis. In fact, Arizona dropped 13 of their next 15 games in a dismal stretch spanning 2010 and 2011. But Rodriguez has won some recruiting battles over the last couple of seasons, and the Wildcats’ fortunes have switched.
On Saturday, freshman Scooby Wright dumped Darren Ervin in the end zone for a safety that gave Arizona its’ first lead, 9-7. Fellow freshman Samajie Grant made nine catches—all in the first half—to help the Wildcats grab control..
Cal’s got loads of talent in their freshman and sophomore classes as well, and on Saturday, Kenny Lawler Jr. turned the most heads. Lawler caught three touchdowns and his leaping one-handed grab that drew Cal closer in the third quarter was a highlight reel grab.
The Bears get a visit from USC next Saturday at Memorial Stadium.