By Morris Phillips
California football went from great mystery to great debut in just over three hours.
Unexpected? By any measure.
From the financial issues surrounding the California athletic department to all the unknown among the team’s personnel and coaching staff, topped off by the East Coast opener timed to start for breakfast in Berkeley, the Bears put all the uncertainty to the side with their surprising performance, surging after halftime in a 35-30 win at North Carolina.
“There’s going to be so much off the tape that was far from perfect, it’s never going to be quite as good as you want it, but man it feels good in that locker room right now and I’m just really, really proud of our team, the players, our coaches, our university, our fans,” new Bears’ coach Justin Wilcox said. “It’s just a great moment.”
Ross Bowers led Cal offensively, throwing for 368 yards in his first collegiate start. Bowers also authored the game’s signature play, a screen pass off a scrambling escape that put the ball in Patrick Laird’s hands on a 54-yard pass and run that gave Cal the lead after they trailed for the majority of the firtst half.
Bowers threw a touchdown pass in each of the four quarters, along with to interceptions, the second of which set up the Tar Heels to regain a 24-21 lead, after a 73-yard return by Andre Smith, at the conclusion of the third quarter.
But Cal rebounded with two touchdowns in the fourth to take control, the second on a Vic Enwere run giving the Bears a 35-24 advantage with 1:56 remaining.
While Bowers was a consistent force throughout the four quarters, UNC quarterback Brandon Williams completed just 7 of 16 passes for 60 yards, then saw his afternoon shortened after throwing a second interception in the third quarter. Redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt played as well, and finished 18 of 28 for 161 yards. Both quarterbacks seemed constrained under the platooning dynamic, but may have been limited to a greater degree by UNC’s ineffective receivers who failed to create separation from Cal’s defensive backs.
Not only did Cal’s secondary hold up, its defense as a whole held up, maybe the afternoon’s biggest surprise given that the Cal defense allowed 40 points a game in 2016, and didn’t gain any significant, new personnel. The 30 points allowed, including a meaningless touchdown in the game’s final seconds, stood as the fewest points Cal had allowed in a road game since 2015.