Healthier, Wealthier: Bears finally cash in with 33-20 win over WSU ending four-game slide

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, Calif. — Well, we knew coming in that previously ranked Washington State and Cal are pretty good football teams except when they aren’t.

The Cougs look bad when they can’t stop anybody, and when the Bears struggle they can’t score.  Those two storylines grew old in Pullman and Berkeley with all the losing. Since late September when WSU and Cal were both undefeated and nationally ranked, the two clubs combined for a 1-8 record.

So Saturday’s matchup offered redemption for one of the two teams, and more of the same for the other.

Who gained the upper hand?

Cal did, winning 33-20, as they welcomed back injured, offensive starters Michael Saffell, Kekoa Crawford and Devon Modster, three big reasons the Bears put up a season-best 33 points, one game after they were shutout in Salt Lake City.

“It just shows a lot of grit, coming off of a four-game losing streak,” said Modster, who threw for three scores and ran for another. “Our spirits didn’t die. We came out to work every day, and I think it showed tonight.”

The Bears scored just 24 points total in their previous three losses, but needed all of 45 seconds to find the end zone on Saturday night. Jaylinn Hawkins picked off Anthony Gordon’s first pass attempt of the game, and Christopher Brown Jr. covered 27 yards on a touchdown run one play later.

Any illusions that Cal was going to erase all its ills immediately were wiped out on the extra-point attempt when WSU’s George Hicks III scooped up a blocked kick and raced the length of the field for two points for the Cougars.

When is a touchdown not worth seven points on the scoreboard? In this case, when the Bears’ faulty place-kicking game gets involved. In that case, seven points is effectively reduced to four.

Defensively, the Bears were on point from the start, not only with Hawkins interception, but by getting off the field in a timely matter on Washington State’s next two possessions. But after tight end Gavin Reinwald fumbled trying to get extra yardage after a catch, WSU had a short field, and drew within a point on Drew Mazza’s 30-yard field goal.

Giving away points to a normally prolific WSU offense could have spelled disaster. Trailing only 6-5 after a lackluster beginning may have been the Cougars signal to bury Cal offensively, but it wasn’t. WSU committed too many penalties (10), couldn’t run the ball (16 yards on just 14 attempts) and didn’t do enough in the pass game despite racking up 407 yards passing on Gordon’s 58 pass attempts.

Instead, Cal limited WSU’s receivers after the catch, came up with Hawkins’ pick and a fumble recovery, along with a key stop early in the fourth quarter that preserved Cal’s 20-14 lead.

Meanwhile, the Bears took after halftime, as the Cougs imploded, building on their 13-11 lead at the break with a couple of big plays, most significantly, Makai Polk’s 52-yard catch-and-run that put Cal up 26-14 with 6:15 remaining. Polk, the freshman from Richmond, had just three catches all season prior to his touchdown, a moment of brilliance that saw Modster recognize the defense pre-snap, then have Polk take advantage after catching a simple screen pass.

“They were (in) cover zero and I knew it was going to be a big gain, but I didn’t know if it was going to be a touchdown or not,” Modster recalled. “But right when I threw it I saw a huge hole and Makai just did all the rest.”

The Bears are back in the postseason mix if they can gain at least one more win in their final three games. USC comes to Berkeley on Saturday, then the Bears visit Stanford. Both teams have been vulnerable at points this season, and Cal could benefit greatly if that resurfaces for either opponent. Bringing to an end the nine consecutive losses to Stanford probably is especially enticing to the Bears.

 

Cal’s uneven effort on both sides of the ball spells doom in 21-17 loss to Oregon State

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY–Justin Wilcox wasn’t in the mood to explain all the complexities, but the synopsis was his Bears put forth an effort that was too uneven.

Too many poorly executed offensive plays, three, decisive Oregon State drives that saw the Cal defense compromised, and once the Bears fought all the way back–taking a 17-14 lead with 32 seconds remaining in the third quarter–nothing. Two three-and-outs, then after Oregon State regained the lead, and Cal starting quarterback Devon Modster was injured, freshman Spencer Brasch was forced into a near impossible spot for his first snaps at the Division I level.

“It’s a tough position to be in,” Wilcox explained. “First time he’s taken a snap.”

With 4:35 remaining, and Cal approaching midfield, trailing 21-17, Brasch, with one completion under his belt, couldn’t get another. OSU’s Jaydon Grant picked off Brasch effectively ending the Bears’ afternoon. Ironically in a game where the Beavers committed 13 penalties (and the Bears only two), Brasch’s intercepted pass would rank as the one quantifiable mistake for Cal. It would be costly.

Just as costly, the Bears were tardy to the party. Oregon State seized momentum and built a 14-0 with Isaiah Hodgins scoring on a 4-yard pass play with 4:33 remaining before halftime. OSU operated smartly to that point, mixing up runs and passes that kept Cal off balance.

At the same juncture, Cal’s run game was stalled on its way to a paltry 107 yards rushing on 43 carries. Modster again struggled, completing 12 of 27 passes for 151 yards. The  crowd and social media platforms reacted to offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin’s ambitious, but ineffective play calling.

That combination left the Bears trailing 14-3 at halftime, only after Greg Thomas’ 44-yard field goal with 26 seconds remaining capped a 13-play drive that could have yielded more.

Cal’s offensive line again operated without starting center Michael Saffell and OSU pounced in his absence, producing season bests in sacks (9) and tackles for a loss (14).

“Some of that is protection,” Wilcox said of the sacks. “Some of that is getting rid of the football at the quarterback position. We have a lot of work to do there.”

Linebacker Evan Weaver, the nation’s leading tackler, came up with 21 tackles in the game, but Wilcox noted there were plays that Weaver failed to make. A 3rd-and-10 play for the Beavers during their game-winning drive turned into a 20-yard run for Artavis Pierce was especially vivid for Wilcox.

“We were in Bear defense, every gap is covered, I know exactly which one you’re talking about,” Wilcox said. “We had a chance to make the tackle and didn’t make it.”

“We had a couple of those. There was a second-and-five right before that where we had the guy in the backfield for minus three or four, so it was going to be 3rd-and-8, and we missed that tackle.”

The Bears lost a third straight after their 4-0 start gave them a Top 25 ranking. Up next are the Pac-12 South-leading Utah Utes, who have won their last two games, while allowing just 10 points. On Saturday, the No. 13 Utes knocked out Arizona State, 21-3.

 

 

 

Cal fades late in classic defensive struggle with No. 13 Oregon, lose 17-7

By Morris Phillips

Cal’s heralded defense knew it had to be good Saturday night. Oregon’s defense quietly thought it could be that much better.

In a meeting of Pac-12 contenders, the Bears shut out quarterback Justin Herbert and the Ducks for nearly three quarters. But Oregon was even stingier, limiting Cal to 12 first downs and a touchdown in the first quarter.

Lifted by their defense, the Ducks came from behind in a 17-7 win that was hard earned as they come.

“These guys hold themselves to a high standard,” said Oregon coach Mario Cristobal of his defensive unit. “They’ve really established that amongst themselves in the locker room, through the way we walk, and the way we practice. All of us feel that we continue to elevate the status of our defense, and it’s exciting to watch.”

Devon Modster started fast in place of the injured Chase Garbers and was significantly better than his relief appearance against  Arizona State. But after the early scoring pass to Christopher Brown Jr., the Ducks pass rush quickened, and they methodically erased Cal’s receivers. The Bears were hurt significantly by the in-game injury to experienced center Michael Saffell that caused the line to shuffle.

“I thought (Modster) handled himself really well,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “There were a couple of throws in there that he can make that we didn’t quite connect on, but I thought he was calm and his demeanor was good. I think he’s going to keep improving the more he plays.”

The Bears were hurt by two missed field goals by senior Greg Thomas, the second with fewer than four minutes remaining and Cal trailing by 10. But defensively, the Bears were as good as advertised, shutting out the Ducks in the first half, which hadn’t happened to the home team at Autzen Stadium since 2004.

Ashtyn Davis had a critical, red zone interception in the first half, Kuony Deng and Luc Bequette piled up the tackles as the Ducks attempted to move star linebacker Evan Weaver away from the path of the plays they ran. Camryn Bynum was outstanding in pass coverage for the Bears as well. But once, the Ducks got their big breakthrough with Cyrus Habibi-Likio’s short touchdown run to give Oregon their first lead, 10-7 with 1:38 remaining in the third quarter.