Cheez-It! More Like Can’t Believe It: Cal drops mistake-marred, 10-7 decision in overtime to TCU

By Morris Phillips

College football games aren’t normally this complicated.

But to introduce some historical perspective, college football bowl games have been known to get tricky, with the meeting of Horned Frogs and Bears at Chase Field in Phoenix on Wednesday clearly fitting that bill.

No football game should have more in-game storylines than points scored, but this one did, a 10-7 season-ending, overtime loss for the Cal Bears to TCU in which there were nine interceptions for the teams combined.

Three of the four quarterbacks to see action threw multiple picks (and looked bad in doing so), Cal’s Jaylinn Hawkins intercepted three balls, TCU used two place kickers to ultimately yield one made field goal, and Cal’s Steven Coutts punted nine times.

Also, Patrick Laird, the Bears’ indispensable running back carried the ball seven times then spent the remainder of the game on the sideline injured.

For starting TCU quarterback Grayson Muehlstein, who had four of his balls picked, missed on 13 of his 17 pass attempts and was briefly benched only to end the game as a decoy limited by injury, things couldn’t have deteriorated any faster. But Muhlstein was a winner when Jonathan Song connected on a 27-yard field goal in the first overtime to end it.

“Turned the ball over way too many times, but we managed to just hang in there and just keep fighting,” Muhlstein said afterwards.

The Bears played great defense as always led by prolific tacklers Evan Weaver and Jordan Kunaszyk, but simply made too many mistakes on offense. The Bears would finish with a meager 160 yards passing, but that came loaded down with 17 incompletions and five interceptions.  The fifth, thrown in overtime by seldom-used, fifth year senior Chase Forrest was returned 84 yards by TCU’s Juwaun Johnson, as big a play as possible in overtime without ending the game immediately.

“We just made too many mistakes during the game to win against a quality opponent like that,” said Cal coach Justin Wilcox.

And somehow, after Johnson’s mega-return didn’t end up as a game-winning touchdown thanks to 330-pound Jake Curhan running nearly 100 yards to push Johnson out of bounds, the Horned Frogs would need to run 10 more plays to set up Song’s game-winning field goal.

Ten plays. How’s that?

Well, first off nimble-footed TCU sports information director Mark Cohen stepped on to the field and promptly fell on his face, his sideline celebration 50 yards behind Johnson’s big return drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“Have you guys ever known that, in 150 years of football that the SID gets a penalty?” TCU coach Gary Patterson asked.

Eight plays later–all runs for five yards or less, except one (eight yard gain)–the Horned Frogs felt they had drawn close enough to attempt a game-winning field goal.

But an attempt by which kicker?

Song converted TCU’s extra-point after Sewo Olonilua’s one-yard touchdown run tied the game in the third quarter. But with TCU in position to kick a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation, and after a Cal timeout, Patterson pulled Song for backup Cole Bunce.

Bunce then missed a 44-yard attempt as time expired.

In overtime, and again after a Cal timeout. Patterson stuck with Song and he converted from 27 yards.

Olonilua was named the game’s MVP after he rushed for 194 yards including the game-tying touchdown from two yards that was initially ruled down at the one-yard line.

Chase Garbers led Cal to a first quarter score culminating with his four-yard run. But despite completing 12 of 19 passes, Garbers was benched at halftime after throwing three interceptions.

The Bears would go the final three quarters and overtime without scoring another point.

New Math in Berkeley: A pair of pick-sixes equals win No. 7 for the Bears, 33-21

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.

Cal overwhelmed by UCLA, 37-7, as bowl aspirations take a hit

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, Calif. — The Cal Bears needed their best performance against the UCLA Bruins at California Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. Instead, they came up with one of their worst.

The Bruins picked up their first win of the season–after an 0-5 start–throttling the Bears from start to finish, 37-7. Bruins running back Joshua Kelly ran for 157 yards and three touchdowns while Cal’s Brandon McIlwain continued his streak of crippling turnovers.

The Bears fell to 3-3 on the season and 0-3 in the Pac-12. With six games remaining, the Bears appear unlikely to achieve bowl eligibility with Washington, Stanford, USC and Washington State still remaining on their schedule.

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly picked up his first collegiate win since 2012 when he left Oregon to coach in the NFL. Ironically, Kelley had won just two of the previous 22 games he had coached after going 2-14 in his one and only year with the 49ers.

And the always stoic Kelly’s response to getting back into the win column?

“Any win is good. 1-0 on Saturday night, that’s what we’re rooting for,” Kelly said in an interview with Pac-12 Network’s Jill Savage.

Cal was beaten in the trenches on both sides of the ball as UCLA took a decidely physical approach on offense, running the ball on 55 of their 70 offensive snaps. That approach took the pressure off freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who had started all five games for UCLA but completed just half of his pass attempts and only three touchdowns in his first four starts. Against Cal’s confounding roster of defensive alignments, the Bruins stayed physical and impervious to the Bears’ maneuverings.

“Guys are coming up trying to make a play and we didn’t make them,” coach Justin Wilcox said. “We have to finish better. It’s not a lack of want to but it goes back to accountability and performance. No phase of our team played well enough to win tonight.”

Cal linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk had 22 tackles in the ballgame, the most by a Cal defender since Jerrott Willard recorded 22 in October 1993, but the feat was merely indicative of how the Cal defense couldn’t get off the field, and how poor their defensive line play was against Kelly and the sizeable UCLA offensive line.

Kelly ran for 106 yards in the first half alone as UCLA took a 13-0 lead that could have been worse had a couple of Bruins’ drives not stalled out deep in Cal territory. When Cal sliced the lead to 13-7 midway through the third, the Bears self-destructed with a targeting penalty and unsportsmanlike behavior penalty that allowed UCLA to answer back.

In the fourth quarter, McIlwain’s run of turnovers continued as he was stripped while scrambling which resulted in a 38-yard scoop and score for Kesian Lucier-South.

Cal’s next opponent will be Oregon State. That game has been scheduled for Saturday, October 20 at 1:00 pm PT on PACN.

Bears suffer a stampede of offense in lopsided loss at Colorado

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Handlers guide team mascot Ralphie on to the field as Colorado Buffaloes hosts California Golden Bears in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

By Morris Phillips

Everytime Colorado pushed, Cal failed to push back.

In falling to Colorado 44-28 on Saturday, the Golden Bears allowed 40+ points in regulation for the first time in nine games under new, defensive-minded coach Justin Wilcox. As Colorado broke numerous plays of at least 20 yards, the steel-jawed Wilcox could be seen seething along the California sideline.

“It’s very disappointing. We didn’t play well,” Wilcox conceded. “In the first  half, they threw the ball over our heads. We weren’t  winning one-on-one battles in the passing game, we were  missing tackles. You can’t do that and win. You can’t beat  anybody doing that.”

Buffaloes quarterback Steven Montez came up with a huge bounce back performance after being benched last week in Colorado’s 28-0 loss at Washington State that was played in gusty winds. Montez took over early, throwing two touchdown passes and running for a third score to lead Colorado to an early, second quarter, 21-7 lead.

As they did in their previous game against Arizona, the Bears responded offensively, but couldn’t stop the Buffaloes. Colorado produced scores on their final five drives of the first half to lead 27-14, as Montez put up the majority of the yardage in his 20 for 26, 353-yard passing performance.

“We couldn’t hit  the deep ball,” Montez said. “Then this week in practice, we really kind of  focused on it and we knew we need to get serious if we  want to be a legitimate force on offense. We need to be  able to throw the deep ball consistently. We were hitting  them in practice real well and it carried over to the game.”

Ross Bowers did his part to keep the Bears within range of the Buffaloes, throwing for 359 yards and two scores. But once Cal fell behind, Bowers was subjected to a heavy rush, leading to a 100-yard interception return by Colorado’s Nick Fisher that put the Buffaloes up 44-21 with 2:34 remaining.

The Bears had a pair of 100-yard receivers in Kanawai Noa and Jordan Veasy. The Cal running game never got untracked, but Patrick Laird led there with 52 yards on 13 carries.

Cal fell to 4-5 on the season and failed to win a conference road game for the 11th, consecutive game. In order to gain bowl eligibility, the Bears will have to beat Oregon State in their final home game next Saturday, and win at least one of their final two games at Stanford and at UCLA.

“We have to execute our game  plan better and this falls on us players,” Cal linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk said. “No matter what  coach calls, it is on us to execute the game plan. You can’t  give up big plays and expect to win games. We just have to  bounce back and continue working we will get there. We  have a good opponent next week, so 24-hour rule. It stings  and it hurts but we have to look past it and get ready for next week.”