SAN FRANCISCO — A Cal quarterback throws an interception on the second play of the game.
New quarterback. New season. Same old story?
At least that’s what it seemed like when Zach Maynard missed Marvin Jones on a short pass and was picked off by Fresno State’s L.J. Jones at the 11-yard line, not 20 seconds into the Cal football team’s season opener on Saturday.
But Maynard bounced back from his snafu to manage an efficient game and the Bears’ defense shut down the Bulldogs’ offense, as Cal cruised to a 36-21 victory over Fresno State at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
“Obviously, there was a lot of rush; pregame jitters or whatever,” head coach Jeff Tedford said. “Falling down 7-0 — nobody blamed each other.”
After the interception, Bulldogs running back Robbie Rouse reached the end zone on two carries. When the Bears got the ball back, Maynard still looked shaky. The junior’s second pass attempt of the season was way behind his intended receiver. On his third pass, though, he hit his half-brother Keenan Allen for 23 yards.
Allen said, “It was like being in the backyard,” while Maynard attributed their chemistry to an “instant connection from birth.”
Maynard looked relatively comfortable from there on out. The Greensboro, N.C., native guided Cal to a touchdown on that drive, and the two after that. In all, he passed for 266 yards and two touchdowns and was 16-for-35 passing. He also ran for 53 yards.
“I was like, ‘man, here we go. This is real life,’” Maynard said of his interception. “I rushed the pass a little bit. As the game progressed, I felt a lot better … I really didn’t think about it. I just shook it off.”
It helped having an array of weapons at his disposal.
After scoring only one touchdown on the ground in his first two seasons at Cal, running back Isi Sofele rushed for two scores — in the first quarter. He gained 88 yards on 24 carries in his first career start, utilizing his speed to get to the outside on pitch play. He also had some success running up the middle, the highlight being his second touchdown, when he burst up the middle for 39 yards, the longest run of his career.
Maynard was certainly not perfect after his interception, with several passes that were thrown long.
“Early in the game he was playing a little fast, but as the game progressed he calmed down,” Tedford said. “Overall he played OK.”
The transfer from Buffalo rated himself “four and a half, five out of 10.” Had he rated his receivers, their score certainly would have been higher.
Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones combined for 230 yards receiving — 112 and 118, respectively — marking the first time Cal had two receivers with more than 100 yards receiving since Lavelle Hawkins and DeSean Jackson accomplished the feat in 2006.
Jones caught a career-high tying two touchdown passes, including an impressive 23-yarder he hauled in on the Bears’ first drive of the third quarter. On third and nine, Maynard found Jones on the right side, and the senior wideout spun around his defender to reach the end zone.
“I had a short comeback and the leverage of the cornerback, he was playing with inside leverage, so I kind of faked him inside and I came back,” Jones said. “It was a low ball, and I knew he was gonna be at my back hip, so I avoided him.
“I knew there was going to be inside pressure coming, so I kind of spun and, you know, made that play.”
All eyes were on Maynard, but the Cal defense did not disappoint. The unit gave up just 210 yards and did not give up a touchdown — discounting Rouse’s score following Maynard’s interception — until three and a half minutes left in the game. By then, the Bears’ defense had already scored a touchdown of its own.
With 4:21 remaining in the third quarter, linebacker Cecil Whiteside slapped the ball out of Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr’s hand, and lineman Trevor Guyton picked it up and took it into the end zone.
“Basically, I was just doing my job,” Guyton said of his first-ever touchdown. “And good things happen when you do your job.”
Despite the 15-point margin, the team was not satisfied. Sofele fumbled in the end zone, resulting in the Bulldogs’ second score. Kicker Giorgio Tavecchio missed two extra points. Cal also had 11 penalties for 86 yards which, combined with the two turnovers, turned what could have been a blowout into a relatively close game.
“I wish we would have played a little better so we could have gotten some more guys on the field at the end there,” Tedford said. “There is a lot of room for improvement, but all in all we are 1-0.”