SAN FRANCISCO — The Cal football team wasn’t perfect on Saturday night, but bowl berths are not priced for perfection. Six wins is all that’s asked, so with a 23-6 victory over Oregon State that was relentless if unspectacular, the Bears extended their schedule to 13 games.
Along the way, the team eschewed fireworks for bulldozers.
In the third quarter at AT&T Park, running back Isi Sofele took a pitch and scampered out to the left sideline. He saw space inside and cut back in, rolling into the end zone. A touchdown for a 14-point lead, a milestone as the program’s ninth 1,000-yard rusher in 10 years.
Sofele and C.J. Anderson combined for 37 touches and 286 yards. For the fourth consecutive game, the Cal offense leaned more run than pass.
“It just really developed (through the season),” head coach Jeff Tedford said of the shift from air to ground. “When you’re successful running the ball, it makes it easier to stay with it.”
Sometimes, the Beavers (2-8, 2-5 in the Pac-12) looked eager to lend a hand. In the second quarter, Cal (6-4, 3-4) was squandering a first-and-goal at Oregon State’s 4-yard line. A false start by left tackle Mitchell Schwartz, then another by left guard Brian Schwenke. The camera panned to offensive line coach Jim Michalczik. Quarterback Zach Maynard followed with two incompletions, and suddenly the Bears faced a more uncertain fourth-and-goal at the 9.
Cal went for it. Superstar wideout Keenan Allen took a short pass over the middle, but his legs betrayed him, and he stumbled to the ground untouched. Turnover on downs — until an OSU defender fell on Allen and was hit with a penalty for unnecessary roughness.
With a fresh set of downs, Maynard faked the option and walked into the end zone, giving Cal a 14-3 lead.
On its first drive of the fourth quarter, Oregon State was stationed with a first-and-goal at the Cal 2-yard line. The Bears’ defense did their part, stuffing consecutive runs to keep the Beavers out of the end zone. Then, on third down, quarterback Sean Mannion botched a handoff to running back Jovan Stevenson. Cal safety Sean Cattouse picked up the fumble.
The Oregon State offense crossed the 30-yard line six times; it ended the game with two field goals and no touchdowns.
“It’s a huge sense of urgency (in the red zone),” Cattouse said. “It’s a challenge. It’s something where, we like to step up and say, ‘OK, they’re not gonna score.’”
But Cal did not leave its opponents to flail alone, holding penalties erasing a long touchdown run by Sofele and a pair by C.J. Anderson.
“First one gets called back, you go, ‘OK, that happens sometimes,’” Anderson said. “Second one gets called back, you think, ‘Oh man, refs don’t like me.’”
A workmanlike performance by the offensive line — a group that, Tedford said, includes blocking by the fullback and tight ends — paved the way for the Bears’ ground game, but a season-high 15 penalties smeared the performance. The 130 yards Cal gave away, also a season-worst, outnumbered the 128 it gained through the air.
But again, the Bears did not need to be their most explosive selves; a mechanically effective pounding by their backfield was more than enough.
“They were tough,” Oregon State cornerback Jordan Poyer said. “On offense, they could do whatever they wanted, and it’s just frustrating.”
In Maynard’s last home game of the season, he reverted almost completely into a game manager. Maynard entered Saturday averaging 33 pass attempts per game. After the junior threw a pick to end his first series, the Bears went almost entirely to the ground.
While Sofele was grinding out yards at a blistering pace — 111 yards on 11 carries in the first half — Maynard scaled back and efficiently completed 13 of his 19 passes. He balanced 128 yards with a touchdown to senior receiver Michael Calvin; no one receiver had over 32 yards.
When the tailbacks got off the field, the Cal defense completely suffocated Oregon State, stuffing the Beavers’ run game to a measly five yards before the halftime show.
For the past four years, the Cal football team had found one way or another to lose to the always-overachieving Beavers. It was Kevin Riley running the clock out on first-and-10 at the 12 in 2007, or Jahvid Best landing on his neck to silence Memorial Stadium in 2009, or Riley’s career crumpling with his knee in 2010.
The streak finally ended, against an Oregon State team on pace for its worst season in over a decade. Tedford will not suffer a second consecutive losing record, at least not in the regular season. Even without another win, his team should end up in the Las Vegas Bowl or Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
“We’re not going to be picky,” Sofele said.