Isi Sofele took a handoff from the Cal 31-yard line with three and a half minutes remaining in the second quarter.
A score would have given the Bears a halftime advantage and placed them in prime position to secure their first conference victory.
But Sofele fumbled the ball, and the Cal football team effectively fumbled away the rest of its season as the Sun Devils converted the turnover into a touchdown just before the halftime whistle.
Costly turnovers and excessive penalties killed the Bears (1-4) on Saturday afternoon in a 27-17 loss to Arizona State in the first conference home game of the season.
The loss brought Cal’s conference record to 0-2, virtually eliminating any chance of a bowl berth.
“We couldn’t get in a rhythm today,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “We got beat by a more physical team.”
As in last week’s loss to USC, the offensive line failed to provide sufficient protection for quarterback Zach Maynard on Saturday. Maynard was sacked six times and faced relentless pressure from the Sun Devils’ defensive line.
Maynard finished 9 for 28 for 124 yards, attempting to force throws between two defenders on multiple occasions and airmailing wide-open receivers in crucial situations.
“We have to get him more time to throw the football,” Tedford said. “He didn’t play his best game today, but getting stuck in third-and-long isn’t the best situation to be in.”
Arizona State’s offense utilized its balanced attack to execute methodical drives. Rather than predicating their offense on big plays, the Sun Devils put themselves in manageable third-down situations and converted those efficiently.
Arizona State struck first with a one-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Taylor Kelly midway through the first quarter. Kelly kept the drive alive with athletic scrambles and opportunistic conversions, culminating in a play-action fade.
The Bears responded with 13 minutes remaining in the second quarter on a 24-yard touchdown scamper from Sofele. Maynard hit wide receiver Keenan Allen on a 44-yard slant to set up the score and tie the game.
The momentum shifted dramatically toward the Sun Devils late in the second quarter. Down 10-7 with three and a half minutes remaining until halftime, Cal started its drive at its own 20 yard line. An 11-yard Sofele run brought the Bears to the 31 yard line, but on the next play Sofele fumbled and ASU recovered in Cal territory.
Kelly completed a couple of short passes to bring the Sun Devils into the red zone. He then found wideout Kevin Ozier over the middle on a nine-yard underneath route for a touchdown, giving Arizona State a 17-7 edge before half.
The Sun Devils defensive line continued its harassment of Maynard into the third quarter. On Cal’s first two drives of the period, sacks either brought up long third-down attempts or outright ended drives.
A nine play, 51 yard drive set Arizona State up for a 33-yard field goal with 4:35 remaining in the third quarter.
The Bears responded immediately with a drive of their own. Shifty runs by Sofele and running back C.J. Anderson and a pass interference call brought Cal to the Arizona State 36. Maynard hit tight end Richard Rodgers for a 12-yard completion, and Cal appeared to be turning the tide.
But the offense sputtered from there. Maynard made the mistake of kneeling on what he believed to be a neutral zone infraction, bringing up a 2nd and long frakas. He then tossed two erratic passes, forcing kicker Vince D’Amato to convert a 35-yard field goal to bring the Bears within 10.
A blocked field goal by Nick Forbes halted another scoring attempt and pumped up the previously lethargic Memorial Stadium crowd.
Cal took over at the Sun Devils 20 with just over 11 minutes remaining in the game. A 44-yard romp by Anderson down the sideline brought the Bears into the red zone, where Maynard found his brother Allen on a corner fade for his only touchdown pass of the game to bring the score to 20-17.
But Arizona State squashed the comeback on the subsequent drive. Kelly completed a 22-yard pass on 2nd and 11 to bring the Sun Devils into the Bears’ territory. Three plays later, Kelly found Ozier again for a 22-yard touchdown. The score put ASU up 10 with just over six minutes remaining, effectively placing the game out of reach.
“What do you expect me to reassess and hope for?” Tedford said. “We just got to get better.
“I don’t know about reassessing. I don’t know what that means.”