For the second year in a row, Cal found itself down to an FCS opponent at the end of the first quarter Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Last season, the Bears entered their second game of the year expecting to earn an easy win against Southern Utah but fought through penalties and fumbles to earn a 50-31 victory.
On Saturday, it wasn’t the offense that proved to be Cal’s Achilles’ heel but rather its defense. In the second game of 2013, defensive coordinator’s Andy Buh’s troops struggled to make stops and repeatedly blew pass coverage against Portland State (1-1).
The result: an incredibly porous defense that delivered a narrow and sloppy 37-30 win for the Bears (1-1).
“I’m not saying we’re not ready for an FCS team, but they surprised us,” said quarterback Jared Goff.
The opening drive was a bad omen for the Bears. On the Vikings’ second play of the day, quarterback Kieran McDonagh connected with receiver Kasey Closs for an 81-yard touchdown, 45 seconds into the game.
“That jarred us for sure,” said head coach Sonny Dykes.
But Cal responded quickly, with true freshman running back Khalfani Muhammad rushing in his first career touchdown two-and-a-half minutes later to even the score at 7.
Yet Portland State exacerbated Cal’s defensive woes on its second drive.
The Vikings’ drive opened with a lucky break for Cal. Although running back DJ Adams took a handoff all the way to the end zone, the team was penalized for too many men in the backfield, and the ball was slugged back to the Vikings’ 20.
Instead of capitalizing, Cal blew pass coverage and allowed McDonagh to connect with Closs on two consecutive plays for a total of 48 yards. From there, McDonagh handed off twice to running back Shaquille Richard, who brought the ball to Cal’s 12-yard line. Adams practically walked it in on the next play to put the Vikings up, 14-7.
“It just seemed like we sleep-walked through the first half,” Dykes said.
According to Buh, the defense’s problem lay in the fact that Portland State’s trigger-happy pistol offense ran a formation entirely different from what the Bears had prepared for all week.
“It took us a good two or three series to get it ironed out and the adjustments made,” he said.
The second quarter brought with it another swift Portland State touchdown off a 25-yard run by Adams that stretched the Vikings’ lead to 20-10.
But five minutes into the second quarter, Villiami Moala forced a Richard fumble that weakside linebacker Khairi Fortt dived on at Cal’s 49-yard line.
Immediately after, Goff launched a 50-yard pass to sophomore receiver Bryce Treggs at the 1-yard line. After a Goff keeper, Cal cut the Vikings’ edge to 20-17.
The first time Cal took the lead, with 5:45 left in the first half, the team was aided primarily by two defensive penalties. Off an acrobatic one-handed catch by Maurice Harris in the end zone, the Bears took a 24-20 lead late in the second quarter.
“Maurice makes catches like that all the time in practice,” Dykes said. “It’s good to see him do it in a ballgame.”
The flash of brilliance couldn’t make up for the fact that Portland State destroyed Cal’s defense for 434 total offensive yards in the first half, with 176 rushing yards and 258 passing yards.
After a pep talk in the locker room that involved “a bunch of four-letter words,” according to Dykes, the team seemed to finally settle into the game in the second half.
Much needed defensive adjustments arrived in the third quarter and kept Portland State honest: The Vikings were able to put up only 119 yards of offense in the third and fourth.
“As soon as we got the adjustments down to the players, we started to calm everything down a little bit,” Buh said. “I think if we could have got them the adjustments earlier, they would have been fine.”
Yet the game continued to slog through the second half, with both teams trading the lead throughout the third quarter.
At 8:14 in the third, Goff connected with Richard Rodgers on a 75-yard play to push Cal forward, 34-30. D’Amato came in a few minutes later to knock back a final field goal and give the Bears the 37-30 edge.
The field goal was the last score of the day, as both teams went dark in the fourth quarter.
“We were fortunate to win, let me say that,” Dykes said. “They outplayed us, outcoached us, and we were very, very fortunate to win that football game.”
Annie Gerlach covers football. Contact her at [email protected]