CHAPEL HILL, NC — Cal football flew out East to open the season as a double-digit underdog. There were unforced errors and moments that seemed to justify Cal’s predicted finish towards the bottom of the Pac-12. But in the end, all that mattered is that Ross Bowers — named the starting quarterback not even a week ago — made plays that most can’t dream of in their first collegiate start, and a resilient defensive effort gave the Bears a 35-30 win and an astonishing 1-0 mark to start the season. The Justin Wilcox era is off to one hell of a start.
“When you look at the big picture of the game, it was the battling back,” Wilcox said. “(We) constantly showed up in different ways, shapes, and forms. I’m so proud of our sideline because never at one point in the game did the offense or the defense or a player or a coach stand up or look the other way looking for someone to blame. They just battled the whole way.”
The first couple drives of the game had the look of an offensive shootout, but without the scoring — both teams were running turbo offenses, but neither could get started. Only six minutes into the game, there had already been four punts.
It was clear coming in that if Cal’s defense was going to rebound, it would have to be led by James Looney and Cameron Saffle up front. The first drive seemed to indicate they knew that as well. Both made excellent run stops, and Looney followed that up with a sack on the second drive.
Leaning on senior running back Tre Watson turned things around for the Bears midway through the first quarter, as a 21-yard reception and 12-yard rush started them off on the right note. A fade to Jordan Veasy finished off the drive and gave Cal a 7-0 lead.
That score seemed to awaken something in the Tar Heels. Without a quarterback able to spread the field by throwing the ball over, they went to outside runs on quarterback keepers, counter handoffs and options. The plan got results right away — a 45-yard gain from freshman running back Michael Carter put UNC in the red zone, and a score followed.
That outside strategy continued to work throughout the first half, as the Bears looked more and more out of position on defense. The Tar Heels could hardly complete a pass, but they didn’t need to.
After taking a brutal hit to the head that got a Tar Heel ejected, Bowers stepped up in the pocket to hit Vic Wharton III for a 67-yard touchdown. But by the half, UNC seemed to have made the adjustments necessary to take over the game, leading 17-14.
Bowers had been quiet through the start of the second half, but once again, under duress, he made a huge play to give Cal a 21-17 lead. With a defender coming straight at him, he spun to avoid the pressure, scrambled left and found a wide-open Patrick Laird on a wheel route. Laird took it in 54 yards for the score, breaking three tackles along the way.
An interception by Derron Brown put Cal 27 yards away from another score, but Bowers threw his second interception of the game, again forcing the issue with a throw on the run. The return would have been a pick-six but for a chase-down tackle from Demetris Robertson, but it was for naught. The Tar Heels took the lead back with a touchdown, in what seemed to be an incredibly costly swing for the Bears.
“Just didn’t go through my progressions the way I’ve been taught,” Bowers said. “Should have went to my second read on that…luckily our defense held at other points of the game and allowed us to come back from my mistakes.”
But two gutsy fourth-down conversions continued a drive that ended with Bowers making his best throw of the day, a deep strike to Jordan Duncan that once again gave the Bears the advantage in what was turning out to be a see-saw game.
UNC marched down the field but were stopped on a fourth and three. The Bears took over, and Bowers made an excellent throw on a third down to the sideline to find Wharton yet again, giving him the first 100-yard game of his career. Another huge gain by Wharton put Cal at the 4-yard line, and a touchdown run from Vic Enwere put the game on ice, with the Bears up 35-24 with less than two minutes left.
Before the game, being told that Robertson, a 2016 freshman All-American, wouldn’t even break 20 receiving yards would tell you that the Bears had some sort of offensive meltdown. But Bowers’s connection with Wharton was more than able to make up for that, and the two showed chemistry liked they’d been playing for years.
Senior linebacker Devante Downs ended up as Cal’s most impressive defender on the day by far. He finished the first half with 10 tackles, a forced fumble, and read quarterback Brandon Harris’s eyes perfectly to record an interception that stopped the Tar Heels from scoring to end the first half. As some in the Cal front seven struggled to find the right balance of aggression and patience, he looked exceptionally calm and in control throughout the game.
“We were playing with a lot of confidence, swarming towards the ball, and you saw the results today,” Downs said.
It’s hard to get too much of a read on the offensive line because of how quickly Bowers was getting the ball out of his hands, but the early results looked positive. They weren’t bulldozing people in the running game, but they looked solid in pass protection, especially for a unit only returning one full-time starter from last year. Right tackle Jake Curhan, a redshirt freshman starter, certainly looked beyond his years.
Many thought this would simply be a rebuilding year, a building block in the long-term plans of Wilcox. But with this massive win, the Bears used their trip to Chapel Hill to declare they’re in it for this year as well.