When Patrick Laird scores a touchdown, or makes a big play, he does a book-reading celebration. Maybe it’s a testament to how hard he studies, how much he loves novels, or how well he knows the playbook. Who knows. What is for certain is Cal does not pull out Saturday’s 33-20 win over Weber State without their burgeoning bookworm star. Finishing with 198 total yards on only 12 carries and one catch, 3 touchdowns and an onside kick recovery, Laird was undoubtedly the player of a game that was much too close for comfort.
“We didn’t play well today,” said head coach Justin Wilcox. “And we were fortunate to get a win.”
Things began for the Bears as they were expected to. After taking the opening kickoff, the Bears quickly called a double end-around to wide receiver Demetris Robertson, who ran untouched 34 yards to open the scoring with the first rushing touchdown of his career. After struggling all last week to get their star wideout the ball, feeding Robertson behind the line of scrimmage worked well. Cal went up 7-0, just two and a half minutes into the game.
Cal’s up-and-down defensive day would begin well on the following Weber State possession, forcing and recovering a fumble at the 32 yard line. But the Bears couldn’t cash in on the short field, largely because Bowers was missing his spots and seeing ghosts in the pocket. On more than a few plays, he ran straight out of a well-formed pocket into pressure. Rookie mistakes prove costly, even against an FCS opponent.
Following the Bears’ punt, Weber State began a steady diet of quarterback keepers with their dynamic signal caller, Stefan Cantwell. After a couple runs, Cantwell ripped the Bear defense, specifically Darren Brown, for a beautiful 52-yard dime up the right seam to Daryl Denby. The Bears would hold, though, and force a field goal. 7-3. After another quick Bears possession, Cantwell had two long runs, then ran a play action that got the Bears to bite, and zipped a 47-yard completion past Marloshawn Franklin Jr. to the 9. From there, Cantwell punched it in for a touchdown himself, and the Bears found themselves down at home, 10-7.
And yet again, the Bear offense could not answer. No real change in gameplan was made to open the field for Bowers, who continued to face heavy pressure despite mainly looking short. They got one first down, and were forced to punt.
“I can really make this offense go,” said Bowers. “But I feel I wasn’t doing enough in crucial moments and on third down.”
Starting at 26 yard line, the Cal defense had two consecutive heavy pressures on Cantwell to force bad throws. They made a hard stop on a run, and sacked Cantwell into a fumble. Devante Downs, reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week, recovered. The Bears would cash on a field goal to equalize, 10-10.
But Weber continued to feast deep. A 20-yard connection down the left sideline got them near midfield. When the Bears finally did muster a stop, Weber pinned them deep on the punt, to the 2 yard line. From here, Bowers faced the most difficult position of his young career. After a few short plays, Patrick Laird broke free for a 54-yard rushing touchdown to put his team up, 17-10.
But the Wildcats would answer quickly. A rainbow from Cantwell to Rashid Shaheed led to a 55-yard strike, and the game was evened again, 17-17.
A blindside sack-fumble derailed what was looking like a promising Cal possession that had trekked into the redzone. Weber State crossed midfield and, with 1 second remaining in the first half, kicked a field goal as time expired. The Bears would head to halftime down, 20-17.
To open the second half, Weber continued to shove it down Cal’s throat. The Bears would have to stop the run if it wished to leave Memorial Stadium victorious, and it took them three first downs to do it. A missed throw by Cantwell on 3rd-and-10 would get the ball back to the Bears, at their own 7.
Bowers connected with Robertson on a 33-yard slant to begin a possession that would span the third and fourth quarter, but an unforced fumble wasted a play, and soon enough the Bears were kicking a field goal to tie a game they they were favored to win by at least 24 points in the fourth quarter.
The defense finally made a timely play. After stopping the QB keeper twice, a forced fumble at midfield was recovered by Luke Rubenzer. Patrick Laird took the very next play 20 yards, before breaking another 15-yarder, before scampering in for the go-ahead touchdown. Up 27-20, the defense would need to continue to hold for almost 10 minutes.
But the Bears continued to bend. A 23-yard throw from Cantwell to his tight end set up a few successful runs, and on a 4th-and-10, Cantwell ran and dove across the first-down marker as the game clock ran below 5 minutes. Another first got the Wildcats inside the Cal 15, but a newfound blitzing gameplan forced Cantwell to overthrow a potential game-tying touchdown by less than a foot on 4th down. Cal would run the remaining three minutes out, thanks largely to a dagger 73-yard sprint from Laird, and finish with a win, albeit one that was dangerously close to a loss.
“You never minimize winning because it is hard, but you find a way to win when things aren’t going according to plan,” said Wilcox. “Because things never go according to plan.”
“We’re excited for Monday,” laughed Bowers.
Despite the more nervous than expected outcome, the Bears’ halftime adjustments that held Weber State to 0 second-half points won them this game. It’s a testament to Wilcox, but looking forward, he and his team need to be more proactive than reactive—for the SEC soon rides on the horizon.