Facing a conversion in double overtime, Justin Wilcox played to win. Cal’s head coach sent out his offense to win the game on the spot, going for 2 points before it needed to. The aggressive move got his team in the right spot, but a pass breakup ended Cal’s comeback dreams. The Bears lost to Arizona in Berkeley, 45-44.
“I felt like it was the best chance for us to win the game,” said Wilcox. “You live with it. You play to win the game.”
Cal looked to slow the high-octane Wildcat offense Saturday by grinding out long drives and keeping the ball out of Arizona’s hands. While the Bears succeeded in that, using at least 11 plays on each of their first four touchdown drives, the defense couldn’t hold enough throughout the game, and the offense couldn’t finish the game when it had the shot.
After the defense forced a Wildcat a 3-and-out to open the game, quarterback Ross Bowers and his offense went to work. Bowers ripped apart Arizona’s defense, throwing for 52 yards on the Bears’ first drive. He hit Vic Wharton III twice and finished the drive with a well-run “Statue of Liberty” fake-throw handoff to Patrick Laird. The running back scampered into the end zone for the game’s first score, putting Cal up 7-0.
The Wildcats would not be held down for long, though. Nice gains through the air and on the ground kept the Bear defense on its heels, thanks in no small part to the double threat ability of quarterback Khalil Tate. And a handoff in the shotgun to J.J. Taylor broke the defense and equalized the score — Arizona tied it, 7-7, after the 30-yard charge to paydirt.
The Bears couldn’t get anything going the following drive because of penalties and pressure allowed on the quarterback, and the Wildcats quickly made them pay. Tate took the second play of Arizona’s next drive 76 yards to the house untouched, and Arizona all of a sudden led 14-7.
After a couple of questionable throws, Bowers was intercepted for the first time in four games and 116 consecutive passes. Arizona couldn’t get an attack going in part because of its second targeting penalty of the first quarter. Cal couldn’t mount a response, though, and soon enough, Tate had the ball back.
A penalty got the Wildcats near midfield, and a triple option end-around turned into a 21-yard gain. Keeping the quick pace, running back Zach Green scored from 13 yards out to keep pouring it on. The Cats led 21-7 with 11:20 in the half.
Cal slowed the game down from there, taking a more methodical approach to offense. The method worked well, and soon enough — and thanks to another Arizona penalty — the Bears were in the red zone, and the prospects of a comeback were looking promising. Bowers threw into double coverage over the middle of the end zone and was intercepted. Wildcat ball.
Cal’s continued inability to contain the run caused the deficit to widen. Arizona didn’t pass on its next drive until it was on Cal’s 26, generating three first downs along the way. The Wildcats missed a field goal as the first half ended, but they kept a two-score lead.
Leaning heavily on Laird in the running game and Kanawai Noa in the passing game, Cal ran a 13-play, 79-yard, 6-minute drive to start the second half that ended with a touchdown pass from Bowers to Malik McMorris. The team still trailed, 21-14.
The Wildcats would not let up, and the Bears still couldn’t get a stop amid the lightning-fast pace of Arizona. After a couple of first downs, wide receiver Shun Brown took the top off the Cal defense, and Tate found him on a beautiful 56-yard touchdown pass. The Bears were moving, but the Wildcats were moving faster, and the patchy Cal defense just couldn’t keep up.
A methodical drive and yet another passive interference call gave Cal the ball in the red zone. Bowers ran it in from 4 yards out, and the Bears pulled within a touchdown once more.
Now, with the third quarter winding down, the defense would have to get a stop eventually. On a third and 13 at midfield, Cal swatted away a developing screen. They got it.
A dropped interception and a personal foul left the Bears on their opponent’s 38-yard line, and two nice runs from Patrick Laird got them into the end zone to tie the game at 28. The Wildcat defense showed no composure.
“I think in the first half they didn’t stop us necessarily, we stopped ourselves. We talked about that at halftime, we kind of rallied around that idea,” said Laird. “Let’s put together the drives we’ve been putting together, but at the end of a drive, let’s finish. We were able to do that in the second half, but we didn’t do it enough.”
After forcing heavy pressure on Tate, the Cal defense sold out on a huge blitz on third down. Tate made the Bears pay, launching a 25-yard pass down the left sideline for the conversion to the Cal 27. The Cal defense got another stop three plays later. The Wildcat field goal was true, and they took a 31-28 lead with five minutes to go.
The Bear offense went right back to its workhorse. Laird got the first three carries of the possession and made a nice backfield block for Bowers on the fourth. On a third down from the 35, Bowers’ pass was knocked away. Matt Anderson came out for the 52-yard kick to tie it at 31 and nailed his career-long kick. All knotted up once again with less than two minutes to go.
The defense got the stop they needed — an interception at the 1-yard line by dual-sport athlete Ashton Davis that he ran back to the Cal 32. Cal couldn’t get in field goal range in regulation, so to overtime they went. The shootout in Berkeley would end accordingly.
On the first possession, a sack would get Cal in a tough third down, but Bowers found Noa on a crossing route to get Cal up a touchdown.
The pressure was again put on the Bear defense. And the very first run up the middle torched them, as Green sprinted 25 yards to tie the game again. On the subsequent drive, the Bears held a bit better, allowing the Wildcats to score on the second play of the drive. Tate avoided pressure and found his tight end Bryce Wolma for the go-ahead touchdown.
The Bear offense went back to work, and after Bowers missed deep to Noa, Laird ran it inside the 10. Wharton nearly scored on a slant, but on third down, the Bears couldn’t punch it in. Finally, on fourth down on the 1-yard line, with the game hanging in the balance, Vic Enwere found his way into the end zone. But the Bears were looking to end it. On the 2-point attempt, Bowers’ pass was broken up, and the Wildcats escaped Berkeley with a win.
“It’s unfortunate, but they made more plays than we did,” said Bowers. “On that play, it sort of showed what the whole game was like.”