After Oregon State parted ways with head coach Gary Andersen on Oct. 9, the Beavers began to show improvement from their dismal 1-5 start in the form of two very close, competitive losses against Colorado and Stanford. Coming into Memorial Stadium on Saturday, they were looking to win their second-straight contest against Cal, riding the wave from interim head coach Cory Hall. But instead, the Bears put on a solid offensive performance and a decent show on defense to take a 37-23 victory and remind the Beavers just why they are winless in Pac-12 play.
Career highs in rushing attempts and yards, with 33 and 214, respectively, from running back Patrick Laird and 259 passing yards on an 80 percent completion rate from quarterback Ross Bowers led the Bears to their fifth win of the season, leaving them one win from bowl eligibility with two games remaining. The effectiveness of the offense was further exemplified by Cal not punting for only the sixth time in program history.
“Kudos to the guys on offense,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “I think going through a game without punting is pretty impressive.”
The first half appeared to start somewhat shakily for the Bears’ defense, giving up a touchdown on the opening 75-yard drive. Not only did the run defense appear to have serious holes — as it has shown all season ─ giving up 44 yards on the ground, but the Cal’s secondary was also called into question. A trick pass from tight end Tuli Wily-Matagi to running back Ryan Nall for a 26-yard touchdown put the Beavers up 7-0 early.
But the Beavers’ defense on Cal’s opening drive made the Bears’ defense look brilliant in comparison. Laird started the drive with a 16-yard gain, Bowers found Vic Wharton III and Kanawai Noa for consecutive completions, and two personal fouls on the OSU defense quickly had the Bears in the red zone. Laird weaved his way into the end zone on a sweep from 12 yards out to tie the game.
The Cal defense then improved significantly from its performance on the opening drive, forcing a three-and-out followed by another drive that ended in a punt with one first-down conversion and a total of 11 yards.
Both of these dominant defensive sequences were followed by Cal scoring drives. The first of the two was a continuation of the Laird show, as the Bears’ running back tallied another 36 yards, putting his first-quarter total at 77 yards on 11 carries. Bowers found Wharton for a beautiful 14-yard corner fade for Cal’s second touchdown of the game.
The second drive was slightly less successful, ending in a 45-yard Matt Anderson field goal ─ which put him atop Cal’s all-time scoring list ─ but Laird still managed to pull out two 20-yard gains on the ground, crossing the 100-yard mark for the third time this season. The return of left tackle Patrick Mekari really seemed to make a noticeable difference for the ground game.
“The (offensive line) made it easy on us. I thought our (offensive line) was giving us the freedom to do whatever we wanted to do,” Bowers said. “I had the best seat in the house.”
The Beavers then took over as the better team for a few drives, knocking in two field goals of their own and stopping Cal for a turnover on downs in between.
But Cal and Bowers had the last laugh of the half. After two great deep passes from Bowers and with six seconds left at the OSU 43, Cal elected to save its timeout, spike the ball and go for one more play to shorten a would-be 60-yard field goal. Bowers found Jordan Duncan for 11, Cal used its final timeout and a 49-yard Anderson field goal put Cal up 20-13 at half, capping a 53-yard, 31-second drive.
Cal’s opening series of the second half looked as fruitful as most of their first-half drives, with Laird having his way, but a Laird fumble kept Cal from extending their lead. After the defense forced a quick three-and-out, the ensuing drive featured questionable offensive line play, and Bowers couldn’t get much going. The Bears settled for another Anderson field goal — this time, from 31 yards.
But just as Cal could have put a clamp on the game heading into the fourth quarter, the defense returned to the form it showed on the opening drive. OSU quarterback Darell Garretson hit Trevon Bradford for a gain of 33 up the middle, and a roughing-the-passer penalty put the Beavers into the red zone. Thomas Tyner ran it in to bring OSU within a 23-20 deficit with 2:09 left in the third quarter.
The Cal offense promptly responded, with Laird gaining 21 more yards and Bowers finding an open Jordan Veasy in the end zone from 25 yards out to put Cal back up by 10 before the end of the quarter.
The defense then forced another Beaver three-and-out, and Vic Enwere plowed his way into the end zone on the next drive to essentially put the game out of reach at 37-20.
OSU added a late field goal, but it made little difference, as a Cal drive took up the final six minutes to seal the game.
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].