Staunch defense powers Cal football to 24-17 win over UNC

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Amanda Ramirez/Staff

Update 9/1/2018: This article has been updated to include quotes from Cal players and coaches.

Cal football didn’t survive a tough test from visiting UNC, 24-17, because of its offense; Cal uprooted UNC despite its offense.

Cal’s defense opened up its season with a lights-out first half, as the Bears held the Tar Heels dead silent until finally surrendering a 43-yard field goal with 4:39 to play in the third quarter.

“We’re trying to shut down; we don’t like getting scored on,” said safety Jaylinn Hawkins. 

But while the defense deployed great force, highlighted by four turnovers and more than a handful of explosive plays, the offense simply had many chances to put the game away. In the end, it took a huge break from a lengthy replay review and just enough offense to start the season 1-0.

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David Rodriguez/Senior Staff

“I really think this was a defensive win today,” said running back Patrick Laird. “I feel like the defense held steady the whole entire game. I love seeing that, especially because our offense has a lot of things that we have to do better.”

Laird and the offense were granted a luxury of leeway coming from a game of musical chairs at the quarterback position. After Ross Bowers got the nod to start the game, he was quickly replaced by Chase Garbers, then Garbers by Brandon McIlwain. Bowers appeared to be shaken up after his third drive of the day, when he was replaced by Garbers.

“We knew they were going to play going into the game,” said head coach Justin Wilcox about his three quarterbacks.

The three gunslingers were interchanged throughout the game, and despite the joy in the air over the first win of the season, there is lingering trepidation at the quarterback position. Cal’s offense is going to need to develop comfortability with one passer, as the musical chairs won’t stand once the Bears take the field against a real Pac-12 powerhouse.

The three quarterbacks combined for just 119 yards through the air. On the flip side, UNC quarterback Nathan Elliott didn’t have much luck either, finishing 15 of 35 with 137 yards and four interceptions.

With just under three minutes to play in the first quarter, Laird got the handoff — three yards later, the Bears’ first touchdown of the 2018 season was in the books. Not much of a surprise. Laird receiving the handoff from Garbers, however, was an unexpected occurrence.

Laird would continue to be fed the ball, as neither of Cal’s three quarterbacks appeared poised to command a pass-heavy offense. Laird recorded two of his team’s three touchdowns — one through the air and one on the ground — and finished with 95 yards on the ground.

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David Rodriguez/Senior Staff

The Bears’ shutdown defense allowed their offense to have nearly double the Tar Heels’ time of possession, but all things considered, the offense didn’t make great use of its time on the field.

Cal’s inside linebackers consider themselves the “Tone Setters,” but cornerback Camryn Bynum undoubtedly set the tone of the day. Bynum locked down UNC’s star wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams on the Tar Heels’ opening drive with a huge pass breakup. The play sent the Tar Heels trotting off the field, and Bynum would continue to stunt Ratliff-Williams’ explosive potential throughout the game.

“I just knew I had to play my best because I don’t want to be out there getting torched up,” Bynum said.

Bynum is a key member of Cal’s secondary, which fittingly lived up to its self-proclaimed name, the “Takers,” and the safeties had themselves a day. Jaylinn Hawkins pulled in two interceptions — good for Nos. 2 and 3 of his career, and safety Ashtyn Davis pulled in the second of his career.

But the secondary wasn’t the only aspect of Cal’s defense showing up and showing out during the season opener. Outside linebacker Cameron Goode’s first notable play of the day was a textbook pass breakup on Elliott, and boy, was it pretty. But that wasn’t good enough for Goode, as a few plays later he signed, sealed and delivered a pick-six for the Bears.

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David Rodriguez/Senior Staff

Goode’s 38-yard interception was the second pick-six of his career and put Cal up 14-0 early in the second quarter. Goode continued his dominant play but left the game in the second half after suffering a lower-body injury.

The storyline for the Tar Heels’ play: chippy, right from the get-go. UNC made it very clear that it was out in Berkeley looking for revenge, perhaps fighting for its suspended players who could not touch the field. The Tar Heels tried their luck with some openly questionable mannerisms and physical play, but in the end there was no big payoff.

Heading into the second half, UNC trailed Cal 17-0, with just one first down in the opening 30 minutes.

But any good football fan knows a game isn’t over until it’s over.

With barely more than six minutes to play, UNC tacked on another touchdown to make the score 24-10, as Cal’s offense staggered through the final quarter of play with just 10 yards. Late in the fourth, the Tar Heels proved they would not be sent home without a fight. Ratliff-Williams, who was relatively quiet most of the game, came up with a huge touchdown catch from Elliott to make the score 24-17 with just 1:13 to play.

Suddenly, a lopsided game was hanging in the balance.

What could have changed the game entirely, had the call stood, was a UNC recovery on the ensuing onside kick. The call was ultimately reversed because of an illegal block in the back, and this gave Cal the break it needed to pass test No. 1 of the season.

Christie Aguilar covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @caguilarsports.