Cal football falls short of first Pac-12 win as Wildcats claw Bears, 33-28

Michael Tao/Senior Staff

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With his arms thumping away at his chest, Viliami Moala raced off the field after stuffing Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey short of the goal line on fourth-and-goal. Walking away unscathed from an eight-play, 40-yard drive — one that featured four plays from inside the 10 — gave the hapless Bears something that had been missing all season: a realistic shot at their first Pac-12 win.

Tied at 7-7, Cal’s offense took the field, handing the ball off to running back Darren Ervin. But Ervin failed to gain any traction and was upended in the end zone for a safety, giving the Wildcats a lead that they would not relinquish the rest of the afternoon.

On Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the Cal football team (1-8, 0-6 Pac-12) fell short of picking up its first conference win of the season, losing to Arizona (6-2, 3-1), 33-28. Despite a much improved defensive effort — the best of the season — Cal’s offense failed to hold up its end of the bargain. Even with a stellar performance from a makeshift offensive line, quarterback Jared Goff struggled to find open receivers with the extra time in the pocket, averaging just 5.2 yards per attempt and tossing two costly second-half interceptions.

“The difference in the ballgame were the two turnovers and our inability to convert in short-yardage situations,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes. “We’ve got to get better at that and execute at a higher level offensively than we did this afternoon.”

Cal’s afternoon began with promise. In a little more than four minutes, the Bears drove 75 yards on 12 plays in the opening drive of the game. On first down and 10 from the 11-yard line, Goff located a wide-open Khalfani Muhammad in the right flat, who carried the ball into the end zone for an easy touchdown.

The lead didn’t last long. The Wildcats responded to Cal’s strike with their own 73-yard drive, culminating with a 9-yard touchdown run by quarterback B.J. Denker. With Heisman candidate Ka’Deem Carey in the backfield, the Bears zeroed in on the running back. The ball fake allowed Denker to scamper into the end zone without a Bear laying any paws on him.

After its first drive of the game, the Bear Raid was stifled. Cal’s next five possessions went for four three-and-outs and a safety, and Arizona jumped out to a 19-7 lead.

“We just basically didn’t get in synch at all after the first drive,” Dykes said.

Then the Bears briefly woke up. With a healthy Daniel Lasco gaining large chunks of yards, Cal found itself in the red zone with a chance to cut into the deficit.  Dialing up a screen pass to wide receiver Kenny Lawler, Goff faked to his left before firing to Lawler on the right sideline. With the defense reacting to the pump fake, Lawler breezed in for his first career touchdown, making the score 19-14 in favor of Arizona.

After the halftime intermission, the Wildcats didn’t waste any time sending the Bears back to hibernation. Denker and wide receiver Terrance Miller hooked up for a 60-yard pass play, one that saw the 6-foot-4, 233-pound Miller break a militia of Cal tacklers all the way to Cal’s 15-yard line. After a questionable pass-interference penalty against Cal, Arizona pounded away at the goal line until Denker zoomed around the right edge for his second rushing touchdown of the game, extending Arizona’s lead to 26-14.

The Bears flirted briefly with a comeback. With just under nine minutes remaining in the third quarter, Goff and company moved the rock from their own 20-yard line all the way to Arizona’s 3-yard line. From there, it was Lawler’s time to shine again. Working against man-to-man coverage, Lawler snagged a back shoulder pass from Goff with one hand and secured it prior to hitting the ground. The top-10-worthy catch brought the Bears back within striking distance, with the score set at 26-21.

“It was a routine play for me,” Lawler said.

But Cal’s fate was sealed when Goff was picked off by Jonathon McKnight on a pass over the middle, which was converted into Denker’s third rushing touchdown. With 10:27 left in the game, Goff fired late over the middle to Bigelow in the end zone. With three defenders draped over Bigelow, the ball found its way into the hands of Jourdon Grandon, rendering Cal’s comeback a failure.

“It was within our grasp there at the end, and we really didn’t grab it,” Goff said. “It really shows with the team we have right now; we can’t make those little mistakes. I can’t throw interceptions if we want to win.”


Sean Wagner-McGough covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.