SALT LAKE CITY— In front of 47,798 spectators on prime-time television — the second-largest crowd ever to assemble at Rice-Eccles Stadium — the Cal football team fell victim to both the hype and the turnovers.
“It was two football teams that played very hard,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “Sometimes when you want to win really badly, you might try to do a little too much.”
The Bears had an easy go of it to start the game, with Cal quarterback Jared Goff leading his team to three consecutive first downs. But the promising first drive ended at Utah’s 15-yard line, as a pass intended for wide receiver Kenny Lawler bounced off the wideout’s hands and into the waiting arms of safety Marcus Williams, who returned the pick to Utah’s 33-yard line.
But the Utes did not notch points off the turnover, as quarterback Travis Wilson was unable to convert on third down, leading to a punt. The Utes, however, proceeded to help their cause by creating another takeaway when Williams recovered a fumble by running back Daniel Lasco on the first handoff of Cal’s next drive. Cal’s defense managed to hold the Utes to a 44-yard field goal, giving Utah a 3-0 lead with 5:51 left in the first quarter.
Cal’s next drive proved more successful, with Goff finding wide receiver Trevor Davis on a fade for a 35-yard touchdown to give Cal a 7-3 lead with 4:09 left in the quarter. The scoring drive was helped in large part by a 21-yard rush by running back Khalfani Muhammad and a pass interference call on cornerback Dominique Hatfield.
On Utah’s next drive, running back Devontae Booker, dragging multiple linebackers with him, gained 18 yards on a carry until he was finally brought down by linebackers Michael Barton and Hardy Nickerson. But Cal’s defense, which had held up for Utah’s first two drives, was unable to keep an eye on Booker, who flew into the endzone on a 40-yard rushing touchdown — the third lead change of the quarter. Booker finished the night with 34 carries and 222 yards, the most yards Cal has given up since Bishop Sankey rushed for 241 yards against the Bears in 2013.
The plague of turnovers continued for Cal, as Goff was picked off again on the first play of the next drive on a slant intended for Lawler. Goff would finish the first quarter 5-9 for 74 yards and two interceptions. But Utah missed yet another opportunity to record points, with Phillips missing a 48-yard field goal wide left to keep the score 10-7 Utah with 13:25 left in the half.
Cal, looking to reclaim its lead, ended up shooting itself in the foot on a third down after a 16-yard completion to wide receiver Darius Powe was nullified on an offensive pass interference call on wide receiver Bryce Treggs, forcing Cal to punt.
The Bears’ defense came through again on Utah’s next drive, as backup nickelback Trey Turner jumped a route and picked off Wilson at Utah’s 44 to give Goff and Co. another chance to put points on the board. Cal ultimately settled for a 22-yard field goal from kicker Matt Anderson after Lawler dropped a sure touchdown in the endzone, tying the game at 10 points apiece with 6:17 remaining in the game.
Wilson was quickly intercepted once again, this time by Devante Downs, who gave Cal the ball at Utah’s 29. But Goff responded by throwing a pick of his own at the goal line, which found the hands of nickelback Justin Thomas.
Utah’s offense took advantage of the turnover, as Wilson was able to connect with Cory Butler-Byrd for a 54-yard touchdown to cap a 95-yard, 1:21 scoring drive, marking Butler-Byrd’s first catch and offensive touchdown of his career.
After a sack, a frazzled Goff threw his fourth pick of the half — a desperate throw that was tipped and intercepted by linebacker Gionni Paul, gifting Utah the ball at Cal’s 20 and a chance to widen the lead. Booker then ran the ball into the endzone for a 4-yard touchdown and a 24-10 Utah lead with 1:47 to play in the half.
Cal managed to head into halftime with a respectable deficit after Goff found Powe in the back of the endzone for a 1-yard score after a 50-yard catch-and-run by Davis and an 8-yard completion to tight end Stephen Anderson.
Utah added to its lead to begin the second half, making the score 27-17 on a 36-yard field goal. But Matt Anderson, failed to do the same on the following drive, with his 40-yard attempt going wide right and Utah maintaining its 10-point lead with 7:53 left in the third quarter.
The Bears’ defense gave its offense another opportunity to add six, however, with Downs forcing a fumble of Booker and Cal nickelback Caleb Coleman recovering. A 4-yard rushing touchdown from running back Tre Watson closed the deficit to three points, as Utah clung to a 27-24 lead with just more than two minutes left in the quarter.
The Utes began the final quarter with Phillips nailing a 39-yarder with 12:07 remaining. After Utah and Cal exchanged a series of futile drives, Goff brought the Bears into Utah’s red zone only to have a pass intended for Lawler again picked off by Hatfield. This marked Goff’s fifth interception of the game — a career high for the junior, who topped his previous mark of three during his first-ever collegiate game against Northwestern.
“It was the first big test for us and unfortunately I played terribly,” Goff said.
After the Utah drive ended in a punt, Goff was stripped of the ball on Cal’s next drive on a second-down play action. The fumble was recovered by Cal center Dominic Granado, and a roughing-the-passer penalty moved the ball to Cal’s 46, giving the Bears one last chance to leave Salt Lake City with a win.
Completions to Powe, Lawler and Stephen Anderson marched Cal closer to Utah’s red zone on its final drive, but a pass intended for Powe on fourth down at the Utes’ 21, with less than a minute to play, was broken up by cornerback Boobie Hobbs. Utah would take over on downs with a 30-24 lead, handing Cal its first loss of the season.
“We never encourage one person taking all the blame,” Stephen Anderson said. “Teams lose games.”