Cal football stages goal line stand to upset No. 18 Utah, 28-23

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After a humiliating 51-41 loss to Arizona State last week, the Cal football team (3-2) returned to Berkeley knowing it couldn’t afford another dreadful second-half outing. In a thrilling homecoming game, the Bears did just enough Saturday to avoid a second, consecutive disappointment, winning a defense-led slugfest at home over No. 18 Utah (4-1), 28-23.

“A couple other teams are going to come in here ranked,” said Cal wide receiver Chad Hansen. “I think playing with an extra fire and getting that on the road also. I think once we get that all together, I think we can be a very dangerous team.”

Utah, after winning the coin toss and electing to defer, came face-to-face with the Davis Webb-Hansen connection early, with Webb finding his favorite receiver down the right sideline for a 40-yard touchdown to cap off Cal’s opening drive.

The Utes looked unsettled on both sides of the ball in the first quarter — the offense’s first two drives ended in punts — behind a skittish Troy Williams under center. Cal’s defense, which has played poorly all season, managed to get some early pressure on the quarterback, who often failed to find wide-open targets.

With their defense stifling Utah’s lethargic offense, the Bears added to their opening-quarter lead. After Tre Watson earned a first down on an 11-yard rush, Webb hit the speedy Demetris Robertson for the 39-yard score and a quick 14-0 lead.

Cal’s defense, however, soon began to run out of steam after its impressive showing to start the game. After surrendering a field goal to kick off the second quarter, the Bears suffered through a seemingly never-ending, 21-play, 95-yard drive that lasted more than nine minutes. By the time Utah trudged its way into the red zone, it was clear that Cal’s defense was out of gas. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Cal defensive end Cameron Saffle helped running back Armand Shyne truck his way into the end zone to pull the Utes within four.

Neither offense looked promising in the final minutes of the first half, with the two squads exchanging a series of quick, scoreless drives, including one that ended with the Utes’ field goal attempt being blocked. Both teams headed to the locker room looking out of sorts.

After tallying only 13 yards on 12 plays in the second quarter, the Bears hoped to kick off the third with a bang but continued to flounder despite below average play from the Utes’ defense. After being pinned to its own 5-yard line, Cal produced yet another three-and-out with Webb’s lingering struggles with short passes persisting. Utah quickly took its first lead of the afternoon on its next drive, as Shyne picked up another touchdown on a 1-yard carry.

Down 17-14, the Bears again turned to their best weapon. Hansen, who torched Utah’s secondary all game, had only notched 31 yards since his first-quarter touchdown but returned as the centerpiece of the offense, hauling in a 24-yard pass to give Cal the lead as the third quarter came to a close. Hansen ultimately finished with five receptions, 98 yards and two touchdowns.

Following a breakout game against the Sun Devils, Robertson contributed another strong outing for the Bears, adding another touchdown in the fourth quarter to bring the score to 28-17, Cal. The Utes responded with their third rushing touchdown of the day but failed on their two-point conversion attempt, leaving them with a five-point deficit in the closing minutes.

But, in front of the 46,618 spectators in the crowd, the game would come down to its final drive.

Williams, facing 4th and goal from Cal’s 11-yard line, tried to loft a pass high to Raelon Singleton in the end zone. Though the attempt fell short, Cal cornerback Marloshawn Franklin Jr. was cited for a nine-yard pass interference penalty, handing Utah a fresh set of downs.

The Bears, demonstrating perhaps their best goal line defense in the Sonny Dykes era, managed to smother Utah’s efforts from two yards out, punctuated by a game-saving tackle by James Looney, who pummeled running back Zach Moss at the one-yard line to seal the victory.

“The last play was a great play,” Looney said. “It was about time I make those. I’m a leader. I need to make those plays.”

Michelle Lee covers footballl. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @michelle_e_lee.