A week after allowing 20 points and six plays of over 25 yards through the air to an FCS team, Weber State, Cal fans were certainly not the most confident in their defense as they approached another home tilt, this time against Ole Miss. Ironically, it was the defense that won this game for the Bears, holding the Rebels scoreless for four consecutive drives, the last of which concluded with an interception returned for a touchdown to put the game out of reach.
Despite two missed field goals and a less-than-stellar line from starting quarterback Ross Bowers ─ 24-for-47 for 236 yards, one touchdown and two picks ─ the defense carried the Bears to a 27-16 victory, their third straight to start the season. This was the second consecutive week that Cal held its opponent scoreless in the second half.
“Proud of our team. The grit that they showed,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “It’s not always pretty right now with us, but the guys find a way. Third week in a row where nobody flinched.”
The first quarter ended similarly to what most had predicted ─ both teams moving the ball and Ole miss out-gaining the Bears, 184 total yards to Cal’s 91. The scoreline however, wasn’t as expected, after two Ole Miss drives were cut short due to interceptions from Cal’s Jaylinn Hawkins and Devante Downs.
Ole Miss opened the game with a series that Cal fans have become accustomed to: a large gain through the air against a weak Bears’ secondary. After Rebels’ quarterback Shea Patterson hit D.K. Metcalf for a gain of 42 and 1st and goal, however, the Bears redzone defense held up and forced a field goal for the opening score.
Two drives later, the Hawkins interception at the Ole Miss 21 yard line set up the first Cal touchdown. Cal quarterback Ross Bowers found Gavin Reinwald for a gain of 13 and then running back Patrick Laird rushed for 13 and the first Bears score.
Ole Miss responded to their first deficit of the game with a blitzkrieg of a drive, with Patterson finding DeMarkus Lodge for a 72 yard touchdown on the first play.
The next Cal drive ended in a punt. Downs got his interception the following drive, but a missed Matt Anderson field goal from 46 yards left Cal down 10-7 at the end of one.
Both teams struggled offensively into the second quarter, and the Rebels managed the only six points of the second quarter. In tradition from the first quarter, Ole Miss’ first drive of the second quarter also scored on the first play, this time a 71 yard touchdown, this time with Patterson finding Metcalf. Ole Miss headed to the locker room up 16-7 after a missed PAT following the second touchdown kept the lead at nine.
The second half opened with Cal driving better than it had for most of the first half. On the opening drive, Bowers finally started to show a semblance of a rhythm, as he found Kanawai Noa on 3rd down, as well as two completions to Vic Wharton for 15 and 19 yards, respectively, the second of which went for a touchdown.
“After halftime we just settled down,” Bowers said. “We thrived in that moment with our backs against the wall.”
The Cal defense immediately stepped up on the following drive, as the Rebels made it as far at the Cal 41, but were stuffed and forced to punt. A false start penalty on 3rd and 2 was crucial, forcing Ole Miss back to 3rd and 7, and Josh Drayden broke up a pass to force a punt. The Rebels’ defense returned favor on the following series, forcing a Cal three and out.
“We didn’t install new defenses at halftime,” Wilcox said. “We played it better.”
Ole Miss inflicted damage on itself the next drive with two penalties ─ a personal foul for an illegal chop block and then a false start ─ that ended up forcing a Rebel punt. It appeared that Cal’s offense had found its stride when Bowers found Laird for 20, and Vic Enwere rushed for another first down, but the drive was stuffed just short of the endzone. A Matt Anderson field goal put Cal up 17-16.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Cal’s defense secured its third straight stop, dropping a pass play in the backfield as well as hurrying Patterson twice. This was capped off by strong special teams play and a missed Rebels field goal from 48 yards out ─ a rather puzzling decision after the earlier missed extra point.
The Bears following drive benefitted from a bit of good luck in the form of an Ole Miss unforced error, as the Rebels had 12 men on the field as Cal faced 4th down. The Bears faced 4th down again and Vic Enwere ran up the middle for 25, but they were stuffed shy of the endzone, and another missed field goal by Anderson, this time from 40 yards, kept the lead at 17-16.
Cal’s defense forced an immediate three-and-out with heavy pressure, which was subsequently turned into three points by an Anderson field goal from 41 yards. The defense sealed the game on the following Rebels drive, first with a deflected pass on 2nd down, and then a pick six thrown by Patterson directly to Cameron Goode to put the Bears up 11 with under three minutes left.
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].