Firsts galore: Unheralded players stand out in Cal’s 45-23 win over Idaho State

Amanda Ramirez/Staff

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Update 9/15/2018: This article has been updated to include quotes from Cal players and coaches.

Cal football’s third straight win of the 2018 season, a 45-23 rout of Idaho State, was the source of many firsts. Wide receiver Jeremiah Hawkins’ first career start, running back Marcel Dancy’s first career touchdown, tight end Ian Bunting’s first career catch — and that was all in just the first quarter.

Just as in the first two games of the season, the Bears defense was quick to get locked in while the offense struggled to find a rhythm — or even a first down. Cal’s first drive of the game was a quick three-and-out, as Chase Garbers drew his second career start under center.

On the other end, Idaho State’s first drive was a mirror image of Cal’s, with a run from redshirt senior quarterback Tanner Gueller landing the Bengals 1 yard short of a first down. The ensuing punt granted the Bears favorable field position at the Idaho State 48, but the Cal offense sputtered again.

Another flurried exchange of punts from both sides showed that the Bears had yet to find the swing of things on offense, despite being granted ample opportunities by a defense that maintained its stalwart form.

“As a whole I’m glad to see the defense strive from last year to this year, but as a whole I don’t think we’re there yet,” said linebacker Alex Funches.

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It wasn’t Patrick Laird, Vic Wharton III, Jordan Duncan or any of the Bears’ other offensive mainstays who got Cal’s offense going in the first quarter. True to Cal’s defensive form, the team’s first scoring drive came off of an interception from safety Ashtyn Davis, who snatched a dangerous throw from Gueller to start the Bears’ offense in favorable field position on the Bengals 40. Four plays later — two Dancy runs, one Bunting catch and another Dancy flurry into the endzone — and Cal had the lead, 7-0.

Once it started raining, it poured. In the second quarter, the Bears scored three additional touchdowns. The first came as Garbers found Duncan wide open in the end zone to put the Bears up 14-0.

On the ensuing kickoff, Davis showed he wasn’t happy with just an interception. Five Idaho State would-be-tacklers whiffed and 89 yards later, Cal’s return man was in the end zone for his first career touchdown return. The Bears extended their lead, 21-3.

On the next drive, it was Brandon McIlwain’s turn to run the offense. The transfer led the offense deep into opposing territory, but Wharton’s second fumble of the season squandered a promising McIlwain-led drive.

Before the half closed out, the Bears regained their footing — this time on their most steady offensive sequence of the game. Garbers found Duncan in the end zone with less than a minute remaining, tallying the receiver’s second touchdown of the game — his first game with multiple scores — and closing out the first half with a 28-3 lead.

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“Our game plan going in was to be very balanced, running the ball and throwing the ball, so we just executed our game plan,” Garbers said.

But after Cal’s flood of scoring came a head-scratching drought.

A big hit on tight end Ray Hudson popped a Garbers pass loose for an easy interception, and the Bengals earned favorable field position early in the second half. Three plays and one penalty later, running back Ty Flanagan pushed into the end zone. A blocked extra point kept the Bengals’ score line below double digits but didn’t dull the pain of the touchdown. Cal’s big lead was cut to 28-9.

The Bears were unable to respond until the waning seconds of the third quarter, after a five-minute drive led by Garbers resulted in a career-long 44-yard field goal from Greg Thomas.

Cal’s first drive of the fourth quarter belonged to Dancy, who continued to have himself a day while Laird struggled. A series of his runs landed the Bears in Bengals territory, and a scramble from Garbers to find tight end Jake Ashton wide open in the end zone brought the crowd back to life. Another first, this time Ashton’s first career touchdown, propelled the Bears to a commanding 38-9 advantage.

The touchdown was followed by a monstrous defensive stop, eventually leading to a huge punt return from freshman standout Nikko Remigio that landed the Bears at the Bengals 4-yard line. McIlwain made quick use of the opportunity, finding Hawkins for yet another touchdown — this one McIlwain’s first passing touchdown and Hawkins’ first receiving one — to catapult the Bears to a 45-9 lead.

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“They were pretty efficient throwing it,” said head coach Justin Wilcox of his two quarterbacks. “But there’s going to be the little details of their play that will be looked at all week.”

For all of the scoring that had already been done, though, it still wasn’t over. Idaho State, riding off of a favorable field position from a targeting penalty, made quick work of moving down the field to score a touchdown. The eight-play, 75-yard drive resulted in a touchdown and brought the score to 45-16. But it still wasn’t over. A 54-yard completion between the Gueller brothers and a subsequent Bears penalty brought the Bengals within a yard of the end zone. From there, running back James Madison took care of business, solidifying the score at 45-23.

In a twist of the norm, it wasn’t Laird who acted as the proverbial engine behind the Bears’ offensive train. He carried the ball for just 22 yards on 11 attempts, a total that fell far behind the early-game overturned touchdown run that he had in the first quarter. The top of the rushing chart belonged to Dancy with 80 yards — quickly followed by Garbers with 42 yards.

While the Bears offense didn’t look as squeaky-clean as it could have, it got the job done. The 22-point win is Cal’s third in a row, and a crucial one as it enters a bye week before Pac-12 play.

Sophie Goethals covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @sophiegoethalss.