Sometimes, a single substitution can have massive ramifications. The No. 15 Huskies learned that the hard way in their 12-10 loss to Cal in Berkeley on Saturday evening, giving the Bears defense a signature win that will undoubtedly shake up the Pac-12.
In a bizzare Jake-for-Jake substitution, Washington head coach Chris Petersen opted to replace four-year starter Jake Browning, the second-most efficient quarterback in the Pac-12, with relatively unknown redshirt freshman Jake Haener. The substitution was ostensibly a message from Petersen to his starting quarterback to get it together after nearly three quarters of struggle, but what was meant as a subtle message proved to have a hugely deleterious effect on the Huskies.
“Protecting the ball and taking the ball away, especially in a game like this when you’re talking possessions — it’s the difference in a game,” Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said.
On his first drive, the inexperienced Haener threw a blind pass into the middle of the field and was picked off by linebacker Evan Weaver, who returned it 37 yards for a touchdown. Despite the Bears not being able to follow through while going for two, Weaver’s touchdown gave Cal a vital 12-7 lead and the means to win a game that was previously thought just out of reach.
“I dropped back, he threw me the ball, I caught it,” Weaver said. “Yeah, I just didn’t want to fall down.”
Washington’s first drive resulted in an outcome that the Huskies have rarely accomplished to kick off games this season: a touchdown. After the Bears squandered their first offensive possession on a three-and-out, Washington started from its own 36-yard line. After a sloppy few plays and a ballsy (and ultimately successful) attempt on fourth down and long, the Huskies found their way into the end zone with a strike from Browning to Ty Jones. Needless to say, it wasn’t the way the Bears wanted the game to start.
To its credit, though, Cal didn’t let the early point deficit get to its head — on the following possession, Ashtyn Davis made a 55-yard kick return to put the Bears in fantastic field position. The drive resulted in a Cal field goal but showcased the Bears’ inability to finish off productive drives in the red zone.
Despite a rocky first quarter, wherein Washington went two for three on third-down conversions and the Bears could not convert a single one, Cal picked it up in the second quarter.
Aggressive offensive line blocking granted quarterback Chase Garbers ample time in the pocket, and on more than a few occasions enabled him to scramble for a handful of first downs. Running back Patrick Laird became Cal’s standard-bearer, sliding through the Huskies defense.
The second quarter produced just 3 more points for Cal and ended with a more somber note in the form of a missed Greg Thomas field goal, but it was clear that things had changed from the start of the game. The Bears defense held the Huskies to their fewest first-half points of the season and held Browning, known for his aerial accuracy, to a meager 67 yards — not to mention an acrobatic interception from cornerback Camryn Bynum.
The third quarter began with a dangerous-looking drive from Washington: a pass from Browning to Sean McGrew for a 41-yard gain, placing the Huskies in Cal territory. The Bears defense, however, locked in, stopping the drive and forcing Browning’s offense to go for it on fourth and 10 — a play that would end with Alex Funches sacking the quarterback and granting Cal newfound life.
Although the Bears wouldn’t go on to score on the subsequent drive, that defensive stop was a definitive turning point for Cal.
Haener, whom Petersen subbed in for the last drive of the third quarter, remained in for just two drives, one of which resulted in Weaver’s touchdown, before Browning returned to the helm just a few minutes into the fourth quarter. On his first drive back, he led the Huskies to beyond midfield before being forced to punt the ball away by a downright methodically frenetic Cal defense.
Poor field position led to a quick three-and-out for the Bears, resulting in a fantastic punt return from Aaron Fuller that landed the Huskies at the Cal 22-yard line. From there, a score was all but guaranteed — to the testament of the tenacious Cal defense, though, that score was just a field goal. With 4:51 remaining, the Bears would get the ball back, holding on to a slim 12-10 lead.
“This is a huge win for us as a program and the Cal fans in general,” Weaver said. “The best part of that game was seeing the offense take down that clock.”
If ever there was a time for Garbers to prove himself as Cal’s quarterback, it was now.
And prove himself he did. Garbers enabled the Bears to wear down the clock, masterfully leading a drive down the field that was just enough to keep the Huskies from regaining possession. Laird was vital in that drive, and was indeed vital all game — rushing for 83 total yards in a huge upset over the Huskies that places the Bears firmly back on track to make a bowl game.
“They’re all big, but it’s huge. It just gives the guys validation and confidence, and we’ve got to build on it,” Wilcox said. “Our guys competed extremely well and battled … and found a way to win the game, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”