Last weekend, shortly after a gut-wrenching loss to the Pac-12 South champion Utah Utes, Colorado cut ties with former head coach Mike MacIntyre.
Six days after MacIntyre’s firing, it was evident that the Buffaloes had cut ties with their ball security and ability to read defenses, too.
Because if you arrived at Cal football’s 33-21 dismantling of Colorado on Saturday evening about 15 minutes after kickoff, you missed a lot.
On the third play of the game, quarterback Steven Montez attempted to set up a screen on a short yardage play.
But less than 10 seconds later, Cal cornerback Elijah Hicks was in the Buffaloes end zone, having secured his first career interception and first career pick six all on the same play — a 34-yard sprint from the left hashmark into the end zone. Early advantage, Bears.
Forty-five seconds into Colorado’s next drive, disaster struck again. This time, safety Ashtyn Davis read Montez’s eyes and jumped a slant intended for Jay MacIntyre. Thirty-five yards of green turf later, Davis was in the end zone for his first career pick six.
“It was very exciting,” redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Garbers said of his team’s reaction from the sideline. “Back-to-back pick sixes are something that the whole team wants to see.”
“Anytime we get a defensive score, it energizes the whole sideline,” Davis said. “You can feel the energy around everyone.”
And after another Colorado miscue gifted Cal favorable field position, Garbers hit a wide-open Patrick Laird out of the backfield to extend Cal’s lead to 21-0.
Just six minutes of game time had passed when Cal went up by three touchdowns — barely enough time for the families of the team’s seniors to return to their seats and catch their breath after a pregame ceremony on the field.
“Two huge plays were the difference of the game,” said head coach Justin Wilcox. “To start it like that… It’s one thing to know what to do; it’s another thing to do it.”
It was the first time the Bears had eclipsed the 15-point plateau in more than a month. Cal’s offense, which generated just 13 points against USC on Nov. 10, was gifted a decisive margin just two minutes into the game.
While the Buffaloes defense surrendered just three Cal first downs in the opening 30 minutes, five Colorado turnovers — including two interceptions courtesy of Davis — were the overwhelming difference in the game.
Montez, who dominated the Bears for 347 yards and four touchdowns in the 2017 matchup between the two teams, was a shell of his former self, displaying visible frustration with his play early in the game. In addition to Cal’s explosiveness in the secondary, linebackers Evan Weaver and Jordan Kunaszyk combined for an eye-popping 33 tackles.
But the Buffaloes’ third-year quarterback wasn’t ready to fold just yet. Despite producing one of the worst halves of his collegiate career, Montez responded on Colorado’s opening drive in the third quarter. He kickstarted a potential rally by extending plays with his legs before hitting sophomore K.D. Nixon for a 24-yard score to cut Cal’s lead to 10.
Meanwhile, Cal’s maligned offense couldn’t take advantage of the return of wideout Jordan Duncan to the lineup. Still missing slot receiver Kanawai Noa and now without starting left tackle Patrick Mekari, the Bears offense could not eclipse the 100 total yards mark until halfway through the third quarter.
A Colorado defense led by defensive end Mustafa Johnson and linebacker Carson Wells was primarily responsible for that ugly asterisk to an otherwise one-sided game. The Bears were just 1 of 17 on third downs for the game, and you can bet that Stanford’s defense is licking its chops as next week’s rescheduled Big Game looms.
“We didn’t play well at times, and we’ll address those things, but found a way to go out and get a win,” Wilcox said. “Colorado’s got some good players and made things tough on us.”
Cal’s offense tried just about everything to kickstart an explosive play or two, whether it was inserting Biaggio Ali Walsh as the feature back for a series or plugging quarterback Brandon McIlwain (yes, that’s right) in as a receiver on a couple of plays.
After a 33-yard Greg Thomas field goal boosted the Bears’ advantage back up to 13, Montez got the Colorado offense rolling again. A series of completions to tailback Travon McMillian, star wideout Laviska Shenault Jr. and speedster Nixon placed Colorado deep in Cal territory.
But it was 6’3” redshirt senior Juwann Winfree who was on the receiving end of a 3-yard touchdown reception from Montez, making the Bears’ new margin for error miniscule.
Yet one play later, the situation somewhat stabilized. Cue Cal’s biggest gain of the night, as Garbers dropped a rainbow into the lap of Moe Ways to the tune of a 30-yard completion.
A few minutes later, with the Bears facing a big fourth down, Garbers lunged forward after escaping the initial rush — gaining just enough to keep the drive alive. And one play after Drew Lewis gifted Cal with first and goal due to a late hit out of bounds, the connection of Garbers and Ways went to the next level — a fade into the left corner of the north end zone, for Ways’ first career touchdown.
The score relit the fire on Cal’s sideline that was evident in the first quarter. Despite being generally outplayed for the final three quarters of play, Cal can breathe a sigh of relief and concentrate on Stanford this Saturday.
“Moe got here in the summer and really got immersed in our team,” Wilcox said. “The work ethic and for him to go out and make that play on Senior Night was really cool. We need Moe — he’s a big guy and can make a contested catch. It was great to see.”
On a night when redshirt senior Patrick Laird failed to generate any rhythm between the tackles against Wells, Johnson and senior linebacker Rick Gamboa, Cal’s defense answered the call again, while Garbers stepped up when the going got tough.
With the remaining fans at the end of the game chanting, “We want the Axe!” and an anticipated crowd of about 60,000 expected for next weekend, the spotlight is about to get even bigger on this Cal team.