Cal overcomes shaky start, beats UC Davis 27-13 in season opener

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Although the final score doesn’t show it, the first quarter of the Bears’ home opener followed the same exact script that nearly all of Cal’s 2018 did: the elite defense contained the opposing team with relative ease, while offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin directed an offense that looked nearly inept. 

Fans had to wait quite a bit longer than they expected to hear the cannon fire from above California Memorial Stadium — it was not the start the Bears had envisioned for themselves, to say the least. After UC Davis won the opening coin toss and elected to defer, Cal safety and kick returner Ashtyn Davis took a hard hit, losing the ball and giving the Aggies possession just 21 yards out from the endzone. Running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. was able to punch it from two yards out on the Aggies’ fourth play of the game, and just like that, Cal was down 7-0 in front of a home crowd that was slowly filling in.

Baldwin’s offense struggled mightily in the early going, with his offense going 3-and-out on both its first and third drives. On its second drive, following a nice 14-yard run by Christopher Brown Jr., quarterback Chase Garbers attempted to make a throw off his back foot, but no blue jerseys were in the area, and the pass was intercepted on a diving catch from Aggie quarterback Devon King.

“We weren’t in sync, but it wasn’t panic. Guys stayed with it and nobody was losing their mind,” said head coach Justin Wilcox. “We knew there would be some adversity in the game.”

Although the offense looked bleak, when asked about the importance of getting off to a quick start earlier in the week, Baldwin had an answer that seemed to foreshadow the way Saturday afternoon would unfold.

“It’s always the usual rhetoric to start fast — that’s the goal. And that’s the mindset,” Baldwin said. “But if adversity hits, you coach long enough and play long enough, you have games where you don’t start fast. How are you going to respond to that?”

Well, the offense answered that question midway through the second quarter. The Bears had just eight plays of 30 or more yards in all of last season, but the team’s offseason emphasis on creating explosive plays came to fruition, as Garbers completed throws of 30 and 37 yards on back-to-back passes. The first was a completion to speedster Nikko Remigio on an inside post route, while the second went for a touchdown as Garbers patiently waited behind his line before Michigan transfer Kekoa Crawford found himself wide open streaking towards the endzone.

“We were so conservative last year as an offense last year,” Garbers said. “Pushing the ball downfield is more of an emphasis for us and will be later on in the year.”

Garbers added another 30-yard pass to his resume on the following offensive drive, setting up a 44-yard field goal from Greg Thomas, tying the game at 10. After a bit of stagnancy from both offenses, Thomas nailed a 47-yarder to set a new career-high while also putting the Bears up 13-10 heading into halftime.

The UC Davis offense came out blazing in the opening possession of the third quarter, but cornerback Camryn Bynum swatted a third down pass to stall the Aggies’ drive, forcing them to settle for a short field goal.

On Cal’s second drive of the quarter, running back Christopher Brown Jr., in his first career start, topped 100 yards rushing, showcasing both his speed and physicality. Additionally, Garbers got back into a groove after a couple of mediocre drives, constantly extending plays with his feet, yet still remaining patient and hitting the open receiver before resorting to a scramble. With three minutes left in the third quarter, running back Brown Jr. bowled his way into the endzone for the first of many touchdowns this season, as he all but cemented his spot as a three-down back for Cal.

On the Bears’ next drive, Garbers hit Remigio for another third down conversion in the middle of the field. A few plays later, Garbers found himself rolling out of the pocket and proceeded to loft up a ball intended for Crawford. The pass was underthrown, allowing a UC Davis defender to get a hand on it, but luck must’ve been on Cal’s side, as the pigskin fell right into the hands of Crawford for his second touchdown on the afternoon, which would end up being the last score of the game.

“I just had to put a little more air on it. But I know my guy (Kekoa) is going to come down with it no matter what,” Garbers said.

With the Aggies approaching desperation mode down 27-13 with just over 10 minutes remaining in the game, they went for a 4th and 7, but Cal safety Jaylinn Hawkins did enough to force the incompletion, giving the ball back to Garbers and company.

Brown Jr. continued dishing out stiff arms, ending the night with an incredible 197 rushing yards in his first career start. Linebackers Evan Weaver and Kuony Deng bolstered the Cal defense, combining for 23 total tackles, while the secondary held FCS All-American Jake Maier to just 173 yards and no touchdowns.

While the Bears seemed to find their groove as the game progressed, traveling to face No. 13 Washington next week will be a much better indicator of what this team is made of.

“We’re not ready, but we will be ready next Saturday,” Weaver said. “You can believe that.”

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].