Instant analysis/reaction: Bears dismantle Aggies 27-13 behind strong run game

Ireland Wagner/Staff

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Key Takeaway

Cal’s first “possession” of the year didn’t even result in the offense taking the field — safety Ashtyn Davis fumbled away the opening kickoff, and the 2019 season was off and running.

The bleeding didn’t stop right away. One bad possession turned into another. Then another. Before the official crowd of 44,168 had fully settled in, the Bears had three first-half turnovers and stuck in a 10-0 hole.

But credit is due where it’s due, and Cal’s resilience was tested just one quarter into the season. It’s safe to say they responded. 

A handful of chunk plays — accentuated by Kekoa Crawford’s 36-yard scamper, flip and score highlighted a 13-0 second quarter — brought a crowd that booed the offense just a few drives into the season back into the game.

Christopher Brown Jr. rattled off 197 (yes, you read that correctly) yards on the ground in his first start at tailback, while the Cal defense saw impressive debuts from inside linebacker Kuony Deng and nose guard Brett Johnson — more on these guys in a second.

They say it’s not about how you start, but how you finish. That saying could not have been more true for the Bears in week one. 

 

Cal’s game co-MVPs

Filling in for Cal’s 2018 captains, Patrick Laird and Jordan Kunaszyk, is no easy feat. At least for one afternoon, their replacements did more than just a satisfactory job. 

On the offensive front, Brown Jr. eclipsed his previous rushing statistics from his career at Cal, giving the Bears the lead on a five-yard power run late in the third quarter. He became the first Bear running back to reach 100 yards in his first career start since speedster Jahvid Best in 2008. 

Any doubts that No. 34 could be a three-down back were silenced, at least for one afternoon, and he figures to be well on his way to a 1,000 yard season. Have yourself a day, kid. 

If Brown Jr. is the workhorse for Cal’s rejuvenated offense, then Evan Weaver is undoubtedly the wrecking ball that makes the defense go. But Deng, his sidekick and a player with as much talent as any on the team’s 11-headed monster of a defense, made quite a case to be the new face of the front-seven. 

Deng’s 12 total tackles led all players on the field, while his two quarterback hits and pass breakups were tops on the day for the Bears. As if Cal’s defense couldn’t have boosted its arsenal any more than it already has, Deng’s first game in blue and gold was a big reason why the Aggies managed just three points in the final three quarters. 

While Brown and Deng are this afternoon’s MVPs, it’s certainly worth giving Crawford a shoutout. After not seeing the field until the second quarter, it’s a solid bet we’ll be seeing the former Michigan transfer in the starting lineup soon. 

 

Eye-Opening Stat

Justin Wilcox is known to cite two areas in particular when evaluating his team’s chances at winning any given football game. One is turnover margin. The other is explosive plays. 

Ugly flashbacks to last season were early and often in this one, with Ashtyn Davis, Chase Garbers and Jordan Duncan giving the ball over to the Aggies in the first quarter and change. Until a strip sack in the fourth quarter pushed their interception total to four, the Bears found a nice rhythm and discovered the pass-run balance they’ve been missing for the past year. 

That rhythm featured the return of the explosive play: gains of at least 20 yards. For the game, the Bears averaged 6.0 yards per play compared to the Aggies’ 3.9, with the two Crawford scores representing the loudest bursts of the afternoon.

 

Looking Ahead

At least for one half of football, UC Davis was the real deal. Another quarterback with a strong arm awaits the Cal defense next weekend, in Washington starter Jacob Eason. The Huskies blasted Eastern Washington 47-14 in their season opener, with Eason accounting for four touchdowns and nearly 350 yards through the air.

The Bears’ front seven didn’t exactly bully Jake Maier out of the pocket, and facing a Washington offensive line that didn’t surrender a single sack in week one will challenge Cal’s secondary to be at its best against Eason and the Huskies’ receivers. 

For now, Cal is just happy to escape week one with a win to its name. But confidence isn’t exactly at a high after execution was average at best. 

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.