No. 23 Cal football collects unconventional 28-20 victory over Ole Miss, earns 4th straight win

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If you were to describe Cal’s 28-20 win over Ole Miss on Saturday in one word, it would be nerve-wracking. 

In two words, it would be completely unconventional. 

Three words? Cal’s still undefeated. 

Perhaps every Cal football game should be played at 9 a.m. PT, no matter where it’s being played. After today, maybe Chase Garbers  — who overcame an injury scare and a big first-half interception — can enter the opening stretch of Pac-12 play with newfound confidence.

Coaches and players will tell you that every win means the same to a team no matter how each contest unfolds. But a week after surviving a late threat from North Texas’ offense at home, the word “scare” was taken to another level.

A last-second goal line stand after Ole Miss backup quarterback, freshman John Rhys Plumlee, led the Rebels more than 90 yards down the field was all it took. At the end of the day, the Bears are 4-0 for the first time since 2015, after starting 3-0 in each of Justin Wilcox’s first three seasons at UC Berkeley. They did it the unconventional way.

“We find a way to make it interesting, that’s for sure,” Wilcox said. “I love the way the guys battled and competed. We played good in stretches. We didn’t play so well in others. So, that’s on us.”

“We still have a lot of room for improvement, but I just loved the way they competed.”

With outside linebackers Cameron Goode, Tevin Paul and Ben Hawk Schrider all sidelined due to injury, Cal turned to true freshman Braxten Croteau and redshirt freshman Nick Alftin at the position, the latter of whom had previously transitioned to tight end earlier this season.

Pulling Alftin back to the defensive side after he practiced with the tight ends for weeks takes the next-man-up mentality to a new level — completely unconventional, right?

But hey, it gets weirder.

Even when Ole Miss missed a field goal on its first drive, offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez’s infatuation with the read-option was churning out first down after first down, with redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Corral getting it done both through the air and with his legs.

His 1-yard keeper tied the game at seven apiece and ignited a dormant crowd that had been silenced moments earlier. Corral and sophomore receiver Elijah Moore were advertised as one of the most promising duos in the SEC coming into the game and showed out against the likes of Camryn Bynum, Traveon Beck and the rest of Cal’s aggressive secondary.

Corral and Moore (11 catches, 102 yards) led the way in the opening half, but Cal’s defense found itself in the third quarter, spearheaded by Evan Weaver’s career-high 22 tackles and Kuony Deng’s 1.5 sacks. The home crowd was given new life after Plumlee led a late score to cut Cal’s lead to eight, and the Bears used every ounce of determination to bend but not break down the stretch of the game.

“Made 22 tackles. It’s like that every week,” Wilcox said of Weaver. “When is the last time we haven’t been in here and talked about Weaver that way. He makes a lot of tackles. He is a really good football player.”

To kick off the morning, the Bears’ offense marched 70 yards in less than four minutes, taking both sides by surprise just a week after putting up only three points against North Texas in the last three quarters.

The opening drive led to Trevon Clark’s first touchdown catch of his collegiate career after Garbers started the game 6 of 7 through the air and ultimately connected with eight different receivers in the first half alone.

Cal’s redshirt sophomore quarterback was far from done. Even with his offensive line missing left tackle Valentino Daltoso for a second straight week, Garbers was firing on all cylinders — a night and day difference from just one week ago when he scrambled for a career high on the ground but managed just 129 yards and nine completions.

On Saturday, he set career highs with 357 passing yards and four touchdowns, hitting tailback Christopher Brown Jr., veteran receiver Jordan Duncan and tight end Jake Tonges to round out his career day at the office — a swing pass, a corner of the endzone laser and a 60-yard catch and dash, respectively.

Duncan, returning to his home state of Mississippi, heard the cheers of roughly 100 (by his count) of his friends and family all afternoon long, completing numerous circus catches along the sideline. Tonges, a former walk-on who received a scholarship just one month ago, hauled in a huge catch late in the game to reach 88 yards for the game on three receptions, both career highs.

With a minute left in regulation, Plumlee hit receiver Demarcus Gregory 41 yards downfield, putting Ole Miss on the doorstep of the endzone down by eight points. After a controversial completion near the plane of the endzone was ruled short at the one-yard line, both sides scrambled for the game’s final play.

As the clock ticked to zero, Plumlee reached for the goal line stood up by a host of Bears, led by Weaver, their senior captain.

“Just tackle the guy with the ball and keep him from crossing the white stripe,” Weaver said. “That was the game plan right there. We were putting it to them all game. There was nothing they could do against us.”

Cal, as previously noted, found the unconventional path to win No. 4. With the win, Wilcox improves to 9-0 in non-conference play, a big step towards validating the growth of this program over the past three seasons.

“It’s big time. I feel like the Pac-12 is looked at as a little bit beneath the SEC,” said wide receiver Nikko Remigio. “So to come over here and get a victory is super big time.”

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