Last Saturday, Cal’s defense extended one of the most impressive runs in college football: The Bears have yet to surrender more than 24 points in 11 straight contests, the longest such active streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The streak was a few inches from being in jeopardy. If that.
After starting quarterback Matt Corral departed the game due to injury, backup John Rhys Plumlee made his college debut with less than five minutes left and his team down 15 points.
After a spectacular touchdown drive to cut the lead to 8, Plumlee was ready to pull a rabbit out of his helmet again. With no timeouts, the true freshman did his best Patrick Mahomes impression, effortlessly leading his team 80 yards down the field and inside Cal’s 10-yard line with roughly 60 seconds left in regulation.
A pair of runs, one by tailback Scottie Phillips and the other by Plumlee himself, sets the Rebels up at the 3-yard line with 30 seconds remaining and the clock ticking. Chaos unfolded.
On third-and-goal, Plumlee operates out of the shotgun, with Phillips to his right and four receivers split out wide — three to the left and one to the right, setting up a one-on-one matchup (receiver Demarcus Gregory against defensive back Cal Camryn Bynum) at the bottom of the formation.
Plumlee, however, is primarily known as a dual-threat quarterback rather than a pure pocket passer, which means a fade to Gregory doesn’t seem like the first option.
But at the 20-second mark, he motions Phillips to his left, which indicates that he could be thinking about throwing the fade into the right corner of the end zone. With the amount of traffic on the left side, a run or pass to the right seems like an increasing possibility.
Forget about the fade. At the 17-second mark, Plumlee collects the snap and sprints left as the Rebels run a “pick” play, where one of the receivers screens off an opposing defensive back to set another wideout free.
It works — Cal safety Trey Turner III is cut off by Tylan Knight, the slot receiver on this play. Cornerback Branden Smith, who is covering Knight, attempts to make a break on the ball, but Plumlee’s pass is on time to receiver Elijah Moore, albeit low and away from Moore’s body.
As the ball sails, Moore stretches out to haul the pass in, falling to the ground. His feet remain in the end zone, but the ball is ruled just a few inches short of the goal line.
The entire Ole Miss sideline thinks he’s in. Cal cornerback Elijah Hicks thinks he’s not. Ultimately, the only decision that matters is that of the line judge, who signals fourth down, shy of the plane.
The clock is now at under 10 seconds to go and Ole Miss does not have a timeout. But certain angles may show that the ball broke the plane, so should the referees upstairs stop play and signal for a review?
Those in red certainly think so. But the clock runs, and the Rebels scramble to snap the ball before time expires.
With two seconds left, the ball is snapped and Plumlee attempts to sneak over right guard.
At first, there’s nothing. Four receivers are split out wide against four defensive backs, so the front seven are nose-to-nose at the heart of the scrum, and Plumlee is stuffed initially.
A second effort nets him a few inches, but Evan Weaver, with 21 tackles to his name already, meets him at about the half-yard line.
By now, the clock is at zero, so the officials’ final ruling will result in either a Cal win or Ole Miss going for two to try and force overtime.
Knight and Cal safety Ashtyn Davis join the pile that’s formed just inside the 1-yard line, and Davis comes out of it with the football. The call: Ole Miss is short of the end zone again, and the Bears prevail, 28-20.