Cal tumbles out of rankings as injuries, poor execution lead to loss against ASU

Sunny Shen/Staff

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Right when everything seemed to be trending upward for the Bears, the excitement came crashing down just as fast as fans realized something was wrong after quarterback Chase Garbers hit the turf late in the second quarter. 

Laying on the field motionless after a shoestring tackle caused him to hit the ground shoulder first, fans nervously awaited for him to pop back up and shake it off. A couple minutes later, though, the Cal faithful started again as its offensive savior was assisted off the field, gingerly stabilizing his throwing arm at a 90-degree angle.

Although the game was tied at 7-7 when the injury occurred, it felt like the Bears were in control of the night — with Garbers having thrown for 117 yards and a touchdown, establishing a newfound chemistry with wide receiver Trevon Clark, who received a perfect touchdown pass on second drive. 

The defense had been a bit shaky trying to contain Arizona State’s fleet-footed quarterback Jayden Daniels from escaping the pocket. Overall, they were doing enough to win, having only allowed a singular touchdown to ASU running back Eno Benjamin.

Suddenly, though, Cal was forced to call on backup quarterback Devon Modster, a transfer from UCLA who battled with Garbers throughout camp for the starting spot. Modster had thrown one pass against Ole Miss, but other than that, his Cal resume was empty.

“As an offense, we weren’t down. We had to stay up — we have confidence in both of our quarterbacks,” said Clark. “Our reaction when (Garbers) went down was that we have to win this for Chase.”

With the Bears in field goal range as the final seconds of the first half ticked away, Modster made a crucial error, forcing a deep pass intended for Jordan Duncan into the end zone, only to be easily intercepted by Sun Devil safety Aashari Crosswell. 

While there was hope that offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin would be able to adjust the game plan during halftime with Modster now at the helm, the offense’s struggles proved to be a defining factor of the second half.

Cal’s first drive of the third quarter, however, was nearly dominant. Running backs Christopher Brown Jr. and Marcel Dancy combined to storm downfield to give the Bears a 14-7 lead after Brown Jr. punched it in at the goal line. The only asterisks? Modster didn’t attempt a single pass on that possession — and when he eventually did, the results left plenty to be desired.

To sum it up, Modster finished the game with an abysmal 23 passing yards on 14 attempts.

“Honestly, I think I played terrible — I can play a lot better. I was missing a lot of receivers. I’ll pick it up next week,” Modster said. “It doesn’t hurt my confidence. I know what I’m capable of. I just have to grind next week and prepare for Oregon.”

The offense fell completely out of sync as the second half progressed, with four of the Bears’ final five drives ending in either a punt or turnover on downs. While Modster undoubtedly has the arm talent to replace Garbers, he looked uncomfortable in the pocket and was quite inconsistent with his accuracy. A week of taking first team reps in practice should help that, but Baldwin must find a way to adapt this offense in a way that will highlight Modster’s strengths and hide his weaknesses.

While the second half offense became reminiscent of Cal’s 2018 season, the normally lockdown defense fell victim to the combination of Daniels’ pocket mobility and Benjamin’s bruising physicality. Despite holding the latter to just 3.4 yards per carry, the running back rumbled for three touchdowns on the night, often shaking off tackles that would normally be routine for a defense as well-coached as Cal. 

Additionally, apart from outside linebacker Cameron Goode, who finished with a strip-sack and 11 tackles, the Bears’ pass rush was nearly nonexistent. This forced the secondary to cover for much longer than is sustainable, allowing Daniels to find open receivers as he maneuvered behind the line of scrimmage. The defense knows it is  better than that, and their standard says as much: This was the first game since last October that Cal has allowed 24 points.

“They played better than us, they beat us,” said star inside linebacker Evan Weaver. “Time to get over it and time to win the next. Because at this point, if you’re just going to be down like that, there’s no reason. There’s no reason to show up.”

Yes, Cal was favored to beat Arizona State, which would have set up a ranked matchup with No. 13 Oregon, where the Bears and Ducks would battle on national television for control of the Pac-12 North. Although that is no longer the case, the bottom line is that Cal still boasts a 4-1 record, is only one spot out of the AP Top 25 and essentially controls its own destiny within the conference. While there are many questions surrounding the offense without Garbers, head coach Justin Wilcox still boasts one of the most dangerous teams in the conference — and the season is still young.

“As a team, we are looking at this not as a loss, but as a lesson,” Clark said. “Monday we’re going to come through that door and work to beat Oregon. Plain and simple.”

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