Cal football rides Brown Jr.’s big night, strong defensive effort to win over UCLA

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In all walks of life, what all people want is a shot. When you get a shot to ask your middle school crush to slow dance? You jump at it. When you get the chance to shadow somebody at the company of your dreams? You say yes.

And when you’re fresh off a big win over your rival and facing off against an opponent that has struggled lately? You take advantage. It’s what you’re supposed to do.

“We have to continue to grow as a team, but getting seven wins and putting ourselves in position to get a bowl game, and have a chance to play somebody really good in a great location, that’s exciting,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “I’m proud of our team. It’s a good thing for our program and we still have a lot of work to do.”

Despite a rocky start on UCLA’s senior night at the historic Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, the Bears roared back with a strong second quarter and timely plays down the stretch Saturday evening, escaping with a 28-18 victory over the Bruins for Cal’s seventh win of the season.

The Bears did it behind a much-needed boost from the defensive front-seven (six sacks), and a huge game from tailback Christopher Brown Jr., who broke out for 111 yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns.

“It means a lot,” said redshirt sophomore quarterback Chase Garbers. “It’s the first time this staff has gotten a win over UCLA. Overall, to come down here and get a seventh win means a lot. It’s a great time.”

In his first appearance since etching himself into Cal football glory last weekend, Garbers was far from perfect, battling both wet conditions and a resurgent UCLA defense, which was eager to repeat last year’s dominant performance over the Bears.

Ultimately, neither side could be considered “dominant” in the first half, as both parties did enough to force the other to make halftime adjustments. While Garbers accounted for a 1-yard rushing score and a 44-yard screen pass to Makai Polk that went the distance, he also threw his third interception of the season late in the second quarter.

The Bruins turned that turnover into three points with JJ Molson’s 31-yard field goal, cutting Cal’s halftime lead to four and heading into the locker room trailing, 14-10. The home team had grabbed the early edge when Dorian Thompson-Robinson found Jaylen Erwin along the right sideline for a 19-yard score.

UCLA found itself in favorable field position early and often in the first half, in large part because of poor tackling from Cal’s secondary. The ability to escape would-be tacklers allowed tight end Devin Asiasi to rack up 78 receiving yards on six catches in the opening two frames alone, while receiver Chase Cota became a frequent target in the flat of Thompson-Robinson’s, accounting for 60 yards on seven receptions.

Their opposite number, Nikko Remigio, followed up a career day at Stanford with another solid evening at the office, leading Cal receivers with five receptions and seven targets.

But it was the tailback, Brown Jr., who spearheaded the Cal offensive attack against UCLA’s struggling defensive front. A year after Joshua Kelley found the end zone three times at California Memorial Stadium, Brown Jr. responded with two scores of his own, including a 10-yard scamper to open the fourth quarter, putting the game on ice.

UCLA had gotten to within one score after star linebacker Evan Weaver, who set a new program record with his 168th tackle on the season in the first half, gifted the Bruins an extra possession with an unsportsmanlike conduct call. When receiver Kyle Philips broke free from linebacker Cameron Goode’s grasp down the left sideline, setting up Kelley’s lone score of the evening, head coach Chip Kelly rolled the dice on an early two-point try.

The gamble worked. When Thompson-Robinson found receiver Delon Hurt in the back of the end zone, cutting Cal’s lead to 21-18, the announced crowd of 38,102 gave its loudest cheer of the evening.

But despite a valiant effort from a UCLA defense that has come under fire all season long, it was the Cal defense that made plays when it mattered most. Shortly after his team grabbed a two-score edge early in the fourth quarter, safety Ashtyn Davis snatched a diving interception after Thompson-Robinson’s pass deflected off Asiasi’s hands.

From there, the Bears took care of business, riding the fruits of a run-pass balance that produced 412 total yards and a late goal-line stand from its defense with less than a minute remaining.

Win No. 4 in Pac-12 play and win No. 7 overall matched Cal’s totals from a year ago but also allowed the Bears to move into a second-place tie in the Pac-12 North with Oregon State (5-7, 4-5) and Washington (7-5, 4-5). With a pair of in-state victories and a bowl pairing in the near future, it’s safe to say the Bears finished a bumpy season strong.

“We’re just happy to get into a bowl game, whichever one we get into,” Garbers said. “We’re going to play — we’re going to be excited.”

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