With three seconds left on the clock, Cal quarterback Jack Plummer faced a fourth and 13 from the Notre Dame 35 yard line down by seven. Plummer threw a prayer to the end zone with a chance to tie the game.
After Cal got the ball back with 1:03 left and no timeouts, Notre Dame had both a potential game-ending interception and a fumble reversed on the final drive, due to a targeting call and Plummer’s knee being down before the ball came loose, respectively.
Looking to complete a miracle, Plummer’s Hail Mary soared into the endzone and agonizingly bounced around for several short seconds that felt like hours. Cal’s Mavin Anderson had a first chance for it in the endzone, Notre Dame nearly picked it off and then finally, painfully, Cal’s Jeremiah Hunter bobbled the ball in his hands twice before it bounced to the ground.
“It’s gut wrenching. We had a chance to win,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “Too many errors and needed one or two more plays.”
It was a devastating and heartbreaking finish to a thrilling game, but how the game started was a far cry from the nail biting finish it came down to.
The first quarter was a defensive battle marked by sluggish performances from both offenses. Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne, starting his first game after the season-ending injury to former starter Tyler Buchner, looked out of his element.
The Irish ended the first quarter with four straight three and outs and no first downs, marked by fumbled snaps and missed throws.
Cal’s defense stood strong, but its offense couldn’t capitalize on Notre Dame’s ineptitude early. The Bears started the game with three straight three-and-outs of their own. Cal quarterback Plummer missed some throws and the offensive line struggled to protect him, a theme throughout the game.
Cal finally did record its first first down of the game with less than five minutes to go in the first quarter, followed by two more shortly after. But its momentum was killed after a 45-yard field goal from Dario Longhetto rang off the post and the quarter ended deadlocked at zero. Soon, though, the tides shifted.
On the very first play of the second half, Pyne fumbled a snap that Cal recovered after Femi Oladejo dived on. Cal took over in Notre Dame territory and capitalized on the flipped field position.
Cal’s young, talented wide receiver unit performed strongly throughout the game and made their mark on this drive. Plummer connected with freshman J. Michael Sturdivant for 15 yards to get out of a third and 10 situation, then immediately followed it up with an 18 yard touchdown pass right back to an open Sturdivant.
It was Sturdivant’s first ever touchdown for the blue and gold and it was a big one, allowing Cal to strike first and take a 7-0 lead over a stunned Notre Dame team.
On Notre Dame’s sixth drive of the game, now behind in the game and still without a first down, the game plan shifted. Notre Dame’s offense moved away from throws to runs.
Notre Dame began putting the ball in the hands of their running back pairing of Chris Tyree and Audric Estime, who took over the game for the Irish.
Tyree ended the game with 44 receiving yards and 64 rushing yards on 17 attempts, while Estime kept pace with 43 receiving yards and 76 rushing yards on 18 attempts.
Tyree’s runs brought the Irish into field goal range, but it looked like Cal would be saved after a 45 yard field goal sailed wide. Instead, a questionable offside call allowed the drive to continue for the Irish. It was a costly penalty and Notre Dame capitalized, concluding the drive with a 21 yard touchdown pass to Tyree to tie the game.
Cal responded before the close of the half. The Bears couldn’t punch the ball in after driving into a first and goal situation, but Longhetto converted a 24 yard field goal to give Cal a 10-7 lead heading into the half. The Notre Dame stadium fell uncharacteristically silent with the Irish behind.
To start the second half, the Irish again capitalized on an untimely Cal penalty. A targeting call turned a third down stop into a continued drive for Notre Dame, and four straight runs from the powerful 230 pound Estime gave Notre Dame a 14-10 lead.
Cal could have folded, but instead the Bears responded when they got the ball back.
In the face of adversity the offense put together an impressive 10 play, 75 yard touchdown drive. The hero of the drive was running back DeCarlos Brooks, who answered Notre Dame’s runs with three straight runs of 10 or more yards to leave Cal knocking on the door at the goal line. It concluded with a quarterback sneak as Plummer dove into the endzone and Cal took a narrow 17-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The lead ended up being short lived. A 47 yard field goal from the Irish knotted the game once again and soon after Notre Dame struck again.
It felt like only a matter of time before the Irish’s elite tight end Michael Mayer stepped up to make his mark on the game, and in the clutch he finally did so.
The likely top-10 NFL draft pick caught a 6 yard touchdown pass to give the Irish a 24-17 lead with less than 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
It left Cal down by a touchdown and with a few final drives to try and tie the game. On its first attempt, Cal made a bold call on 4th and 10 from the 22 to go for a game tying touchdown rather than take a field goal, but Plummer was sacked again.
Cal’s defense continued to hold, but on the Bears’ next drive with less than four minutes to go, Cal went backwards, punting on fourth and sixteen from its endzone.
Finally, with no timeouts, Cal had the last devastating chance with no timeouts and 1:03 to go.
It seemed to end twice, but the overturned interception and fumble gave Cal the dying hope for a Hail Mary that fell short.
It was a fight to the finish, and there are certainly positives that can be taken from Cal fighting a college football powerhouse to the finish. Plummer performed admirably in the clutch, Cal’s defense stood strong and the wide receivers and running backs showed flashes of greatness.
For the Bears, it will be hard to feel anything but disappointment in the moment after coming so close. But this adversity could be a character building moment for a young team who gave Notre Dame a scare on a national stage. And maybe next time, Cal will come out on the right side of its next thriller.