Unbeaten Cal may be not the most dominant team in the country, but if drama is the criteria, then there’s no better team in the land.
The Bears struggled to beat unranked Washington State in their Pac-12 opener Saturday, 34-28, but never mind that for the moment. What mattered was that they continued to make plays on both sides of the ball with the game on the line, a trend that figures to bode well for the future.
“A lot of us understand how to close the game,” said quarterback Jared Goff, who passed for 390 yards and four touchdowns, the first of which was the 65th of his career and set a team record. “We weren’t very good at it last year.
“We would like to score in those situations and get more first downs keep the ball in our hands rather than give (the opponent) a chance to score. But any way we can do it, I mean, a ‘W’ is a ‘W.’”
Unlike a year ago, when coach Sonny Dykes’ team was the definition of Murphy Law’s, it believes positive things will happen this time.
Most important, the newfound swagger extends to the Bears’ defense, which has overcome some obvious weaknesses with a slew of negative plays. The group already has forced 18 turnovers, one more they had all of last season.
“Those guys have a lot of grit, just believe, and that may be the toughest goal to reach in a program,” said Dykes, whose team is in line to crack the national top 20 this week. “The way you get to do that is by working incredibly hard, investing in that each other and doing the right things.”
The rest of the country has begun to notice, apparently.
Cal will face unbeaten Utah on Saturday night in Salt Lake City, which will be the site of ESPN’S College GameDay program, the network announced afterward. The Bears hadn’t had that kind of national visibility since they visited Oregon in the 2007 season, the last time they opened with five consecutive victories.
“It’s pretty sweet,” said defensive tackle James Looney who had one sack and one fumble recovery. “Everybody is coming up to us and saying, ‘Great job,’ jumping on the bandwagon. It’s just a better environment. It’s good to be around.”
Even when the Bears face third-and-36 situations with the game on the line, they’re able to pull a rabbit out of their hats.
Early in the fourth quarter, Cal was backed up on its 4-yard line with a six-point lead when Vic Enwere was handed the ball on a draw play. The run was designed to give the punter more room and little more, except that Enwere dodged one tackle and broke another on a 42-yard scamper that shifted the momentum. This came after Washington State defenders failed to pounce on a fumble near the Cal goal line.
“The offensive line blocked as hard as it could, the quarterback did his job with a fake (then) going to a back-side receiver’s block and, um, I just ran,” Enwere shrugged.
Yet on a day when Washington State matched the home team almost yard for yard, it was the defense that came to the rescue in the final minutes. Safety Danarjay Drew picked off a long pass with less than four minutes on the clock to all but close the deal.
Next will be the stiffest challenge to date, a showdown against a well-rested Utah team coming off a bye week.
“It’s going to be dogfight,” predicted wide receiver Kenny Lawler, who scored a pair of touchdowns, including a one-hander that made highlight reels. “But it’s going to mean a lot when we get it.”
Did somebody say confident?