SALT LAKE CITY — If only he could have gone straight home after The Throw. On an otherwise dreadful night when a headline writer might see his five interceptions and decide that he Goffed It Up, Jared Goff did produce one masterpiece that made eyes bulge and jaws descend into laps. It was such an epic voyage — sailing majestically against the Utah foothills and dropping like a Christmas gift into Trevor Davis’ hands just as he crossed the goal line — that a collective rapturous scream was heard from NFL personnel people everywhere.
“I just had the chills,” ESPN’s Brian Griese said on the national telecast.
The rest of the night, California fans had the hives. Blowing early momentum that suggested — hello, Kevin Moen — that the Berkeley football program finally could replace the magnitude of The Play with its first road victory over a top-five team since 1951, Goff and the offense committed six turnovers — five in the first half — that had skeptics asking (1) if the Goff hype was a tad premature and (2) if Cal football always will be Cal football, destined for a letdown when prosperity is in the offing.
Consider it a blown opportunity, this 30-24 setback against a No. 5-ranked Utah team that has a legitimate chance to represent the Pac-12 in this season’s College Football Playoff. As for Cal and its heralded quarterback, it’s back to a familiar place — licking wounds and wondering what could have been.
“Probably the worst game of my life,” said Goff, putting the loss entirely on his shoulders. “We still should have won the game and didn’t. It was the first big test for us. Unfortunately, I played terribly.
“I’m not the first guy to throw five picks and I won’t be the last.”
Rather amazingly, the Golden Bears still had a chance to win late in the fourth quarter, even after Goff’s fifth interception. “I had no doubt we were going to make plays to win the game,” Cal safety Stefan McClure said. With a minute left, Goff had the ball inside the Utah 30. But Bryce Treggs juggled and dropped a ball on a pick play on third down. With 31 seconds left, Goff looked for Darius Powe on 4th-and-5 at the 21, but Boobie Hobbs swooped in and knocked the ball away.
“We had a good play call and thought we had what we liked,” Goff said. “They just made a play. They made plays all night.”
The shame was, the embattled Cal defense played well, forcing turnovers and limiting the Utes to field goals instead of touchdowns on an evening when future NFL running back Devontae Booker rushed for 222 yards and two scores. “We feel like we’re the No. 1 team,” Hobbs said. “We just want to show the world that we can play with the Alabamas, the LSUs. We’ve got great talent.”
What happened to Goff?
“That’s a good question,” Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. “We’ll look at the tape and talk to him a little. He just struggled a little tonight. We all wanted to win really badly, especially Jared, and sometimes you might try to do a little too much. Next time, he’ll react differentrly.”
When Goff threw his 35-yard beauty, it gave Cal an early lead and hushed the crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium, which was rocking after playing host to ESPN’s “College GameDay” mosh. Suddenly, you started connecting dots: Wouldn’t a win over Utah, which had throttled Oregon and beaten Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, put Cal in position for its first Rose Bowl in 57 years, if not in contention for a Final Four berth? And wouldn’t Goff, with LSU’s Leonard Fournette showing he’s human and Georgia’s Nick Chubb injuring his knee, now take a bigger place in the Heisman Trophy conversation?
No sooner did you start to dream that Goff began living his nightmare late in the first quarter, when Utah’s pressure an overwhelmed the Cal line. You could exonerate him for an early pick, a perfect throw that bounced off Kenny Lawler’s hands and into those of safety Marcus Williams. But now, Goff was unable to drill a pro-type throw, with cornerback Dominque Hatfield beating the receiver to the ball. Jared shook his head, a rare show of emotion from the normally unflappable kid from Marin.
There would be more anguish in the second quarter. With the score 10-10, Goff was poised to seize the lead when he made a poor decision, forcing a throw that was picked by Justin Thomas. Utah’s Travis Wilson, who made his share of mistakes on this night, had his own regal moment, a 54-yard scoring hookup with Cory Butler-Byrd. That was a critical swing, and when Goff followed with his fourth pick of the half — an attempted screen that was tipped by Hunter Dimick and intercepted by Gionni Paul — um, so much for all those lovely thoughts about the Pac-12 title game in Santa Clara, the big game in Pasadena and, yes, the Heisman.
Still, give Goff credit for having a short memory, which will score him big points with NFL decision-makers. He directed a 75-yard touchdown drive at the end of the half, then took advantage of a fumble by Booker late in the third quarter to close the Utah lead to 27-24. On the East Coast, it was past 1 a.m.
By the wee hours, Goff was in the vortex of the East Coast media who don’t want to believe in all things West Coast. “In the long run, it’s gonna be a good thing for us,” Goff said. “I understand I can’t turn the ball over that many times. When stuff like that hapens, we’re going to lose.”
His teammates had his back. “Teams lose games,” receiver Stephen Anderson said. “We have the utmost confidence in him. We know he plays better than that 99 percent of the time.”
Asked to describe the locker-room mood, Dykes said, “It was somberish. I think everyone realized we missed an opportunity. But I told them they turned the ball over six times and still had a chance to win. That’s a credit to them and how far they’ve come as a program.”
Not that he needs a Kickstarter campaign or anything, but Dykes will make less money this year than 54 of America’s college coaches. His total compensation is a few bucks above $2 million, which is chump change compared to the $5.1 million for Texas’ Charlie Strong — whom Dykes beat last month in Austin — and the $7-million golden parachute waiting for Harbaugh at Michigan after Jed York dumped him.
A bargain? This is a heist in progress. Cal has robbed the bank, the Apple Store and the jewelry boutique, and you might say the university recouped most of its investment on a landmark Saturday in the Wasatch foothills. The signature of any soaring program comes when ESPN brings its traveling “College GameDay” studio to a weekend showdown. For the first time in eight autumns, the Bears received visits from Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and the gang in advance of the prime-time collision with Utah. And while Dykes hasn’t quite reached the status where smart-ass students from the opposing school taunt him with evil audience signage, the attention Cal received all day and night — from the emerging rock stardom of Jared Goff to the gradual rise of a program left ravaged by deposed coach Jeff Tedford — is invaluable for the future foundation.
OK, some of the signs were funny.
“I matched with 11 Cal players on Tinder.”
“Sonny Dykes (hearts) Nickleback (sic).”
“California is dryer than a Provo bar.”
“Jared Goff skips practice for Pumpkin Spice.”
“Sonny Dykes still gets DVDs from Netflix.”
“If Marshawn Lynch can get into Cal …”
Dykes knows there will be growing pains. Saturday night was one such moment. “If you become the program you want to be, you’re going to play in games like these. That’s the goal, where you’re playing in what people perceive as big games,” he said.
It’s impressive stuff from the third-year coach, a Texan who arrived in Berkeley by way of Louisiana Tech. As gradually as Dykes is losing his drawl in the Bay Area, Cal is losing its stigma as a football wasteland. Such is the cachet of playing in the weekend’s top-billed game. Who knew that USC — with another endangered, high-paid coach in Steve Sarkisian — would have two losses before mid-October while Cal and Utah would be the Pac-12’s only remaining unbeatens.
“When you get coffee or something in the morning, maybe those people are a little nicer to you,” Dykes said. “I don’t have to worry about somebody poisoning my coffee like I used to.”
They may give him a hug this week.
They should give Goff some big hugs.