FIFTH QUARTER: Arizona Edges Cal
1. Play it again, Sam. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: California gets off to a fast start, scores 20-plus first-half points, with Jared Goff making the football do a song-and-dance number that would shame Michigan J. Frog, and then the defense falls apart in the third quarter.
In the sequel to the Great Northwestern Escape, though, the Bears’ defensive struggles were punctuated not by a skin-of-the-teeth reprieve, but a blizzard of white shirts pouring out of the stands to celebrate a 47-yard Hail Mary from Anu Solomon to Solomon Hill with all zeroes on the clock, as the Bears squandered a 31-13 lead and fell to host Arizona, 49-45.
“Football games are 60 minutes for a reason,” said head coach Sonny Dykes, who watched the Wildcats (4-0, 1-0 in Pac-12) score 43 second-half points.
“They made halftime adjustments, and nothing really changed with us,” said Goff. “We were just doing our thing. They did bring a little more pressure, but it shouldn’t have affected us as much as it probably did.”
The locker room, Goff said, was “exactly what you’d think it’d be,” which defensive end Brennan Scarlett intoned, was “pretty silent.”
“It’s part of getting a program turned,” Dykes said. “It’s not a whole lot of fun, going through it. I can assure you. When I was in this stadium here, part of Arizona’s turnaround, we went through a lot of tough games like this, on the losing end. That’s what you do. You lose games like this. It’s like Bobby Bowden says: You get blown out – like we did last year – and then you lose some tight ballgames, which we did tonight, and then you figure out how to win. That’s part of the process of building a program and taking over a program that was not very good.”
The third element of that triad -- the winning part -- is, of course, much easier on a fan base than the first two.
Despite a late-game, Northwestern-callback Luke Rubenzer-led drive that, Dykes said, seemed to seal the game with a Khalfani Muhammad touchdown with 10:56 left in the game, the Bears could not hold on like they did in Evanston, Ill.
“Heck, they’re all hard. That was a hard one,” said Dykes. “I don’t know how many points we scored in the second half today. We put together some pretty good drives down the stretch. I thought that we gave us a chance to pull away. We scored 27 [sic ... actually it was 17] second-half points. We had a hard time getting them stopped. Our guys got a little fatigued. We don’t have a lot of depth. We had some injuries. Stefan [McClure] didn’t play in the game, and that hurt us, obviously, as somebody who’s played a lot and has got a lot of experience. He hurt himself in pregame warm-up, and that had an impact on us, clearly. We played a lot of plays. The offense really scored fast, and the defense had to play a lot of plays.”
It’s not something Dykes hasn’t seen before. He said that he’s coached in games where the opposing offense ran something akin to the 106 plays the Wildcats ran.
Cal came out of halftime against Arizona with a 28-6 lead. The Bears had held vaunted Nick Wilson completely in check, had scored two picks on Solomon -- who came in with just one interception on the season – and were piling up big play after big play. But, after an initial three-and-out by the Wildcats, the Cal defense evaporated into the desert air after the break, allowing 420 yards of total offense in the second half.
“We just didn’t close it out,” said defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. “I wouldn’t say that we came out flat. We were out of there on the first series, and we got ourselves off the field, but we’ve got to go back and keep doing what we’re doing. We were doing the little things. That’s what it boils down to, is the little things – technique – that I talked about during the course of the week, executing technique and being able to tackle well. There were too many times, when guys caught a ball, and they broke away on us, and we’ve got to continue to work on that.”
Cal was out-gained by Arizona 141-44 in the third quarter, and to make matters worse, Goff went 2-for-9 and was sacked twice, as the run game ground to a screeching halt. The Bears gained not a single net rushing yard in the third quarter, while the Wildcats were able to pile up 18 yards on the ground and 65 through the air.
After a nine-yard touchdown pass from Solomon with 13:36 left in the fourth quarter – finishing off a two-play drive that started when a Goff pass deflected off the hands of a falling Stephen Anderson and into the hands of Tra’Mayne Bondurant (shades of Northwestern, ca. 2013) – what had been a tightly-controlled defensive effort for the Bears just about fell apart completely.
Arizona scored 36 points in the fourth quarter alone – including the Hail Mary tip drill. Its biggest weapon? 6-foot-3, 215-pound Texas transfer Cayleb Jones, who caught four balls for 59 yards at the break, but caught nine balls after halftime for 127 yards. As WildcatAuthority.com publisher Jason Scheer said earlier this week, Jones was a complete nightmare to cover.
“I probably would make a different call,” Kaufman said of the three-man pass rush on the deciding play. “We’ve practiced that.”
In fact, said Dykes, the Bears practiced that play twice this week.
Jones’s victim of choice? Darius Allensworth.
“They targeted him and got the ball to him,” Kaufman said. “They just had a plan to get him the ball, and we didn’t do a good enough job. I didn’t do a good enough job adjusting our coverages, there.”
The 47-yard bomb from Solomon to Jones was the capper on a career night for the freshman signal-caller, who emerged from early struggles to put up a commanding 29-for-40, 371-yard display in the second half, and he faced hardly any pass rush as the Bears dropped back into coverage to seemingly try and preserve the lead.
“We didn’t do anything, really, differently, in the second half,” Kaufman said. “I’m sure people maybe get a bead on us, and we need to do some things to mix it up. I’ve got to go back and do a self-scout and come up with a little bit different thought process so that we can protect our lead. When we get a lead like that, we’ve got to be able to protect it on defense. That’s my responsibility.”
The early rush was exactly what held Wilson to a season-low 33 yards on the ground on 11 carries (he left injured in the third quarter), and held Solomon to 18-of-33 with two picks and 149 yards in the first half. In the second half, Cal routinely dropped seven or eight.
“They were in some long-yardage situations, and we just brought three, at times,” Kaufman said. “I would say most of those passes in there, we had four down. The ball got out quickly, and we’ve just got to be able to fit it up at that point in time.”
When the Bears dropped back to cover Arizona’s receivers in the second, they became like the Wildcats themselves. Arizona came into the game 10th in the conference in pass defense, mainly because, as games stretch on into the third and fourth quarters, with the Wildcats in the lead, opposing teams turn to the pass. Arizona, it would seem, has learned from watching.
2. They’re [Not] Going Streaking. Coming into Saturday’s contest, Arizona owned a 20-game streak of having at least one, 100-yard rusher. That ended against the Bears, the same team that was 10th in the conference in rushing defense just a year ago.
In the first half, Cal held the Wildcats to a paltry 58 yards on 17 rushes, with 10 of those attempts coming from Wilson, who came in averaging over 160 yards per game on the ground. In fact, Wilson – who had averaged 6.8 yards per carry coming into Saturday – averaged just 2.9 yards per rush before the break.
With 5:28 left in the first half, Wilson was actually averaging just 2.3 yards per carry, and nearly broke a 60-yard touchdown, were it not for the superb ankle-tackling of junior linebacker Jalen Jefferson, who finished with five tackles.
Cal was leading 300-141 in yards at that point, with strong play up front, particularly from the interior – Austin Clark and Mustafa Jalil in the middle, with Jefferson and Michael Barton providing excellent support from the linebacking corps.
But, while the Wildcats made adjustments at halftime and went almost exclusively to the pass, Cal could not respond, in large part due to the absence of safety McClure.
“We had some people out, and we obviously didn't get the job done; that’s the bottom line,” Kaufman said. “That falls on my shoulders.
“We went in there, with their ability to run the ball, to be able to try to take care of their running game, and we knew everyone was put in a one-on-one match-up, and, as the game goes on, you decide what can we do best, and I would probably do some things different, coverage-wise.”
The rushing attack did, though, help to wear down the Cal defense, as Arizona finished the game with a staggering 106-play effort.
“We played 50 snaps in the first half, and I think with the injuries we had – because Stefan didn’t play at all, which made us thin, and then I know that [Michael] Lowe went down during the course of the game – but the bottom line is, we’ve got to be able to finish,” Kaufman said. “We didn’t get it done. We didn’t get ourselves off the field, when we needed to.”
In the first half, the Bears held the Wildcats to 3-of-13 on third down. In the second, Arizona went 4-for-9.
3. Don’t pick at it; it’ll get infected. Despite the absence of McClure, veteran Avery Sebastian came up with his first pick of the season, and Griffin Piatt came up with his third in three games.
It looked as though Solomon was on the ropes late in the first half (as per the overall scheme), and even before he got rolled by linebacker Jake Kearney (in his first collegiate start) on the first play of Arizona’s last scoring drive of the half, he was wildly inconsistent. Before Solomon was hit, he was 10-for-21. After, he went 8-for his next-12. Still, his misses were bad, and he didn’t get much time to throw, or even any consistent pocket, due to a variety of pass rush schemes dialed up by Kaufman, who routinely showed blitz, but would then drop eight, and then bring the house a play later.
The drive just before Solomon got popped ended with Sebastian’s pick, and the drive just after the crack ended with a Piatt interception on the goal line with less than a minute left before the break.
Solomon had been intercepted just once all year long.
4. More weapons than the former Eastern Bloc black market. What’s lost in the defensive collapse is the fact that the Cal offense was as dynamic as it has been all year, though far from consistent, to be fair.
In the first half alone, Goff completed passes to eight different players, with four catching multiple passes. He attempted fewer than one-third the passes in the first half than he attempted last year in his entire game against Arizona, and still threw for more yards (his 294 were the second-highest total he’s had in the first half in his career, behind 345 against Washington State in 2013).
His 80-yard up-the-seam bomb to Bryce Treggs kicked things off, and his 30-yard back-shoulder fade to Chris Harper off a play-action put the Bears up 28-6 with 3:43 left before the half. As he trotted to the locker room, Goff had a passer efficiency rating of 280, going 13-for-17 for 294 yards and three touchdowns, without a pick.
Treggs finished with a season-best five grabs for 119 yards (his third career 100-yard game), while Harper had two for 71. In all, seven players tallied multiple receptions, including Goff’s roommate Ray Hudson, who caught two for 57, including a 38-yard rumble that set up the touchdown to Harper.
The Bears were two yards away from having two 100-yard rushers in a single game for the first time since Oct. 17, 2009, when Shane Vereen ran for 158 and Jahvid Best for 134 on the road against UCLA.
Again, like at Northwestern, the Bears rushing offense stalled out in the third quarter, putting more pressure on Goff.
“I don’t know if he got a little tight; he missed a couple of easy throws there in the third quarter, when we had that lead,” Dykes said. “We just needed to make some first downs, and that was the thing. We were having a hard time making any first downs for a couple of drives there, and we ran a boot, he had [Lucus] Gingold pretty wide open, and missed a throw that he never misses – I’ve never seen him miss that throw in practice, ever – but he missed it. I thought overall, he played great. The kid’s really talented.”
5. Limiting the big plays. Once again, this is a tail of two halves. In the first half, Cal held Arizona to zero rushes of 12 yards or more, and one pass of 20 yards or more. While the Bears limited the Wildcats’ explosive potential, they got on the board with one rush of more than 12 yards, and five passes of 20+ yards.
In the second half, though, the Wildcats ripped off five passing plays of over 20 yards and a run of 14, while the Bears managed just one passing play over 20 yards and three rushes of over 12.
“I think that we’ll find out when we go and look at the film,” Kaufman said, when asked which defense is the true Cal defense – that of the first half, or the second. “I think that we’ve got to be what we were in the first half, no question.”
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