BERKELEY -- At the half, California had already set a program record by scoring 52 points against Grambling State -- the most points ever in a half -- and two of the Golden Bears' seven touchdowns came from the defensive side of the ball. Cal hadn't accomplished that feat in a season since 2012, and hadn't done it in a single game since 2010. The Bears didn't even play starting quarterback Jared Goff after the World Famed Tigers Marching Band took the field at halftime, but Jeffrey Coprich sure did, scoring his second career touchdown and hauling in a 24-yard pass.
In a game where the Bears boat-raced the visiting Tigers 73-14 (with an exclamation point 63-yard touchdown coming from Chase Forrest to Bug Rivera), what can we take away? Well, for starters, as good as we thought Cal's offense was going to be, I'd have to say that this game exceeded my expectations. Granted, it was against an FCS team, but Cal's played FCS teams each of the previous two seasons under Sonny Dykes, and at no point have the Bears looked this put-together, against anyone.
"At the end of the day, Grambling's got some good players," Dykes said. "They won seven games in a row at one point last season, and that's a hard thing to do. At the same time, you have to be able to put it in perspective, understanding that the competition is going to do nothing but get better. We've talked about San Diego State and the challenge that awaits us next week. They've been a consistent winner. It was good to play well today, but you have to be able to put it in perspective."
"I think it's a big confidence thing," Goff said. "It helps with our confidence, and gets us excited for next week, and ready to go. The next team's Mountain West, so they're in a good conference, and they've been good, consistently, for the last five years or so. They're going to come in with a good team, I think, and they're going to be tough to beat."
"I don't want to say it was easy," said receiver Kenny Lawler, who had three touchdowns, all from Goff, "because we've still always got to go out there and perform. Going down our schedule, the games are going to get tougher, and we've just got to come, every week, ready to play. We're going to be very prepared."
Cal's 73 total points were the second-most in the modern era history of the program, with the most being 86 against Pacific in 1991. But those are just numbers. Let's dig a little deeper.
Jared Goff was under way too much pressure.
Granted, Grambling brought six on the pass rush for much of the day, but Goff took at least 10 hits during the first half -- far too many against an FCS school, even one that averaged 3.5 sacks last season.
"I think they did a good job for what Grambling was doing," Goff said of his line. "They were running a lot of zero-pressure, a lot of six-, seven-man blitzes, so for what they were doing, I think they did a really good job. We worked on a lot of stuff at practice this week, and they applied it pretty well. I felt good with what they did."
Goff finished the game 24-for-32, for 309 yards with three touchdowns and one pick -- a whacky bounce off of the back of the arms of Bryce Treggs and into the waiting hands of Nicholas Peoples. Those numbers, by the way, came in just one half of football.
"That's a fluke thing," Goff said of the pick. "It tends to happen to me a little more often than I would like. It's a fluke thing, and it's nobody's fault. It's just a little slip up, but I'll never lose trust in any of those guys, no matter what. He called that one. He looked at me, and said, 'Hey, post, post, post,' and I was like, 'Yeah, good call,' and told him to run it."
Goff, of course, had seen those types of interceptions before. In his first game against Northwestern in 2013, threw three interceptions, with two coming off deflections. Lasco also coughed one up against the Wildcats last season. Stephen Anderson has had one in the past, as has Darius Powe.
"Jared got hit more than I was comfortable with him getting hit, but we knew coming in that was a possibility," Dykes said. "I thought he handled it well. I thought he played well. He made a couple of big-time throws on some post routes, thought he made good decisions overall, took care of the ball well, had an interception with Treggs, but it bounced right off of Bryce's hands and into their hands. We had two of those today that happened -- one with Bug Rivera and Chase Forrest. I thought both quarterbacks played well."
Goff said that one of the things he's worked on most this offseason has been getting the ball out faster, and he certainly did that on Saturday.
"I'm seeing the field better, and understanding what I'm trying to do," Goff said. "I'm really not forcing stuff, and letting the game come to me. I think the best way to put it is I'm able to see things better, slowed down."
Backup QB Forrest took a sack late in the third quarter, and the Tigers were able to apply lots of pressure seemingly at will, on either side of the line. Now, part of that's due to the fact that they were rushing six, and that Goff was able to find the hot reads so quickly, so it looked like he was more hurried than maybe he was, but the fact that Brian Farley and Steven Moore were abused equally should be of grave concern. The Bears did find time to play their second-team line, so we saw Aaron Cochran at left tackle (he allowed two pressures, by my count) and Vince Johnson at right tackle, as well as Semisi Uluave at right guard (probably the most impressive, as he drove several defenders back three to five yards).
The turnovers were also of concern (one fumble on the goal line by Vic Enwere, and two picks).
"We're not going to be able to turn the ball over three times against a good team and win," said Dykes.
"We had a few snags there, early, with the interception and the fumble down on the goal line, but besides those two plays, we played pretty well the whole game. In that first quarter, it was exciting to see the defense get two touchdowns, because I don't think they've had any since I've been here. Having them do that in the first quarter was really, really good to see, and it built some momentum, and we just kept rolling off of it."
Yes, it was an FCS defense, but Kenny Lawler is going to have one heck of a season
Lawler caught all three of Goff's touchdown passes in the first half, and six passes total for 69 yards. Lawler's three scoring grabs moved him into seventh on Cal's all-time touchdown receptions list with 18, passing Keenan Allen (17).
"Man, it means a lot," Lawler said. "Trying to accomplish that goal of being the all-time leader means I'm going to have to work for it. We've all been putting in that work during the summer, and that's when it really pays off. Man, it's going to mean a lot, if I get it."
Lawler said that his three TDs were "a little bit of both" plays called from the sideline, and changes that Goff made at the line.
"Jared sees something, or I see something in the defense, I'm able to try to get his attention, as well, and if I like it and he likes it, then it's on," Lawler said. "The three touchdowns were great play-calling by coach Franklin. Great play-caller. He always has us in position to win, and, man, he sure called those three posts and three touchdowns."
Lawler makes everything look easy. Yes, he's going to face much tougher cornerbacks -- and likely more press coverage than he saw on Saturday -- but the athleticism, the reach (remember Vicinity Kenny?) and the leaping ability were on full display, as was his rapport with Goff. On that note, after Treggs's off-the-arms pick, Goff went right back to the senior receiver and delivered a 51-yard strike between two defenders. That shows you how much trust Goff has in his receivers. That one play shows you the kind of leader -- and frankly, the kind of quarterback -- Goff is.
"Probably every touchdown I threw to Kenny, I wouldn't have thrown two years ago," Goff said. "Those were all timing routes, stuff we've worked on in the offseason, getting on-time. I have to trust him, and he has to trust me to throw it in the right spot. I'd like to talk about him: He did a great job today. I try not to miss him too many times. He's open a lot, and did a tremendous job for me."
Dykes -- who's taken over coaching the wide receivers -- was asked in the post-game presser to evaluate his job in the opener. "That guy deserves a raise," he laughed. 12 different players caught passes against Grambling State.
You thought we wouldn't talk about the defense, didn't you?
Yeah, well, we are. Yes, this is a FCS team (there should be a little counter down below to show how many times I make that disclaimer), but think about this: Cal hasn't had two defensive touchdowns in a single season since Josh Hill (a pick against Utah) and Trevor Guyton (fumble against Fresno State) did it for the Bears in 2011. Cal hadn't scored twice on defense in a single game since Darian Hagan (fumble) and Mike Mohamed (interception) did it against Colorado in 2010.
"Hopefully, this is the first step on our defense getting on the same level as the offense is, nationally," said Cameron Walker, who had his first career pick-six. "We've been talked bad about since I've been here, the past three years. Finally, it's time to get rid of that and make strides."
I've been fairly hard on Walker over the past year and a half. Since his debut season -- when, as a true freshman cornerback, he was thrown into the fire as a safety against Ohio State -- he's seemed to have regressed. Well, today, Walker netted a 14-yard pick-six, and a sack -- both career-firsts. The interception -- like Goff's -- came off of a deflection.
"I was in nickel, and I read the quarterback's drop, but I thought it was a three-step, so I was expanding to what I thought was going to be a screen, an out route, something in the quick game, and I saw him throw it, and it actually went over my head," Walker said. "I was like, 'Oh, dang, that's probably going to be bad,' but then I saw it hit the back of the head of the receiver, and I was like, 'Oh, I'm here!' I just went to it, grabbed it, and I was like, 'Oh! I caught it!' Then, I turned around, and D-White [Darius White] was like, 'Yo, just go!' and I was like, 'We've got to go, huh?' It went from there. Exactly the way I planned it."
Walker was of course joking, but the play was a big one for defensive coordinator Art Kaufman.
"I think the big thing is, those are drills that we work on -- not just the drills, as individuals, but we work them as a team -- hey, pick, take it down the near sideline," Kaufman said. "We've got a process in everything we're trying to do, and that was the one thing, like when Cam picked his ball, the first thing we do is wheel outside and point, knowing, 'Hey, I'm headed down the sideline,' knowing what he's coached to do. I thought it did some good things, just for the morale of the kids, knowing that, once they were able to make the play, not just make the play, but do something with it, afterwards. That's a thing we talk about, all the time."
Devante Downs also picked up his first interception, and his first pick-six, on an eight-yard right-place-right-time interception with 21 seconds left in the first quarter (Puka Lopa and David "Honey Mustard" Davis got the pressure).
"I saw the quarterback coming back my way, and I knew that David Davis and Puka Lopa had him down, so I was waiting for him to either throw or get sacked," Downs said. "Luckily, he threw it, and it led to a great play."
The Bears as a team had three sacks -- including two on one drive (one by Walker, and the next play by Todd Barr). Darius Allensworth also tallied a pick, as did Luke Rubenzer, a career-first for the converted quarterback. Rubenzer also added a long pass breakup. Good signs? We saw Jake Kearney get a lot of run when the Bears weren't in nickel and dime. Tony Mekari got several pressures, and got to play in the same game as younger brother Patrick Mekari -- a true freshman left guard. The concern? Grambling was able to get yards up the middle, and that's where the Bears should be strongest, with Mustafa Jalil and James Looney. The biggest run of the day, though, for Grambling, happened with just under 10 minutes left in the game, against the right edge of the defensive line, with Kearney and Evan Rambo getting pushed aside on a 90-yard scamper by Martez Carter. That one's more on the outside linebackers not sealing the edge, though.
"The sign of a good defensive football team is when they can create havoc," Dykes said. "We scored two defensive touchdowns. I think I can correctly say that that's the first defensive touchdown since I've been here, and there were two of them in the first quarter. Our guys are running to the football, creating turnovers and playing opportunistic football. It was big for us."
Downs led the defense with six tackles, while Marcus Manley tallied two tackles, with a team-best 2.0 tackles for loss. The Bears had 8.0 tackles for loss on the day.
The rushing attack needs a little bit more work.
In the first half -- and I'm concerning myself with the first half because that's the best true look we got at the Bears, before they brought in second-teamers -- Cal passed 32 times and rushed 14 times. That's not the balance you want, particularly with Daniel Lasco as one of your main weapons. Lasco had just five carries for 14 yards and a touchdown. Khalfani Muhammad was very, very good, rushing seven times for 90 yards, but while he hit the holes hard and showed much more lateral quickness than I've seen from him in the past, he didn't quite have that second gear I think we've come to expect from a track athlete like him. Granted, Cal was able to attack the suspect Grambling secondary at-will, so they didn't need to rush much, but I'd have still liked to have seen a bit more.
"Grambling had an interesting scheme," Dykes said. "They play a lot of cover-zero, put three in the box, and it's hard to run the ball against them, because there's going to be an extra unblocked man at the line of scrimmage, and at the same time, if they decide to blitz, there's going to be an unblocked guy off the edge, as well."
That said, the Bears really spread out their rushing attack, with five players tallying five carries or more. Critiques of the actual business of rushing aside, there were several key blocks in the game for Goff that came from the running backs -- blocks that gave him time to check down and find the right read. That 51-yard bomb to Treggs? It was made possible by Enwere. So, while I think I'd like to see a bit more of the rushing attack, the fundamental improvements are there, as is the depth.
The youth movement is afoot.
Dykes said that the Bears would play 8-10 freshmen, and they wound up playing eight, by my count. Uluave played, as did the younger Mekari (probably the biggest surprise, because only very few offensive linemen play as true freshmen), as did Rambo, Kanawai Noa (4 catches for 48 yards) and Jaylinn Hawkins (a breakup in the fourth quarter). Brandon Singleton (son of Grambling alum and former NFLer Nate Singleton) had one kickoff return for 11 yards, Malik McMorris blocked for one touchdown as a red-zone fullback and got at least six snaps witht he offense, and DePriest Turner had one tackle.
"They're going to play. They're going to have to play," Dykes said of the youngsters. "They're good enough players to help us win."
Dykes actually didn't mean to put Singleton in on punt return, but the Bears were digging so deep on the depth chart that he wound up being in the right place at the right time, with the right number. Dykes called for No. 19 to go into the game, and both Singleton and Turner went in.
Forrest, seeing his first action, went 10-for-17 with one interception, throwing for 162 yards and one touchdown.
"It was very, very important for Chase to get some experience," Dykes said. "We felt, coming in, that he needed to play. He's going to be the backup quarterback, and every single rep in a game is incredibly important for his development, and he's going to be a really good player. We think he's going to be a good quarterback, and I thought he played very well for the first time out."
"Jared and the first team were kicking butt, and halftime came around, and they said it was my turn to go," Forrest said. "I took it head-on. It was great. It felt awesome, to be out there, finally. I felt comfortable out there, and I was able to see the whole field. It was amazing."
Before he went in, Goff told Forrest to relax, to take one play at a time.
"That was the big thing," Forrest said. "Just tips here and there about the defense. It was all good stuff."