SALT LAKE CITY – It had all been going wrong for California junior quarterback Jared Goff. His completion percentage hovered around 50, he’d thrown a career-high five interceptions, but he had his moment. He’d driven the No. 23 Bears to the doorstep of the red zone with a miracle completion to Kenny Lawler, but his big national-stage moment, the moment that could have vaulted him securely into the Heisman conversation, was ruined by a guy named Boobie.
With fourth-and-six at the Utah 22, and just 30 seconds left on the clock, Goff tried to find Darius Powe up the seam, but instead saw the pass batted away by Boobie Hobbs – the sophomore safety out of New Orleans.
"He's a great quarterback, no doubt," Hobbs said. "I give him his props, but we have a great secondary. We have the best all-around talent up here. We were not worried, not one bit. If we line up against Megatron or Calvin Johnson, we know we play man-to-man and we need to ball up. Sometimes you give up a big play, but that's what big-time players do. Big-time players make big-time plays and you're going to get a chance."
No. 5 Utah took over, and ran out the clock on a 30-24 win over the No. 23 Bears.
"The difference was myself and my play," said Goff. "I turned the ball over five times. Whenever you do that, it's going to be tough to win. That being said, we turned the ball over six times, and we still had a very good shot to win at the end there, against the No. 5 team in the country. That speaks volumes of our team, I think. I can't be happier with the team I'm on."
That sentiment was echoed by safety Stefan McClure.
"I'd still pick him out of all the quarterbacks in the Pac-12," said the senior defensive back, who had four tackles.
"Everybody realizes we missed an opportunity," said head coach Sonny Dykes. "I think, at the same time, we turned the ball over six times and had a chance to win the last possession of the game. It's a credit to how far we've come as a football team and as a program. I'm disappointed for them."
The Bears (5-1, 2-1 in Pac-12) melted early in the bright spotlights of ESPN College Game Day, but they didn’t evaporate. Cal scored three turnovers against an offense that had given up just four all season.
The Utes had been picked off just twice over their first four games, and thanks to linebacker Devante Downs and true freshman DePriest Turner, the Bears doubled that number. Defensive end Kyle Kragen – who finished with a career-high 14 tackles – set a personal best for stops, as did Hardy Nickerson, who also posted 11. Safety Damariay Drew was also stout on the back end.
"We spent some time maybe in the first half getting accustomed to playing in a big game like this. We can't afford to do that. We want to play in these kinds of games. We expect to be a football team that competes and plays in these kinds of games. We'll handle it better next time we're in this situation." -- Sonny Dykes
"I thought we really played well in the back end and contested the passing game pretty well," said Dykes. "The zone read hurt us a couple of times, but I thought we contained the quarterback (Travis Wilson) pretty well on some of that stuff. I thought that we just played hard and were in the right place. I thought we had some guys make plays."
Goff, though, Cal’s golden boy, had a nightmare of a game, far greater than the dismal first quarter against Oregon his freshman year. This one doesn't sting. This one aches. This one wounds. Goff became the only FBS quarterback this year to throw four interceptions in one half.
"I played probably the worst game of my life tonight, and they didn't flinch," Goff said of his defense. "They held me up the whole time."
Goff hadn’t thrown more than three interceptions in a single contest since his first collegiate game -- 29 starts ago. He’d only thrown two in a game twice. In his 30th career start, he threw four picks in the first half alone against Utah, and finished with five on the day, as Cal turned the ball over six times. Two of Goff's picks went to Dominique Hatfield.
"The defense gave the offense more than enough opportunities," said receiver Stephen Anderson.
The Bears – who came into the game having lost 10 turnovers on the season – turned the ball over five times before halftime, and yet, somehow, trailed just 24-17, in part thanks to strong back end play by Cameron Walker, who made two big open-field tackles in the first half, and Damariay Drew, who finished with nine stops despite having missed much of the second and third quarters.
"I thought our defense played hard all night," Dykes said. "They're playing with some confidence. If somebody makes a play on us, they just play the next play. They keep playing our game, keep playing hard and make people earn what they get. The defense certainly bailed the offense out int he first half. The offense gave them some short fields and the defense held them to field goals."
The Bears gave the ball up on each of their first two possessions, with Goff’s third tipped pick of the season (he has five overall), and a Daniel Lasco fumble on his first carry. Lasco would not see another snap on offense for the rest of the game.
"He's alright, he's alright," Dykes said of his running back's health. As for why he didn't play after that fumble? "I just didn't feel like he was ready to play, physically."
Lawler – normally sure-handed -- essentially took 14 points off the board for Cal, through his miss on a potential touchdown with Cal down, 10-7 in the second quarter, and the ball that bounced off his hands for the pick on the first Cal drive of the game, a drive that saw Goff complete his first three passes for 39 yards, rush for eight on his own, and get two good rushes by Khalfani Muhammad and Tre Watson, moving the Bears down to the Utes’ 29-yard line.
Though Lawler’s gaffes and Lasco’s fumble just under six minutes into the game killed any early momentum the Bears could have built, Cal’s much-questioned defense allowed three points off of turnovers, with Cameron Walker making two clutch open-field tackles and Utah shooting itself in the foot, with a -8-yard drive resulting in a 44-yard field goal.
But, with 3:26 to go before the half, Utah exploded with a 54-yard touchdown pass from Travis Wilson to Cory Butler-Byrd. Then, Goff delivered his fourth interception, leading to a quick, three-play scoring drive for the Utes.
The Bears answered back on the very next drive, with a 50-yard catch-and-run up-the-seam throw from Goff to Trevor Davis setting up an eventual one-yard TD pass to Powe, putting Cal down by a touchdown going into the half.
The Cal defense once again held stiff on the first drive of the second half for Utah, and despite five runs by 32 yards by Devontae Booker, the Utes settled for a 36-yard field goal.
Booker finished the game with 222 rushing yards, and 45 receiving yards.
"I thought we did some really good things," said Dykes. "I thought we tackled well most of the night. Booker's a really good running back, and he's really hard to tackle. He's a big, strong runner. We let him get out a couple of times and get one or two big plays, but overall, he had to earn everything he got."
While Booker was certainly the star for the Utes, another Devont(a)e – Cal’s Devante Downs – was the star on defense for the Bears. After the Utes opened the second half with the field goal, Downs – who had already secured his second interception of the season in the first half – laid the wood to Booker on a swing pass, popping the ball out to be recovered at the Utah 35 by Caleb Coleman.
The Bears needed just three plays to score, bringing the game to 27-24 with 2:03 left in the third quarter.
Booker, though, could not be stopped. His hard-charging running – especially up the middle – wore down the Cal defense, crossing the 200-yard rushing mark early in the fourth quarter. It was the first time Cal had given up over 200 yards on the ground to a single player since Bishop Sankey turned the trick for Washington in 2013, rushing for 241 yards. Still, though, Cal held the Utes to a 39-yard field goal (Kragen notched his fifth sack of the season and his sixth tackle for loss, on the drive), and forced a punt on the next.
“It's definitely something we're going to have to get over,” said Goff. "It was a tough loss in a game that we very well could have won, barring a few mistakes at the end there. It's something I have to work through, too, and something that I have to get better from."
Cal returns to Berkeley for a bye week, and then will travel to the Rose Bowl to face UCLA on a Thursday night, primetime game, once again in that spotlight.
"I think we all wanted to win really badly," Dykes said, "especially Jared. Sometimes, when you want to win really badly, you migh try to do too much. Next time, we'll react a little differently."