James Looney made the biggest stop of his career, and, arguably, the biggest stop the California defense has made in almost a decade, on Saturday against then-No. 18 Utah. But he made it without the backup of his understudy, the man teammates call "Baby Looney" -- Luc Bequette.
Bequette and Looney have arguably the best arms on the team other than the quarterbacks, regularly spinning 50-yard spirals before and after practice (Bequette once hit the mid-90s with his fastball in high school), and, before the game against the Utes, Bequette was doing just that, and as he went up to catch a ball in the end zone, he came down awkwardly on his right leg. 15 minutes later, he held his head in his hands as he was presented with a pair of crutches in the north tunnel.
"He's being evaluated today," head coach Sonny Dykes said in his Sunday teleconference. "It was one of those freak accidents that happened before the game. He was actually playing catch. He landed funny on his leg, and we're kind of waiting to see exactly what kind of injury it is. He's meeting with the doctors today."
Defensive end commit Gabe Cherry -- one of many visitors on Saturday -- mused before the game that he wished he was able to help out, but, alas, he's still putting high school quarterbacks on their backs for Bakersfield (Calif.) Centennial. Looney and the second-string defensive line -- including Russell Becker, who saw his first significant action -- held serve just fine, limiting Utah to 176 rushing yards in the 28-23 win.
"I think he did really well," defensive tackle Tony Mekari said of Becker. "Coming for his first D1 game up here, he's come a really long way. At camp, he was still trying to learn the whole thing, trying to learn the progressions, step and technique, and he did fairly well. He's excited he got all of those goosebumps and stuff out of him now, so we'll be looking forward to him helping us out the rest of the season."
Linebacker Devante Downs set a career high with 12 tackles, while linebacker Ray Davison notched 12, including a stop of running back Zack Moss on first-and-goal at the Cal two-yard line to save a touchdown -- one of six stops inside the Bears six-yard line. That stop knocked Davison out of the game, but he, along with others, are recupperating, and should be available this week against Oregon State.
"It was a physical ballgame," Dykes said. "They've got a big offensive line and a big defensive line, and I think our guys are a little bit banged up. I don't know that we had any significant injuries, at all. Khalfani [Muhammad] didn't play, Darius [Allensworth] didn't play, and we expect both of them back this week. That's encouraging. Ray went down late in the game, and he's just a little bit bruised and banged up, but no significant injury or anything like that. We came out of the game pretty good. Patrick Mekari and Aaron [Cochran] both, Patrick was playing on an ankle, and Aaron was playing on a knee, so the two of them both played and played pretty well, at times. Those guys are getting healthier as well."
Cochran exited late in the first quarter after his knee got rolled up on, but re-entered the game midway through the third quarter.
"I don't know if either of them are 100 percent, or were 100 percent on Saturday," Dykes said. "But, between the two of them, we managed to get through the game."
The other man involved in the final stop, along with Looney, was Mekari, who made five tackles, including one tackle for loss.
"It's kind of crazy to think that the whole game, the whole 60 minutes, everything, comes down to less than a yard," Mekari said. "But, when you think like that, it can kind of get into your head, and you can start doing extra stuff, and something our whole defense is based off of, is do your own job. If you do your own job, and the guy next to you does his job, then you'll get the stop, as we did. You've just got to focus on doing your thing, your technique, that we've been working on since camp started, and spring ball, and years in the past, to get the job done."
Utah had been successful four straight times on fourth down headed into Saturday's game, but in the fourth quarter, after the Utes had converted on fourth down with an Armand Shyne run, the Bears halted Moss, with a tackle for loss by Looney. That stop led to a touchdown drive, capped off with a 56-yard touchdown strike from Davis Webb to Demetris Robertson.
"I think it did help," Mekari said. "It got the whole team mojo and everything kind of going, because, obviously, it was a big play, but at the same time, we all knew that, with 10 minutes left in the fourth, there was still a lot of time left, and the game's not over until there's zero on the clock. There was still a lot of time. Yeah, we were excited, and it was a big play, but there's still a lot of football to be played after that."
The first-string defense was on the field for more than 10 straight plays as the Utes made their final -- but futile -- push. Utah, which averaged 72.25 plays per game until Saturday's 97, was not used to playing so many snaps.
"I think that could be it," Mekari said. "We've had a tough summer, in our workouts and everything, with coach Damon [Harrington] and the strength staff. I think that really paid off there [on the final drive]. The first group was in for over 10 plays, we counted, going in that last drive, and no time outs that we called during that last drive, and we still held them up. I felt fine. I'm sure the rest of the team also felt fine, and we were just strong and ready to go until the clock hit zero. You can't take a play off."
In conference play, the Bears are leading the conference in yards per play allowed (5.06), down from 6.52 yards per play in the previous two games.
"I think, partially, from the first couple games, I think we kind of took it as a wake-up call," Mekari said. "We're coming back, fired up, ready to go. We looked at film, looked at some of the issues we were having, and I think we've just made corrections to those issues we've had, and we're trying to learn off things. Even though we had a great game, there's still a lot of stuff to learn from this past game, so we're looking at that and trying to fix that so we can be even better against Oregon State next week."
Utah came in leading the Pac-12 in sacks, but Webb took only one sack.
"Really, we didn't do much anything different," Dykes said. "We had a little trouble with No. 50 (Pita Taumoepenu), he was their speed rusher, and they got him over our left tackles, and neither one of them are completely healthy. It was a little bit of a tough match up, and got a little bit of pressure early that caused us to step up. We chipped him some with our running back, made that adjustment in the second quarter, where we were going to get the back to help the left tackle, because he was getting speed rushed a little bit."
"Davis does a nice job getting the ball out on time, and we stayed out of long-yardage situations early in the game, and then got into a bunch late in the game," Dykes said. "When you sit down and look at why we stalled out offensively, we had penalties that hurt us. We had four third-and-long situations in the game, because of either negative plays or penalties."
The most significant of those drives was the Bears' final drive, in which a holding call on a 12-yard Melquise Stovall reception by Ray Hudson put Cal in first-and-20, and the sack on Webb by Taumoepenu put the Bears in third-and-27.
"Against a team like Utah, they're really good in third-and-long situations, probably as good as anybody, because they do a really good job rushing the passer with four people," Dykes said. "They do a nice job of coverage on the back end, and play cover-2 really well in those long-yardage situations. I thought our offensive line did a really good job. I thought Jake [Spavital] really did a nice job getting the ball out of Davis's hand really quickly."
Robertson was just three yards away from his second straight 100-yard receiving game, and after the game, credited graduate assistant David Gru -- who discovered Chad Hansen -- with his development.
"David does a great job," Dykes said. "David played receiver for us at Louisiana Tech, and he's got experience," said Dykes, who also coaches the wide receivers, in tandem with Gru. "He does a really good job, being around the players, and so I think he's been instrumental in helping me develop those guys. He's just a hard worker, and he's somebody who's played in this offense and knows kind of the tricks of the trade. He's done a good job, for sure."
Cal travels north to face the Beavers (1-3, 01 in Pac-12) this weekend at 6 p.m., on the Pac-12 Networks, and Oregon State is in the bottom two in the conference in scoring offense (22.5 points per game), total offense (312.0 yards per game), passing offense (172.8 yards per game), passer efficiency (100.7), punt return average (3.8 yards per return), interceptions (4), sacks (6), sacks against (17), first downs (16.5 per game) and fourth down conversion (0-for-4).
"I have watched a couple games, just finished the Colorado game and got into our game a little bit last year," Dykes said. "You know, they're very versatile, defensively. Gary [Andersen] is a really good football coach, and they do a lot of different things with their defensive front. They're in three-down some, they're in four-down some, they're always moving their line around. It's on of those games that's hard to prepare for, because they are going to show you a lot of different looks, both in the front, and on the back end in coverage. They pretty much run the gamut when it comes to ways that they play people. I think, for us, we've got to do a good job of executing, and we've done that at times this year. We've got to continue to get better. We're still playing with young players, and our execution is not where it needs to be, quite yet."