New Mexico State brought former Nebraska coaches and a Nebraska-like option offense to Berkeley on Saturday. What the Aggies lacked were the Cornhuskers' players, and thus the Bears handled the visitors with relative ease. While Cal's leads didn't reach blowout-type proportions until the fourth quarter, the Bears never seemed to be in danger of losing the game, either. After the first quarter, Cal maintained at least a two-score lead, although NMSU threatened to close the gap on several occasions.
NMSU won the coin toss and deferred the choice to the second half. Apparently, the Aggies couldn't wait to unleash their first trick play of the game. The kicker barely tapped the ball straight ahead and a swarm of white shirts converged on the onside kick. NMSU recovered the ball, but it didn't travel the requisite ten yards and Cal took over at the NMSU 44. Like last week, the Bears went for it all on the first play from scrimmage as Boller bombed a pass down the sideline toward WR Makonnen, who couldn't quite catch up to it inside the NMSU 5. Shortly thereafter, Cal again displayed its newfound offensive aggressiveness when the Bears went for fourth and 1 at the NMSU 35. Boller converted with a nice 15-yard bootleg run to the 20. A few plays later, Boller split two defenders in throwing a pass to WR Ward at the goal line, and LaShaun made a nice, spinning catch for the score. Just over two minutes into the contest, Cal had a 7-0 lead.
The Aggies countered with their option attack, with which they had piled up 419 yards and 24 points at then-#21 South Carolina the previous week. While the Bears were still getting a feel for defending the option, someone missed an assignment and QB Pierce broke free on a keeper for a 32-yard gain to the Cal 24. It was one of those frustrating plays on which it looked as though the defense had the QB and RB strung out, but both defenders covered the RB and the QB squirted through the line untouched. The Cal defense stiffened thereafter, and NMSU ended up booting a 36-yard field goal.
Following the kickoff, which Bethea returned 29 yards to the Cal 39, the Bears embarked on a 56-yard scoring drive keyed by a 24-yard screen pass to Igber. On third and 4 from the NMSU 5, it momentarily looked like the scrambling Boller had completed a TD pass to TE Swoboda in the back of the end zone. However, Swoboda was ruled out of bounds, and Cal had to settle for a 22-yard Jensen field goal.
While we were somewhat disappointed by the near-miss in the end zone, we didn't have to wait long for the Bears to hit paydirt once again. On the first NMSU play following the kickoff, RB Fiaseu got bottled up at the line of scrimmage and the ball squirted loose; it almost looked as though he was trying to pitch the ball to someone in the backfield, except that I can't imagine that that was his intent. Gustaveson recovered the fumble at the NMSU 10, and it took only two plays for the Bears to score a touchdown. Boller executed a play-action fake beautifully and found Swoboda in the end zone for a 6-yard TD pass. With under a minute left in the first quarter, Cal held a 17-3 advantage. Amazingly, the Bears have still scored on every Q1 possession this season en route to an impressive 52-10 point advantage over two games.
The second quarter was scoreless and nondescript unless you find excitement in a blizzard of punts. Cal saw a couple of relatively promising drives fizzle; on one, McArthur dropped a long pass and on another, Boller unwittingly tripped Igber in the backfield on a third-and-1 rushing play. NMSU had what would have been its longest pass completion of the game (32 yards) wiped out on an offensive pass-interference penalty and didn't accomplish much.
NMSU did embark on an impressive drive to start the second half, as the Aggies nickel-and-dimed their way down the field with an array of runs and short passes deep into Cal territory. The Bears had a golden opportunity to stop the drive when RB Dixon fumbled inside the Cal 10 and a couple of defenders had clear shots at recovering the ball. However, one of them tried picking up the ball to run with it rather than simply falling on it, he collided with another Bear, and neither could get a handle on the pigskin. Finally, an Aggie lineman pounced on the ball at the Cal 8. NMSU subsequently shot itself in the foot with a personal-foul penalty, and a Banta-Cain sack for a loss of 10 pushed them into a third-and-30 hole. After an incomplete pass, placekicker Aguiniga impressively booted a 50-yard field goal with room to spare, and the Cal lead decreased to 11.
Momentum didn't stay with the Aggies for long, as speedster Ward returned the ensuing kickoff 43 yards to the NMSU 47. After Igber rushed twice for a first down, dropped passes by McArthur and Ward (the latter on third down) jeopardized the Cal possession. In no man's land on fourth and 4 from the NMSU 29, Tedford again elected to go for it. Boller went right back to Ward on the same pass pattern, and this time, LaShaun held on for a first down at the 23. A well-placed pass to Swoboda put Cal at the 4, and Igber punched it in from there to make the score 24-6 in favor of the Bears.
NMSU then went on another time-consuming drive that almost closed out the third quarter. A successful fake punt on fourth and 4 from the NMSU 29 extended the drive; I don't think the Bears were fooled, they just couldn't tackle the ballcarrier fast enough. The Aggie gamble almost paid off, as Pierce hit WR Lumpkin, who had snuck well behind the Cal coverage, for an apparent 55-yard TD pass. However, NMSU was flagged for holding, and the effort went for naught. It eventually took the Aggies 10 plays to cover only 42 yards, and trailing by 18, NMSU decided to go for it in a second fourth-down situation. This one didn't work, as the Bears swamped Pierce behind the line of scrimmage on fourth and 2. Cal ran a couple of plays before the period ended.
During the quarter break, the mic man started the loathsome "The fourth quarter is ours!" chant. It's not a bad saying per se, except that it brings back bad memories of too many Q4 meltdowns during the 1996 season when Mariucci initiated that battle cry. This fourth quarter started out favorably, as NMSU was called for pass interference on third and 13, giving the Bears a first down at the NMSU 40. A nicely executed 30-yard screen pass to Igber, who ran around and through a sea of white shirts, brought Cal to the 13. Three Terrell Williams rushes gave Cal a first and goal at the NMSU 2, but a 10-yard holding penalty pushed us back from the NMSU 12 and we had to settle for a 22-yard field goal. The Bears led, 27-6, with just under ten minutes remaining.
NMSU tried to answer, marching from its 20-yard line to the Cal 44, until Banta-Cain, who had a huge day with 4.5 sacks, forced backup QB Dombrowski to fumble and Nwangwu recovered the ball. The Bears' possession didn't last long, as Igber coughed up the ball (after gaining what would have been a first down on third and 2) and NMSU took over at its 26. Cal's defense held, and with time running short, NMSU lined up to go for it on fourth and 1. But when the Aggies jumped offside, they decided to punt instead. Oops. Onrushing DT Alexander blocked the punt with one hand, and after a mad scramble, Cal ended up with the ball at the NMSU 7. (In the statistics, Alexander was credited with a 23-yard punt return – if you just looked at the numbers, you could envision the hilarious sight of a 6'3", 290-pound defensive tackle fielding a kick and running with it!) Boller leapt over the goal line for a QB sneak TD, and Jensen's extra point closed out the scoring for the Bears.
The only issue remaining was whether NMSU could get into the end zone. It looked like the Aggies would run out of time, but the Aggies finally capped a 10-play, 65-yard drive with a 26-yard Dombrowski-to-Jenkins TD pass with ten seconds left. Oh well. Limiting an opponent to double-digits would have been nice, but we'll take a three-touchdown victory any Saturday!
* Cal scored on all six of its red-, er, green-zone opportunities for the second consecutive week. ("Green means go," says Boller.) I have no idea when the last time that happened, but I'd bet it's been a looong time.
* Unlike the last few seasons, when three-and-outs were the specialty of the offense, Cal had only one three-and-out sequence after having none during the Baylor game. That's also incredible!
* NMSU also had only one three-and-out, which was indicative of the Cal defense's bend-but-don't-break afternoon. Despite being outscored by three touchdowns, the Aggies outgained the Bears in total yards (330-300), had more first downs (22-17), and controlled the clock (34:19-25:41 time-of-possession advantage). Even though they trailed virtually the entire game, NMSU ran a balanced offense (169 rushing yards, 161 passing yards) that consumed a lot of time. What the Aggies lacked was the big play; except for the last-second TD, no pass play (that counted) covered more than 20 yards, and the 32-yard run by Pierce on the opening drive was as good as it got. Credit the Cal defense for a stellar day!
* For that matter, Cal had only two plays longer than 20 yards, and they were both short screen passes that Igber turned into 30- and 24-yard gains with his speed and elusiveness. Our offense had numerous short fields with which to work, as we had touchdown drives of 15 and 7 yards and our two "long" touchdown drives went only 44 and 47 yards. Field position greatly favored the Bears, who had an average starting point of the C47 while the Aggies were saddled with an average of the NMSU 23.
* Boller posted decent numbers with a 19-for-32, 180-yard, 2-touchdown, 0-interception effort. His stats could have been better if not for a handful of dropped passes, including two by McArthur that would have gained 15-20 yards. He also missed a couple of open receivers, but the most important figure is that he has yet to throw an interception. (Kyle did dodge one bullet when an overthrown pass just bounced before the diving DB hauled in the ball.) Unlike last season, when the miracle QB worker du jour was Borges and the anticipated improvement never really materialized, Tedford has already had a positive effect on Boller. Hopefully, this has not been solely due to the quality (or lack thereof) of competition so far.
* It was hard to believe – well, maybe not, given our 8-25 record during that span - but a Chronicle article from last week noted that prior to the Baylor game, Cal hadn't had a turnover-free game in three years. We almost had two in a row until Igber's fumble in the fourth quarter. The bottom line is that Cal now has 35 points off of turnovers while it hasn't yet yielded any, which is as responsible for any other factor in our sweet 2-0 start.
* The announced attendance was again sad (< 25K), though like last week, it seemed to me that there were more people than that. I'm pretty good at guestimating baseball attendance figures, but not at football. Like last week, I'd have pegged the attendance in the low 30s.
Virginia's upset of South Carolina took a little bit of luster off this victory, as evidently the Gamecocks' struggles last weekend against NMSU were not a fluke. Nevertheless, Cal recorded a solid win and gained valuable experience in playing the option, which we'll see again in two weeks against Air Force. Michigan State is next, and on paper it may not look good for us to visit the 15th-ranked team in the country. Perhaps I'm just ignorant, but the Spartans don't scare me even with their hyped tandem of QB Jeff Smoker and WR Charlie Rogers. Though I'm not necessarily predicting a win, I believe we can hang with these guys if we can avoid turnovers and minimize big plays on defense. Though MSU has easily beaten Eastern Michigan and Rice, I'd like to think that the revitalized Cal team is more dangerous than either of those squads. Also, Michigan State has shown a tendency to let down against more lightly regarded opponents, as evidenced by their losses to Indiana and Minnesota last season. If we're lucky, we may be able to catch them looking forward to the following week's showdown with Notre Dame; certainly, the Spartan players are much more interested in extending their five-game winning streak over the Fighting Irish than beating the lowly Bears. Anyway, my alarm clock is already set bright and early for next Saturday's 9:00 am kickoff. I had hoped to visit a Cal buddy in Detroit and go to the game but unfortunately, he'll be out of town, so it'll be ESPN for me.
Go Bears! Beat the Spartans!
CalvinBear's Game Report
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