There was Cal. Annihilating the #15 team in the nation. On the road. In front of a packed house and national TV audience.
Well, at least we thought it was the Cal football team. The names and faces on the big screen were familiar. While the uniforms looked different, they were colored blue and gold. But there was something that looked amiss. Oh yeah. They were annihilating the #15 team in the nation, on the road, in front of a packed house and national TV audience.
Did I mention that Cal annihilated the #15 team in the nation, on the road, in front of a packed house and national TV audience?
Sorry. It just sounds so nice it's worth repeating ad nauseum.
The game started inauspiciously enough. After receiving the opening kickoff, Cal managed one first down before having to punt. (That broke our streak of scoring on every Q1 possession this season.) The defense forced Michigan State into a three and out, and the Bears subsequently drove 44 yards (aided by a 15-yard Spartan personal foul) before Jensen missed a 47-yard FG attempt. MSU managed to get past midfield before a long third-and-1 pass from star QB Jeff Smoker to mega-star WR Charles Rogers fell incomplete. Then Powell broke through in a big way. Jemeel fielded the MSU punt at the Cal 10, shrugged off a cover man who almost had him wrapped up immediately, ran laterally toward the sideline, veered upfield, and outran the last two guys into the end zone on a spectacular 90-yard TD. It was the fourth-longest punt return in Cal history; Powell knocked his electrifying 83-yard TD against USC in 2000 into fifth place. Suddenly, the Bears had a 7-0 lead.
That served as the Spartans' wake-up call. After the kickoff, it only took MSU five plays to reach the Cal 1 with most of the real estate gained on a 25-yard run by big RB Dawan Moss and a 31-yard completion to Rogers. But on second and goal, luck and opportunity, which along with the force have been with the Bears this year, presented themselves again. Moss fumbled the pitch from Smoker and, from the ground and with a Spartan on top of him, LB Nixon somehow snatched the ball for the recovery.
The Bears could only get the ball to the 20 before being forced to punt, and this time it took MSU only two snaps to get to the Cal 2. A 21-yard pass to Rogers, coupled with a roughing-the-passer flag and a pass-interference penalty on the hapless defender guarding (who else?) Rogers, gave the Spartans first and goal. But again, MSU came away with nothing. First, Smoker was tackled behind the line on a busted passing play. Then, he had seemingly all day to find an open receiver but held onto the ball until he was finally sacked by DE Cherry all the way back at the 18. On third and goal, Smoker threw an ill-advised pass toward Rogers into double coverage and Bethea easily snagged the ball for an interception; even if he weren't there, safety Asomugha would've had a great shot at the pick. The shell-shocked Spartan offense would not be heard from again in the half, as it only generated two first downs for the rest of the quarter and change.
Another MSU mistake opened the door for the Bears in the second quarter. On a Cal punt, the return man inexplicably didn't field the ball at the 15 and it rolled all the way to the MSU 2. (The 66-yarder was Fredrickson's career high.) On third down from the 3, Smoker drifted back to pass from his own end zone and one of the Spartan linemen was nailed for holding, with the play resulting in a safety. Cal got two points and the ball in great position at the MSU 29 after Ward broke about four tackles on a 56-yard return of the free kick. Three incompletions and a false-start penalty later, Jensen attempted a 51-yard FG. He booted it through, thereby eclipsing his previous career high of 45 and giving the Bears a 12-0 advantage.
On the ensuing kickoff, cover man Ryan Guiterrez made a beautiful strip of return man Hayes and the Bears recovered the ball at the MSU 20. Cal's field position vacillated backward (on a 5-yard loss by Igber), forward (on a 20-yard pass to Makonnen), backward again (on consecutive 15-yard offensive pass-interference and 5-yard delay-of-game penalties), and forward again (on a 15-yard pass to Makonnen). Finally, Jensen kicked a 27-yard field goal to make the score 15-0.
Cal almost received another MSU donation when Smoker threw a short pass directly to LB Daniels, who had replaced the injured Klotsche. Daniels had nothing but green grass ahead of him but he couldn't get a handle on the ball and it fell incomplete.
With just under three minutes remaining in the half, a 15-point lead would have been very nice. But the Bears weren't satisfied. From the 33, Cal marched deep into MSU territory on passes to Swoboda and McArthur sandwiched around a 15-yard defensive pass-interference penalty. From the 14, Tedford reached into the bag of tricks and ran the old pitch-to-the-WR/throw-to-the-QB gadget that we also ran against Baylor. Ward's pass was slightly behind Boller, but Kyle still caught it, nicely dodged a would-be tackler around the 5, and took a hit as he dove into the end zone.
With 19 seconds remaining in the half, Cal looked to go into the break with a 22-0 lead. But the Spartans were still in a generous mood, as return man Bradley coughed up the kickoff at the MSU 28. The Bears had 11 seconds with which to work. Though Boller's lone pass was incomplete, the Spartans were nailed for roughing the passer, and Jensen nailed a 32-yard field goal at the gun. We could hear the fans booing as the teams left the field.
Coach Bobby Williams undoubtedly read his team the riot act during halftime, as Smoker & the Spartans came out smoking to start Q3. MSU covered 91 yards in 10 plays, as Moss trampled over and Rogers ran through the Cal defense, with the drive finishing on a 15-yard Smoker-to-Rogers TD. On our first play, Boller threw his worst pass of the season (a bomb/prayer under heavy pressure from an unblocked Spartan) and DB Harmon picked it off at the MSU 43. The ensuing drive, which featured more Rogers and a Cal roughing-the-passer penalty, closed out on a brilliant juggling catch by WR Randall for 2-yard TD reception. The margin had shrunk to 11, the crowd was back into the game, Smoker was on fire (8-11 for 101 yards & 2 TDs in the two possessions), Rogers was running wild (8 catches for 151 yards by then), and the potential was there for the Bears to come unglued.
But Cal didn't fold, and instead responded with the most important drive of the afternoon that deflated MSU. In fact, the Bears actually broke out the option offense and resembled Nebraska (though not the one that Penn State walloped 40-7!). After an 11-yard pass to McArthur, Cal covered the remaining 58 yards on the ground without even attempting a pass, and Boller looked like he was recruited as the #1 *option* QB in the country. Igber ran for 33, Williams for 20, and Boller did the honors himself on a 2-yard option run, thereby completing the hat trick of scoring on passing, receiving, and running TDs in the same game. Cal led, 32-14, with two minutes remaining in Q3. (Incidentally, that was our last possession in the red zone, and for the day we went 4-for-4; Cal has now scored on all 16 red-zone opportunities this season with 12 TDs and 4 FGs.)
Trailing by 18, MSU's outlook was bleak, and the lights went out on the next play from scrimmage when Smoker's first pass was tipped by Nwangwu and intercepted by Bethea at the MSU 33. We dodged a bullet when Makonnen fumbled after a reception but was able to recover the ball himself. A few plays later, Boller hit Igber on a short receiver screen pass and Joe ran through two arm tackles into the end zone for a 23-yard TD.
With the scoreboard reading Cal 39, Michigan State 14, the Spartans inserted their backup RB Richard and kept the ball on the ground, chewing up yards and clock until reaching the Cal 20. Once there, though, MSU went back to the pass and, with no help from the refs, fizzled. First, Powell made a great play to break up a pass intended for Rogers in the end zone. On third down, Smoker completed an apparent TD pass to Rogers but the great Spartan receiver was ruled not to have gotten a foot down in the end zone, though replays seemed to indicate otherwise. It was a tough call, but probably irrelevant except for its impact on Rogers' stats/Heisman chances. When Smoker's fourth-down pass fell incomplete, the MSU fire went out.
The Bears weren't through yet, though. After an array of runs and short passes garnered thirty yards and two first downs, Cal nailed the coffin shut on a 54-yard Boller-to-Ward pass play. LaShaun caught the ball around the MSU 45, spun away from a defender, and outran the field for a TD. Cal's lead burgeoned to 32, and ESPN showed great shots of a very empty Spartan Stadium.
The game was all over but the shouting. Cal could have had its sixth takeaway but LB Tremblay's interception was nullified by an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty on a defensive lineman and MSU managed a final TD with backup quarterback Dowdell. And thus Cal completed its annihilation of the #15 team in the nation, on the road, in front of a packed house and national TV audience. It was such a shock that one of the ESPN announcers said something to the effect of "Give Coach Williams and his staff a week to get the ship righted, and if they can't, get rid of all of them."
I hope this is the first of two defeats we hang on teams with a big "S" on their helmets! While I had thought we could hang with the Spartans, there's no way I would have predicted a 24-point thrashing. Indeed, either Michigan State was the most overrated team in the nation (outside of once-#6 Colorado, though the Buffalos did lose their starting QB Ochs), the Spartans were too busy worrying about upcoming opponent Notre Dame (who'd better be ready for a PISSED-OFF MSU squad), or Cal just rules! All this madness begs the question: what changed from last year? The team was 1-10. Morale had to be near an all-time low. We lost NFL draft picks LB Fujita and OL Walker plus valuable OL Ludwig and a slew of cornerbacks. By all accounts, we added the lowest-rated recruiting class in the conference. Could the turnaround be attributed solely to coaching and attitude? With essentially the same key personnel as last season, it must be. The results have obviously been dramatic, highlighted by:
1) Turnovers. As in we're gittin' ‘em. With a total of 12 takeaways (6 interceptions, 6 fumbles), we're already two-thirds of the way to our 2001 aggregate of 18. The Bears have scored 48 points from those turnovers; note that we scored 53 total points in our first three games last season. Takeaways can be forced, or you can simply get lucky, and we're riding high on both counts right now.
2) Turnovers. As in we're not givin' ‘em. We had a mind-boggling 35 turnovers in 2001, while this year, we've only given away two, and opponents have a lone TD from those gifts. Our turnover ratio has gone from –17, second worst in the nation, to +10, second best in the nation!
3) Offensive efficiency. Boller hasn't been perfect but most importantly, he's only thrown one pick against seven touchdowns. (Never mind the fact that Kyle [142.4] is the lowest-rated passer on the team behind RB Williams [592.6], backup QB Robertson [533.8], and WR Ward [273.8].) The OL is giving him enough time so he hasn't had to panic and run for his life as he did all too many times in the past; Kyle has only been sacked three times so far. The receivers are actually holding onto the ball for the most part. Tight ends are actually involved in the offense. After his midseason injury last year, Igber looks as good as ever. The trick plays have been fun and effective.
4) Defensive effectiveness. The defense is giving up yards (361 per game) but limiting its point yield. Though Banta-Cain's 8 sacks last year (ranking #12 on Cal's all-time single-season sack list) were all but lost in the muck of the worst defense in school history, he's getting the attention he deserves now. DBs Powell and Bethea were often befuddled in '01 but have been rejuvenated in '02. Our LB corps has been great, though it may take a hit with Klotsche's injury.
5) Special teams. Powell's 90-yard punt-return TD was a thing of beauty. Alexander blocked a punt. We're routinely getting good runbacks after kickoffs. Jensen is 5-for-7 on field goals, including the 51-yarder, and is perfect on his 19 PAT attempts. Fredrickson's 41.4-yard punting average is solid.
Putting all that aside, though, you still gotta wonder: WHO ARE THESE GUYS? Whoever they are, they're off to a heady 3-0 start for the first time since Mariucci's one-and-done in 1996. Cal's points scored per game have almost tripled from 18 to 50 and our points allowed per game have been halved from 39 to 19. Think about that for a second - our average margin has improved from –21 to +31, a 52-point swing. Holy cow! Let's enjoy this ride while it lasts. Being a too-grizzled Cal fan, I'm already looking nervously over my shoulder at the NFL or richer college teams on whose radar screens Tedford surely has burst. I hope Teddy Bear (a nickname coined by my friend Matt) has a ridiculously large buyout clause in his contract. I must confess, when Cal bestowed a huge (for us) deal on Tedford, I was somewhat skeptical given that the cash-strapped athletic department was paying big dollars for an unproven commodity whose credentials were uncomfortably similar to Gilby's. I did find solace in Gladstone's statement that the #1 quality he sought was leadership (which Holmoe clearly lacked) and the unfortunate reality that the program really couldn't get much worse. Now I'm ready to vote for Gladstone for president and Tedford for VP! No matter what happens the rest of the season, Tedford has already resurrected Cal football from the dead, and my hat's off to him.
As a service academy, Air Force may be more disciplined than the average college team and thus less susceptible to turnovers and other breakdowns off of which we've been thriving. I tried this theory on one of my friends, who helpfully pointed out that Army and Navy are both terrible so it's not necessarily true. In any case, the Bears had better not look past the Falcons or Cal's newly minted #23 ranking will be gone as fast as it appeared. It's good that our defense had practice defending the option against New Mexico State. Heck, perhaps Air Force should start worrying about OUR option attack!
Go Bears! Beat the Falcons!
Please visit our Writer's Feedback forum, and post your comments and questions about this article there. All of our writers welcome your feedback - please add just your appreciation for their work even if you don't have any questions.