Cal vs Air Force Academy - A Game Narrative

<p class=txt>We all knew that the magic-carpet ride wouldn't last forever. But it came to a frustrating end on Saturday, as the nine-point underdog Falcons upset the #23 Golden Bears, 23-21. Cal's heretofore winning formula of opportunistically capitalizing on opponents' errors en route to victory doesn't work when the Bears make too many mistakes of their own. Our overall four-game winning streak was snapped due to an assortment of dropped passes and costly penalties.

And you also have to credit Air Force for executing their option to perfection in the decisive second half.

In the very beginning, the Bears looked like they would continue their remarkable run from the previous three weeks. The key to Cal's hot start had been creating turnovers, and on AF's first play from scrimmage, the Falcons fumbled the ball away to Bethea and the Bears at the AF 28. This time, however, the early signs were ominous: we couldn't move the ball effectively inside AF territory, in large part because we couldn't catch the ball. On our first offensive play, Boller found Makonnen inside the Cal 5... but Jonathan dropped it. After a short run by Igber, Boller fired a pass to Makonnen at the goal line... but Jonathan dropped it again. Jensen kicked a 42-yard field goal, and just over a minute into the game, Cal had a 3-0 lead.

On our next series, we flirted with disaster twice and got a date on our second try. From the Cal 24, Boller's second-down pass was almost intercepted and the DB had nothing but green grass ahead of him; I thought Air Force should've had a touchdown. On the next snap, Boller threw to McArthur, who momentarily seemed to have caught the ball but then he began to juggle it, and a DB snatched the pigskin away for a pick. The Falcons drove down to the Cal 14, but an illegal-block penalty pushed AF back 10 yards, and the Falcons eventually settled for a 34-yard field goal.

The teams then punted twice apiece, with Cal's offense accomplishing virtually nothing. At the end of the first quarter, the Bears had only managed 8 total yards, three of which came on the last play of the period. Cal was clearly out of sync, as one possession ended on an incomplete pass where there appeared to be miscommunication between Boller and McArthur, and another ended with (what else?) a dropped pass by Manderino on third and one. Almost twenty minutes into the game, the Bears had yet to record a first down. Air Force had only modest success moving the ball with the Cal defense having bottled up the option.

Early in Q2, the Bears got their second big break of the day. The AF punter couldn't handle a high snap, panicked under pressure, and blindly threw the ball downfield for an incomplete pass. Cal took over in great field position at the AF 39. On the first play, the Bears tried an end-around to Ward and it worked beautifully thanks to his athleticism. LaShaun looked trapped deep in the backfield but he broke a tackle around midfield, juked another defender at about the 35, and raced all the way to the AF 20. We reached the AF 4 before a holding penalty stunted the drive. On third down from the 14, Boller tried a slant pass to McArthur... who dropped it. Jensen booted a 31-yard FG and Cal led, 6-3.

Air Force went three and out, and Powell returned the short punt to the AF 47. A 17-yard pass to McArthur, coupled with an 8-yard run on a reverse to Ward, were the main drivers in Cal's march to the AF 12. But another holding call hurt the drive, and when Ward couldn't make what would have been a fantastic grab of a third-down Boller pass at the side of the end zone, Jensen came out for a 38-yard FG attempt. The kick was blocked, and Jensen said later that they might have lined up shorter than the usual seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. Air Force's ability to block kicks was undoubtedly a factor, as the Falcons have the most blocked kicks in the nation since 1990.

By Air Force's seventh possession of the game, the Falcons had figured out the Cal defense. AF quickly drove 62 yards to the Cal 4, with 40 of them coming on a rush by RB Cole. However, QB Harridge, who had been pretty much held in check during the first half, fumbled the ball away and Drake recovered for the Bears at the 2.

With 1:37 left in the half, Cal looked like it was trying the kill the clock by running Igber twice. At that point, Boller's numbers, plagued by numerous drops, were awful at 2 of 12 for 21 yards and 1 INT. With only 22 seconds remaining, and Cal facing a third-and-14 situation from its own 15, it seemed like the Bears would be lucky to run out the period without incident. However, Cal suddenly awoke from its slumber. Boller hit Makonnen for 39 yards to the AF 46, and after a Cal timeout, Kyle found McArthur at the AF 20 for a 26-yard gain. With six seconds left - not quite enough time for a shot at the end zone - Jensen knocked through a 37-yarder and the Bears had a 9-3 advantage at the break.

The theme of the first half was that both teams suffered from missed opportunities. Cal's array of dropped passes and critical penalties only allowed the Bears to net nine points from four trips deep into AF territory. Meanwhile, Air Force had a lone field goal to show for its two red-zone chances. The theme of the second half was that the Falcons fully capitalized on their drives while the Bears still struggled in the red zone.

The second half began reasonably well for the Bears, though again they couldn't come up with a TD. Cal converted three third downs, and one fourth and 1 from the AF 16, in a 19-play, 54-yard drive that chewed up over 9 1/2 minutes. The Bears' best shot for six was on a long Boller pass to Ward from the AF 34; LaShaun got behind the defense but a slight hesitation in his route cost him a step or two and that was the difference in Kyle's pass sailing just beyond his fingertips. Jensen had to kick two field goals, the first of which was nullified by yet another holding call, and his second one from 44 yards out counted.

Cal's 12-3 lead, though obviously not too large, seemed somewhat comfortable since AF had only three points on the board and the Bear defense had a long rest. But just like that, Air Force's offense turned the game around. Whether Air Force began executing better, the Falcons found holes in the Bears' schemes, or Cal just got tired is up for debate. But there was no doubt that the AF option dominated the second half. After the Falcons threw a whopping seven passes in the first half, they just about scrapped the forward pass and almost entirely turned to the run with spectacular results. On drive #1, which covered 65 yards on 5 running plays, RB Massie exploded for a 45-yard run and Harridge finished with a 6-yard TD run.

The Bears answered with another scoring drive that again bogged down in the red zone. Cal reached the AF 11 with the highlight being a fourth-and-3 Boller pass to McArthur that Geoff advanced 22 yards to the 15. Two short Williams runs and one incompletion later, though, the Bears had to attempt their sixth field goal of the day that Jensen converted from 29 on the first play of the fourth quarter. (That kick tied the school record for FGs in one game.) We were lucky to have scored at all on that drive, with a near-interception on a Williams halfback pass (the same trick play that we ran successfully in earlier games) being broken up nicely by Ward, whose days as a DB came in very handy.

A dead-ball personal foul on the kickoff return gave AF prime real estate at its 43. The Falcons embarked on an excruciating fourteen-play drive that nearly took eight minutes; AF gained five first downs on a variety of option runs and one completed pass. But it was the one pass that the Falcons didn't complete that was the most crucial. On third and goal from the Cal 6, Harridge's threw an incomplete pass into the end zone that seemed uncatchable. However, the Bears were flagged for a huge pass interference penalty. With the ball in the air, a defender knocked down a receiver who, while in the general vicinity, looked to have no chance to catch it. AF capitalized on the first down as Harridge bulled his way from the 1 across the goal line. The Falcons went for two and failed, but Cal still trailed for the first time this season, 16-15.

It didn't look good for the Bears when a holding penalty on the kickoff holed us up at the 10. Our prospects dimmed when Cal went three and out, with Boller's third-down pass nearly being picked off and run back the other way; luckily, the guy dropped the ball. Hope flickered even more when Air Force reeled off a 7-play scoring drive, exclusively on the ground, capped by a 13-yard Harridge TD run. The extra point made it 23-15, Air Force.

Only two minutes remained when Cal took over at the 30. This was definitely our worst situation of the season, and the Bears responded admirably even though they couldn't pull out the victory. Good grief, the last drive was tortuous, though. Boller's first-down pass was about 25 yards downfield to a wide-open Ward... who dropped it. On second down, Boller threw to Ward just past the first down marker... and LaShaun dropped it again. Kyle's next pass should have been picked off, and possibly run back for a TD, but the dropsies were contagious and the DB couldn't haul in the ball. On Boller's desperate fourth-down pass, Makonnen made a fantastic, super-clutch running catch and somehow held onto the ball as he was creamed out of bounds at the AF 48. Boller's next pass was complete to McArthur for 16 yards, and things were definitely getting interesting. From the 32, Boller threw a perfect pass on a post pattern to a wide-open Ward... who dropped the ball yet again. On third down, Ward (who showed he could get open, if nothing else) was just about to break free of the defender when he was grabbed, and the 15-yard pass-interference penalty gave us a first down at the AF 17. From there, Boller fired a strike into the end zone toward a heavily guarded Ward, who seemed to have the ball for a second before it came loose. Finally, on second down, Boller threw a slightly high pass to Makonnen, who again made a tremendous leaping catch for a touchdown. The fans celebrated wildly, but of course there was the matter of the all-important two-point play. Each team burned a timeout, and finally we were ready to go. Boller rolled out and attempted to hit Igber, but an AF defender batted the ball, and our undefeated record, and our national ranking, into oblivion. We still had one last gasp but the Falcons recovered the onside kick and Cal was ruled to have touched the ball before it traveled 10 yards anyway. I can't remember the last time we successfully executed an onside kick - I'd guess it was during the Snyder era, if then.

Even if Cal had been able to convert the two-point play, I'm not sure the odds would have been in our favor to win in overtime. Though the Bears would have had momentum, Air Force's offense looked unstoppable, having steamrolled our defense with three TDs in three second-half possessions. We had scored on three of our own four H2 series, but had to settle for field goals until the final fateful drive. If the game had come down to field-goal kicking, I would've liked our chances a lot better. Jensen has quietly developed into a real weapon, both for accuracy (10 of 13 for the season) and distance (with the career-high 51-yarder vs. Michigan State). He is definitely the best place-kicker we've had since Ryan Longwell graduated in 1996.

Other notes:

  • Boller's final stats were 13-37 for 216 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT. His numbers could have been much better, as I've seen estimates between 10 and 12 passes that were dropped, including two potential TDs by Makonnen on the opening drive. On the other hand, his numbers could have been much worse, as he had at least three passes that to me coulda/woulda/shoulda been intercepted but weren't, and another that he totally threw up for grabs that fell incomplete. Strangely, the one interception that he did throw wasn't his fault. There isn't much to say about our receiving corps except it wasn't their day. Only three WRs hauled in receptions (Makonnen 5-92, Ward 5-85, McArthur 3-39); no RBs or TEs caught a ball.

  • Harridge was the player of the game with 124 rushing yards and 3 TDs. (Damn, that guy was slippery!) Overall, Air Force rushed for 295 yards, which was below (!) its average of 368 entering the game. From, Harridge described the Falcon's second-half strategy: "We quit trying to run outside, we quit trying to run sweeps and we just started running the triple option right at them, and they just couldn't stop it. We ran right at them for the entire second half of the game."

  • Our streak of being perfect in red-zone scoring opportunities ended on the blocked FG. We still went four-for-five but our TD/FG ratio was 1:3 instead of the 3:1 entering the game.

  • Despite the score, Cal again won the turnover battle, 2-1. We're +11 in that category, and the +2.75 per-game ratio ranks second in the nation.

  • The new scoreboard, located next to the south-side scoreboard, looked sharp and clear at all times during the bright and sunny day. It's a little on the small side, but after the disappointment of the previous dot-matrix disaster (which has been covered up with a yellow Cal sign), who can complain?

The band's halftime show of "one-hit wonders" was grrreat!

Next up is 16th-ranked Washington State, which has beaten the Bears five times in the last six and eight of the last ten contests, and the one time we did beat the Cougars, we needed three defensive TDs. Obviously, it would help our cause if starting QB Gesser, who has a rib injury, can't play. Nevertheless, WSU usually has good QBs on its roster, so no matter who plays, we definitely need to be ready. At least the game isn't in Pullman, where we haven't won since Jimmy Carter was president.

Go Bears! Beat the Cougars!


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