Cal has now upset three ranked teams on the road in the same season for the first time in school history, and the Bears' improbable joyride inspired me to swipe a Doc Holiday line from the Tombstone movie.
Q: "Are these really the California Golden Bears?"
A: (with a noncommittal shrug) "That's the rumor."
Cal's transformation from a hopeless sad-sack to a real threat to beat anyone, anywhere, anytime continues to amaze me. We've already won more games than the past two years combined, and with a tad more luck and/or better execution, we could have beaten #3 Washington State, #8 USC, and Air Force as well. But the Bears' run has still been amazing and exciting, and great googily-woogily, the ASU game was certainly a worthy addition to the 2002 story!
The first quarter portended none of the craziness to follow. In fact, the game was actually scoreless until only 35 seconds remained in the period, and it actually looked like a defensive struggle was in the works. Except for the defenses, both teams were clearly out of sync: Cal failed to get a first down on three of its first four possessions, ASU went three and out on all of its first four possessions, record-breaking Sun Devil QB Andrew Walter's passing stats were a pedestrian 2 of 6 for 14 yards, and ASU's total offense was negative 10 yards thanks to two sacks by Tully Banta-Cain and one by Josh Gustaveson. The Bears even appeared confused on a punt return, as Jemeel Powell arrived on the field late, kept looking at the Cal sideline even as the ball was kicked, got tackled after a very short return, and headed straight for Coach Tedford for a conversation about something that was amiss. We did have one series on which we reached the ASU 23 after a fourth-and-inches run by Chris Manderino gained 4, but the drive bogged down and normally reliable Mark Jensen pulled a 41-yard field-goal attempt wide right.
Cal finally struck first after the defense backed up ASU to its own 13 and Powell returned a punt 27 yards to the ASU 33. QB Kyle Boller hooked up twice with TE Tom Swoboda, first on a 16-yard pass over the middle and then on an 11-yard TD pass on which Swoboda made a tremendous diving catch with a defender draped all over him. With 35 seconds remaining in Q1, the Bears took a 7-0 lead.
And the floodgates thus opened.
ASU managed a first down before being forced to kick. The Sun Devil fans booed loudly when Cal's Matt Nixon broke up a second-and-11 pass intended for WR Mike Pinkard - Nixon got there too soon, they protested. The jeers turned to cheers after ASU received a huge break; on the punt, an ASU player pushed a Cal blocker into Powell as the ball arrived. Jemeel had no chance to catch the ball and Jason Shivers recovered for ASU at the Cal 27. An official threw a flag, and it appeared as though the Bears would get an interference call. But the refs subsequently ruled that there was no infraction on the play, much to the vexation of the Bears. Tedford argued with the officials, but it was to no avail. (Incidentally, this was the same crew that awarded USC a touchdown on a pass that clearly bounced in the end zone.) The Sun Devils capitalized quickly, as on second down, Walter bombed a 28-yard TD pass to star WR Shaun McDonald to knot the score at 7.
On Cal's next possession, Boller's lofted a third-down pass that was intercepted by ASU defensive back Brett Hudson, who leads the team with four picks. The Sun Devils took over at the Cal 38 and, with the aid of a 15-yard pass-interference penalty, drove to the Cal 5. On third and goal, Coach Dirk Koetter made a very curious move, removing suddenly hot Walter with backup QB Chad Christensen. Christensen is a better runner, and the Bears seemingly knew what to expect, as DE Wendell Hunter crushed him at the line of scrimmage on a set QB run. ASU had to settle for a 10-7 lead on a 22-yard field goal by former Cal recruit Mike Barth.
Koetter then made a second strange call by electing to attempt an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff. We only had four up men, so ASU thought it could exploit a seam in the coverage and catch the Bears napping. But Calvin Hosey recovered for Cal, and on the next play Boller bombed a 47-yard TD to WR LaShaun Ward, who momentarily juggled the ball before getting control and raced into the end zone. On a drive that officially took 12 seconds, Cal recaptured the lead, 14-10.
The Bear advantage lasted a grand total of six plays. Powell, who was not having one of his better days, got toasted on another Walter-to-McDonald TD bomb, this one for a whopping 68 yards. ASU thus went ahead 17-14.
Cal actually punted on its next possession, but like ASU did earlier, we lucked out after a call that went against us. The Sun Devils gained about 30 yards of field position when Nixon was not flagged for pass interference and Cal lost the ensuing punt. The Bears soon benefited likewise. After punter Tyler Fredrickson kicked the ball, an onrushing ASU player ran into him near full speed. The officials only flagged the Sun Devils for running into the kicker, not roughing. Instead of getting a first down on the fourth-and-11 play, we declined the five-yard penalty because the punt backed up the Sun Devils to the 11. On the next play, LB Marcus Daniels forced RB Hakim Hill to fumble and S Bert Watts recovered for Cal at the ASU 14. (Hill was in the game because starting RB Cornell Candidate had earlier departed with a high ankle sprain.) It didn't take long for Boller to find a slanting Jonathan Makonnen for a 9-yard TD pass, and the Cal wide receiver dove into the end zone with a flourish. With 53 seconds left in Q2, Cal recaptured the advantage, 21-17.
Walter shifted back into attack mode, completing five passes for 50 yards and taking the Sun Devils to the Cal 35. But he ran out of time, and Barth's 51-yard FG attempt near the gun was short. Thus ended an insane second quarter that included 31 points, 280 yards of total offense (ASU 195, Cal 85), four lead changes, three turnovers, two TD bombs, controversial officiating, and questionable decision-making by the home team… and that was topped by the upcoming 38-point third period!
ASU punted on its opening Q3 possession, and the Bears were fortunate when Powell covered his own fumble on the return. Cal had an offensive opportunity thanks to a great play by TE Brandon Hall, who somehow broke a tackle and kept his balance to convert a short third-and-8 pass into a first down. But on third down from the ASU 45, Makonnen dropped a Boller pass some 20 yards downfield; two ASU defenders were converging on the Cal WR and the footsteps might have made him lose his concentration. Though Fredrickson shanked a 16-yard punt, that was better than ASU could muster; four plays later, ASU punter Tim Parker's kick was blocked by Ryan Guitierrez and Wade Forrester returned the loose ball 18 yards for a touchdown. Just under five minutes into the third quarter, Cal took a 28-17 lead and seemingly possessed the momentum.
That and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Walter started feeling his oats again, as he quickly began carving up the soft interior of the Cal defense. The ASU QB found WR Matt Miller alone in the middle of the field for a 15-yard reception and then connected with WR Skyler Fulton, who broke a James Bethea tackle en route to a 46-yard gain to the Cal 15. Walter soon hit Fulton again on a 16-yard TD pass, thereby closing the gap to 28-24. It took 1:30 in game time for ASU to reach the end zone after the Cal touchdown.
The crowd finally got into the game with a vengeance. The Bears appeared flummoxed when, on the first play following the kickoff, Boller dropped back to pass and had the ball swatted out of his hand. ASU recovered the fumble at the Cal 10 and then started making big mistakes of its own. First, the Sun Devils committed a false start. A 14.5-yard screen pass on which Pinkard got pushed out of bounds inside the Cal 1 was nullified by an illegal-formation penalty, pushing ASU back to the 20. An 11-yard Walter-to-Justin-Taplin pass put the Sun Devils at the 9. And then a team scored - but it wasn't ASU. The Sun Devils tried to set up a screen but under heavy pressure, Walter tossed a lob pass toward RB Mike Williams as he was being tackled. Cal DB Nmandi Asomugha aggressively split two Sun Devils, made a leaping catch of the popup, and was off to the races on an 85-yard interception-return TD. When he crossed the goal line, there were no red shirts within 25-30 yards of him. 1:18 after the last ASU touchdown, Cal stunned the Sun Devils crowd and increased its lead to 11 just when ASU was poised to take the lead themselves.
Momentum meant nothing in this game, though, and the 1:18 gap between scores was soon obliterated. On the second play after the kickoff, from the ASU 15, Walter heaved an amazing bomb downfield to WR Daryl Lightfoot and hit him in stride some 60 yards away. Lightfoot caught the ball around the Cal 30, shook off Bethea's tackle attempt, and romped the remaining yards into the end zone. Only 29 seconds had passed since the Cal score, and that was the third touchdown in about three minutes. Trailing 35-30, Koetter decided to go for two to pull within a field goal. I thought it was a peculiar choice considering that there were almost 22 minutes left in the game and by no means was ASU having trouble moving the ball. Cal called a timeout to set the defense, but afterward, we still only had 10 men on the field. Though it looked like the players soon became aware of the problem, they didn't want to burn another timeout so quickly and allowed ASU to snap the ball. We dodged a bullet when Walter's slant pass fell incomplete.
The crowd came back to life as Cal went three and out and punted. The Bears did catch a break when Walter was flagged for intentional grounding even though there was clearly a receiver in the area. Undaunted, Walter made a sensational play on second and 17 by eluding two Cal rushers and, while on the run, throwing a perfect pass to Lightfoot 24 yards downfield. RB Hill finished the drive by rushing the last 20 yards on three carries, the last of which was a 2-yard end-around TD. Now ahead by one, ASU again went for two. The first attempt resulted in an incompletion but Bethea was flagged for pass interference, giving the Sun Devils another shot. On try #2, Walter found Fulton alone in the middle of the field for a 38-35 ASU lead.
From the 20, Cal embarked on what was, at that point, its longest scoring drive of the day of 49 yards. The possession resulted in our sixth score, a fact that evidenced how many errors the Sun Devils were making. The first play was a doozy, a 36-yard Joe Igber run on which Boller threw a key block to seal off the pursuit. Backup RB Michael Porter got Cal another first down on a pair of runs, but the drive stalled, and Jensen nailed a 48-yard FG to tie the score again at 38.
The Sun Devils took possession, and then the Cal defense took over the game. From the ASU 30, Paul Ugenti blindsided Walter and knocked the ball loose. Banta-Cain returned the fumble to the ASU 13, and the Bears had received yet another gift from ASU. The third quarter ended with the Bears having a second and goal at the ASU 2. The fans certainly got their money's worth; Q3 alone lasted almost one-and-one-half hours, though it didn't seem that long because the game was so entertaining.
I must confess that I jinxed Cal and prevented us from getting a go-ahead TD. With the Bears having switched to our side of the field, I picked up my camera and watched the game through the lens to be ready to capture the Cal touchdown celebration. But it never came, as Igber was stuffed at the line on second down and Ward dropped Boller's tough third-down pass in the side of the end zone. Jensen converted the 20-yard field goal to put the Bears ahead 41-38, and I put my camera away for the rest of the game.
We had a good laugh when return man Hill caught Jensen's kickoff about nine yards deep in the end zone and downed it, prompting a sarcastic cheer from the crowd. (The Sun Devils had earlier brought several kickoffs out of the end zone and never reached the 20.) But we weren't laughing when the first three ASU plays gained a total of 49 yards, 31 of which came on a Walter-to-Lightfoot completion over Powell. It seemed like the teams would keep scoring forever, and I had visions of a 72-71 final in triple overtime. But then, all at once, the ASU offensive machine ran out of gas. Hunter made a key play, tackling Hill for a loss of 6 on a screen pass, and a subsequent false start on the Sun Devils put them in a third-and-21 situation from which they could not recover. Parker's punt sailed into the end zone, and ASU never threatened again.
Of course, we didn't know that at the time, which made Cal's subsequent 80-yard drive that much sweeter. The Bears turned to the ground game and ran Igber five consecutive times. Joe picked up gains of 17 and 11 yards and luckily didn't get hurt when a Sun Devil tackled him by the facemask with one hand, tore off his helmet, and earned a blatant 15-yard personal foul. Then Cal tried something slightly different, as Boller threw to Igber twice, the latter a sweet 17-yard TD on a screen, sandwiched around a key third-down 17-yard reception by Makonnen. We had an important insurance score, but with half of the fourth quarter still remaining, no one on the Cal sideline felt safe considering the way the game was going.
The proverbial nail in the coffin wasn't far away, however. On ASU's first play after the kickoff, Lightfoot fumbled away a short catch and Daniels recovered for the Bears at the ASU 30. The ballhawking Cal defense had struck again! Igber ran for 2 yards, and the Sun Devils probably expected the Bears to keep the ball on the ground to chew up more time. But on second down, Boller connected on a 28-yard TD pass to Makonnen, who had beaten his man by several steps. Cal thus put up a 55-spot, representing the most points the Bears have scored in a conference road game and against any ranked opponent in the modern era.
Totally deflated, ASU packed it in. Adding insult to injury, on their last possession, Walter committed the Sun Devils' fifth turnover when he fumbled after another Gustaveson sack and Daniel Nwangwu recovered at the ASU 13. The Bears ran out the clock and the few hundred Cal fans in attendance cheered heartily. By the time the gun sounded, the vast majority of Sun Devil fans had cleared out and we almost outnumbered them. Unfortunately, the scoreboard operators also bailed early; I wanted a picture of the final score on the big screen but it was never put up. I guess I can't blame them, for if we had lost at Memorial Stadium, I wouldn't want to see "Arizona State 55, Cal 38" in large print either.
The Bears thus ended another of those streaks in which "we haven't beaten team X in Y years." Since a 31-24 win in 1990, Cal had lost five consecutive times in Tempe and the closest margin was 16; in our last four visits, we had been blown out by an average of 31 points. I had witnessed the 41-0 whitewash in 1993 (when Gilby blew Pat Barnes' redshirt year for part of one game) and 30-10 pasting in 2000, so I was very gratified to be able to apply "the third time's the charm" cliché instead of "three strikes and you're out."
On the post-game show, the ASU announcers gave Cal almost no credit for the victory; they attributed the Sun Devils' loss to the home team "shooting themselves in the foot, legs, hands, everywhere." To some extent, they were correct, as ASU's array of mistakes loomed large in Cal's victory. But they could at least acknowledge that the Bears lead the conference in takeaways with 31 and a +17 turnover ratio. It's par for the course, though; even Baylor's quarterback claimed that his team beat themselves after they lost to us by 48 points! You get the feeling that no one takes us seriously, perhaps because we were 1-10 last year and have a legacy of losing, or because we rely so heavily on a positive turnover ratio, or since we routinely get outgained in total yardage to the tune of almost 50 yards per game. Igber's post-game quote was quite amusing: "I could feel it while we were playing them that their minds weren't totally there. Maybe it's because we're Cal."
* Boller's five TD passes equaled his career high from the Washington game and earned him Pac-10 offensive player of the week honors. But his stats were otherwise average on a 16-for-35, 213-yard, 1-INT, 1-fumble day. The good news was that Boller executed when necessary, leading short Cal TD drives of 33, 47, 14, and 30 in addition to the 80-yard drive. Capitalizing on opportunities continues to be the story of the Cal season in which our offense is far from dominant but still averages 36 points per game. Even after ten games, it still scares me that we struggle to score when the defense and/or special teams don't produce takeaways that give us short fields. Hopefully, we can keep it up for two (I mean three!) more games.
* Igber had a great day, as he carried 30 times for a season-high 144 yards and caught 4 passes for 33 yards and a TD. With backups Terrell Williams, Adimchinobe Echemaandu, and Marcus O'Keith out with injuries, Igber had to carry the load and he performed admirably. Redshirt freshman Michael Porter did sneak in a few carries.
* It feast or famine for the ASU offense/Cal defense. On the Sun Devils' first five possessions until early Q2, they generated 7 total yards, 1 first down, and 0 points. On their last five possessions starting late in Q3, they had 26 total yards, 3 first downs, and 0 points. In the 27 minutes or so in between, they bombed us for 442 total yards, 16 first downs, and 38 points.
* Although he has only started seven games, Walter became ASU's single-season passing leader after torching the Cal defense for 477 yards and 4 TDs. Wideouts McDonald and Lightfoot had banner days as well, accumulating a respective 163 and 138 receiving yards on six catches apiece. However, the Sun Devils' offensive efficiency was somewhat negated by five turnovers that led to 24 Cal points (four lost fumbles inside the ASU 30 plus the costly pick that Asomugha returned for a TD) and six Cal sacks for 46 yards of losses. Walter also had almost no help from his running backs, who managed a paltry 39 yards on 18 carries. Factoring in a couple of short Walter scrambles, ASU's rushing total was negative 2 yards.
* The attendance was announced at 40,769, which represented slightly over half of Sun Devil Stadium's 73,379 capacity. Most of the upper deck was empty and the lower bowl wasn't full, either, for ASU's last home game of the season.
* The ASU video board is one of the best in the Pac-10. Not only is it big and clear, they also have a closed-captioning system like TV stations do. You do get the occasional odd spelling, though; I saw Makonnen spelled as "McCone n" after a reception. And the dot-matrix scoreboard, which is situated in the same end zone, is about as awful as ours in the south end zone. They kept running ugly "Go Sun Devils" graphics in weird colors. Ugh. Like we ultimately did, they should just turn the doggone thing off.
* The weather was surprisingly pleasant. The forecast called for a possibility of rain, and during the afternoon, there were lots of ominous dark clouds overhead. I brought in my jacket just in case but I ended up comfortably wearing just a T-shirt and shorts all night.
Arizona is next, and the Wildcat program is in disarray. Reportedly, half of the team demanded a meeting with Athletic Director Livengood to air out grievances, which prompted Coach Mackovic's extraordinary press conference to announce he would try to mend fences with his players and assistants. That's bad news for us; it would have been much better if the Wildcats blatantly hated their coach when they played us! Still, it seems unlikely that Mackovic's public "mea culpa" will heal the wounds that quickly and that the Wildcats would be fired up to save his job. In Tucson's Arizona Daily Star, the writers and fans are calling for Mackovic's head - now. Columnist Greg Hansen noted during Saturday's homecoming game against UCLA, the scoreboard once read "UCLA 20, Arizona -7"; maybe it was a mistake, but more likely it was the scoreboard operator taking a derisive shot at the team with the second-lowest scoring offense in the nation. His article was filled with harsh phrases such as "total erosion of a once-competitive program," "pathetic," "unacceptable," "decaying attitude has infected Mackovic's brief tenure," "unrest in the UA football program is off the charts," "to say that support for Mackovic is thin within the athletic department and the community would be a monumental understatement," and "an 0-8 Arizona finish is as inevitable as snow in Alaska." Eating Mackovic's contract, which still has three years to run at $800,000 apiece, is viewed as a necessary step not only to assuage unhappy fans but also to ensure the long-term survival of the athletic department and UofA's other successful sports programs. With football revenues lagging, the basketball program had to sell prime seats normally reserved for the media for $60,000 to raise cash. We can sympathize, and yet we've had our own problems. No one gave us a break when we were down last year, and we can't afford to let up on the downtrodden this year. Cal cannot look past anyone, especially a conference opponent whom we haven't beaten since 1996, even if that team is tenth in the conference in offense and ninth in defense. We should be able to win as long as the players don't get complacent as 15-point favorites or look past Arizona to Stanford.
Go Bears! Beat the Wildcats!
CalvinBear's Game Report Cal vs. ASU
Cal has now upset three ranked teams on the road in the same season for the first time in school history, and the Bears' improbable joyride inspired me to swipe a Doc Holiday line from the Tombstone movie.