Javon Ringer could not find much running room, with only 77 yards on the ground for the game, the Spartan passing game was spotty, and Michigan State too often shot themselves in the foot with untimely penalties.
On the bright side, Mark Dell did have a coming out party with some big time catches (and a few near misses) finishing with 9 catches for a whopping 201 yards and a touchdown.
But despite an effort to the end, mistakes such as two bad snaps on punts, one that led to a block for a Cal touchdown, and plenty of penalties (8 for 82 yards) doomed the Spartans.
In the first half, the pace was fantastic to watch but devastating for MSU.
The offense attempted to establish the run early and often. The team gave multiple looks, going with 3- and 4-wide receiver sets, but the Spartan focus was clearly to get Ringer going. While the run game might not have been as productive as the coaching staff wanted, it did have some benefits.
In the middle of the second quarter, MSU began to exploit their earlier heavy usage of Ringer. A few Brian Hoyer play-action passes to Dell helped put together a nice drive and a facemask penalty gave MSU an extra boost.
A tough holding penalty on tight end Charlie Gantt, however, backed them up and MSU got away from their base offense with a direct snap to Ringer. Cal was all over it. And on the next play, a beautiful Hoyer pass to Dell in the endzone was ruled incomplete after review, setting up a field goal attempt. Brett Swenson subsequently missed a 39-yard field goal.
After a promising MSU drive that netted nothing, the Golden Bears promptly drove down the field and stole back the momentum. But MSU quickly turned the tables before Cal was able to punch it in with an enormous interception from senior strong safety Otis Wiley who returned it to midfield.
The next Spartan drive went nowhere, but State backed up Cal in their own redzone late in the second half. Looking for a only a quick stop, State got a big boost from a second Wiley interception, this one returned for a touchdown. Despite being outplayed and making plenty of mistakes, the Spartans trailed by only three, 10-7.
Cal then took the momentum right back with a quick drive that put Bear running back Jahvid Best's athleticism on full display. His speed was a wildcard that trumped the Spartan defense and he took a Kevin Riley pass 42 yards downfield to set up a touchdown to make it 17-7.
Hoyer did his best to run, pass and muscle his team downfield for what appeared to be an important late drive for a score to put things to at least within a touchdown, but things fell flat when he threw a lame duck pass off his back foot that was picked off by Cal defensive end Aaron Tipoti.
Cal out-gained the Spartans 219-yards to 156 in the first half, but it was more the abundant miscues — in penalties, snaps and the passing game — that defined the action for MSU.
Second Half Resurgence
In the second half, MSU's pass rush began to disrupt Riley and a bad snap led to a Spartan blocked punt.
That set up a Ringer touchdown, but only after the team put on its armor and went into a jumbo package to pick up an important third-and-two from the three-yardline. Ringer hit paydirt on the next play and the Spartans again trailed by only three, 17-14.
But another miscue on the next drive – Colin Neely's facemask — preceded a long pass by Riley that beat Ashton Henderson deep, setting up a Cal touchdown to make it 24-14.
Cal gave the Spartans a gift and began to tighten up the playbook and drop some passes, keeping MSU in the game.
Michigan State responded with an efficient drive early in the fourth quarter, aided by a roughing the kicker penalty giving MSU a momentum swinging first down. Ringer scampered in from 10-yards out to pull MSU to within three yet again, 24-21.
Cal could not be denied, however, with an impressive drive in the face of relentless Spartan pressure. The defense did all it could, but the Bears' playmakers put on a show capped by a Riley to Will Ta'ufo'ou touchdown pass to make it 31-21 Cal.
MSU threatened again, kicked a field goal, but fell short despite gritting it out and never giving up. Cal tacked on a late big-play against a winded Spartan defense with an 81-yard Shane Vereen run to put the game out of reach for MSU.
The Spartans added a Dell touchdown after a near Hoyer interception, and had chance to tie in the two-minute drill, but the Cal lead was too much to surmount and the final score read 38-31.
More than the QB?
While many might be quick to pin the blame for the passing game's woes on Hoyer, timing is an issue between quarterback and receiver, and sometimes routes were clearly not run correctly. Tight end Charlie Gantt will need to sharpen up his game. Plus, Hoyer was hurried on many of the opportunities he did have with Cal hounding him with an aggressive front seven the entire game.
But Hoyer is a captain, leader, and player looking to rebound from a dismal bowl game. He needed to play above his talent, not below. He was 21-50 with an interception and touchdown for the game, racked up 325 yards passing, but threw far too many near interceptions and incompletions after locking onto receivers.
The air attack showed some glimpses (a nice Hoyer to Cunningham pass for a first down when they were backed up on their own two-yard line late in the third quarter and a 52-yarder and 29-yard touchdown to Mark Dell late in the fourth) but consistency will be key going forward.
The Spartan defense played well enough to win against Cal. But if the passing game cannot find its legs by Notre Dame, and quality defenses only need to focus on Ringer, the out of conference schedule might prove to be killer.