Last season, the California Golden Bears needed one win in their last three games to clinch an eighth straight bowl appearance under Coach Jeff Tedford. That sixth win never came, however, as the Cal football season died a slow and painful death in three straight losses to Oregon, Stanford, and Washington -- all of them excruciating, albeit in different ways.
On Saturday, Cal found itself in the same position as a year ago, needing one win in the final three games to become bowl eligible. And because the Bears were facing Oregon State, which had won the last four meetings with Cal coming into Saturday's game, there was good reason for any long suffering Cal fan to wonder whether Saturday would be the start of history repeating.
As it turns out, any sense of impending doom was unfounded. Cal (6-4 overall, 3-4 Pac-12) took care of business at AT&T Park Saturday, beating Oregon State 23-6 behind a powerful running attack and a defense that was stout against the run and opportunistic in the red zone. Isi Sofele rushed for 190 yards on 23 carries, marking the second week in a row that he set a career-high in rushing yards, and C.J. Anderson added 96 bruising yards on 14 carries to pace a Cal rushing attack that rolled up 296 yards on the ground. The Cal defense did its part, limiting Oregon State (2-8, 2-5 Pac-12) to just 27 yards rushing. The Bears also held the Beavers without a touchdown, due in large part to picking up two critical turnovers inside the Cal five-yard line.
The win makes Cal bowl-eligible and, with the Pac-12's seven bowl tie-ins, virtually assures that the Bears will play in their eighth bowl game in the last nine years. Perhaps equally cathartic, the win broke Cal's four-game losing streak to Oregon State.
So this year, when we are subjected to the ESPN's bowl season commercial ("It's the most wonderful time..of the year!"), we can do so with the knowledge that the Bears are involved.
Not that it looked like that would be the case early on. Oregon State took a 3-0 lead on the opening drive of the game after a long kickoff return set the Beavers up at midfield. To its credit, the Cal defense stiffened in the red zone, stuffing two runs and allowing only a short gain on a wide receiver screen pass to force the Beavers to settle for a field goal. But when Cal quarterback Zach Maynard threw an interception on Cal's first possession of the game, thoughts of another Beaver beatdown had to be in the minds of many a doomsaying Cal fan.
But doom was not to be. Just when it looked like Oregon State would have at least another field goal attempt, Cal's Trevor Guyton -- one of 21 Cal seniors playing in his last home game -- sacked redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Mannion for a 10-yard loss on a third down to knock the Beavers out of field goal range and force a punt. It was on that next possession that the running onslaught began. Starting at its own 9-yard line, the Bears embarked on the first of two 90+ yard scoring drives in the game. Sofele scampered for 56 yards on the first play of the drive to set the Bears up at the OSU 35. Five plays later, facing 3rd-and-8, Maynard found Michael Calvin with a perfectly thrown pass for a 19-yard touchdown and a 7-3 Cal lead late in the first quarter. For Calvin -- another one of the 21 seniors -- it was the first touchdown reception of his Cal career.
With 10:07 remaining in the second quarter, Cal found itself backed up on its four-yard line after a well-executed punt by Johnny Hekker. From there, Cal nearly consumed the rest of the quarter. Cal embarked on a methodical 16-play, 96-yard touchdown drive that gave the Bears a 14-3 lead. As impressive as the drive was, however, Cal scored almost in spite of itself and also had help from the Beaver defense along the way. For example, after a holding penalty on center Dominic Galas threatened to kill the drive, the Bears reached into their bag of tricks to utilize a little-used receiving target. On a 2nd-and-15, Maynard found Anderson out of the backfield for a 22-yard gain to the OSU 40-yard line. After the OSU defense helped the Bears along with a personal foul penalty, Cal looked as if it might look a gift horse in the mouth. Two straight false starts after Cal reached the three-yard line took away the offensive momentum and it looked as though Cal would settle for a field goal. But Oregon State committed an inexplicable personal foul penalty -- a very late hit on Keenan Allen after Allen had gone down at the 9-yard line on 3rd-and-goal -- to give the Bears a first-and-goal at the OSU 5. From there, Maynard scored on a quarterback keeper to give Cal a 14-3 lead.
OSU managed to get a field goal right before the quarter ended to cut Cal's lead to 14-6 at the intermission. But Cal got the ball to start the second half and proceeded to make a statement with an 11-play, 75-yard drive -- 58 yards of it on the ground. Sofele gained 42 yards himself on the drive, including the final 20 yards on a touchdown burst around the left side. Though Giorgio Tavecchio missed the extra point (Cal's sixth PAT failure of the season), Cal still had a 20-6 lead.
Though Cal was controlling the ground game, OSU was not out of it. Indeed, the Bears did their part to keep the Beavers hanging around: Cal committed a season-high 15 penalties for a whopping 130 yards in losses. And it wasn't just the yards: it was what the penalties took away. Cal committed holding penalties that negated two touchdown runs by Anderson (Matt Summers-Gavin and Galas the offenders) and another touchdown run by Sofele (Galas again).
But Oregon State could not take advantage of Cal's flag-happy ways. Twice in the second half, Oregon State drove into the red zone, only to come up empty. After an impressive drive to answer the Sofele touchdown, Mannion threw his 14th interception of the year, a ball that was deflected into the hands of Cal safety D.J. Campbell -- another Cal senior -- at the Cal 4-yard line. Then, in the fourth quarter, with OSU still having a chance to pull within one score, the Beavers likely put the nail in their own proverbial coffin. OSU drove to the Cal 1-yard line (with help from two pass interference penalties on Cal cornerback Steve Williams), where it faced a 2nd-and-goal. After the Bears stymied a Mannion quarterback sneak to force a third down, running back Jovan Stevenson fumbled a handoff from Mannion. Another senior day celebrant, safety Sean Cattouse, recovered for Cal and the wind very likely went out of the Beavers' sails for the rest of the way.
The Bears put the game away with another long run-dominated scoring march, driving 82 yards in 15 plays, while taking nearly nine minutes off the fourth quarter clock. Tavecchio capped the drive with a 32-yard field goal that iced the game with 2:23 remaining. Another senior, linebacker Mychal Kendricks, ended OSU's final drive by intercepting Mannion and returning it 30 yards to put an exclamation point on the Cal victory.
So after reaching the low point of its season two weeks ago at UCLA, the Bears are now bowl eligible and have to be feeling good about themselves during this two-game win streak. For the second straight week, the Cal defense shut down the opposition's running game and kept the opposition from scoring a meaningful touchdown. What's more, the Bears' defense did so despite missing linebackers (and key contributors) David Wilkerson and Chris McCain due to injury. Also for the second straight week, Cal pounded the opposition on the ground, racking up more than 290 yards rushing for the second consecutive game. And for the second straight week, quarterback Zach Maynard (his one interception Saturday notwithstanding) was effective and efficient when the game did not rest on his arm.
Cal fans can enjoy this one, for sure, as they can now entertain the exercise of trying to figure out the bowl destination at which the Bears will end up. Before that, however, there is the matter of something called The Big Game next Saturday night. There is a certain item of hardware that Cal needs to get back.