It was a day filled with so much anticipation and promise: the California Golden Bears opened up their renovated Memorial Stadium to a sellout crowd, ribbon-cutting ceremony and all, and looked forward to beginning a new era of Cal football that would snuff out the demons of "same old Cal" that haunted old Memorial Stadium. The visiting Nevada Wolf Pack, however, had other ideas about how the opening of Memorial Stadium should go.
You could say legitimately that Nevada made more mistakes than Cal on Saturday. But Nevada also made more plays, had the better quarterback, displayed a better running game, stopped the run better, defended better against the pass, and were just the better team all around. Though Cal hung around until the end, thanks in large part to Nevada mistakes, the Wolf Pack proved to be too much, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 36 seconds left to defeat the Bears 31-24 in the lid lifter to new Memorial Stadium and the 2012 season.
So much for the anticipation, promise, and fanfare.
If you are one for omens, the super secret news revealed right before kickoff was certainly an omen of the bad variety. Right before the game, Cal announced that quarterback Zach Maynard would not start the game, as punishment for having missed a tutoring session during the summer. Allan Bridgford got the start and quarterbacked the Bears in the first three offensive series, going a dreadful 1 of 8 for 8 yards and missing a wide open Keenan Allen on the game's first play for what would have been a touchdown if the ball had been thrown well enough for Allen to reach.
By the time Maynard entered the game last in the first quarter, Cal was behind 7-0 and looking decidedly stagnant on offense. Maynard did give the Bears a jolt with a 20-yard completion on the run to tight end Jacob Wark on Maynard's first pass of the season, but even Maynard's entry into the game could not prevent the Bears from having to punt four times in the first quarter alone. And when Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo (25 of 32, 230 yards passing; 20 rush, 101 yards, 1 TD) ran 49 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the first quarter -- running around the missed containment by Cal's defense -- the Bears found themselves behind 14-0 just one quarter into new Memorial Stadium's existence.
Not only were the Bears behind, it was ugly. Cal was its own worst enemy in the first half, committing numerous mental-mistake penalties: two personal fouls, an illegal substitution, and an illegal running out of bounds on special teams were among the doozies that the Bears committed in the first half. And the game threatened to get even more out of hand when Nevada drove inside the Cal 20 in the second quarter. Luckily for the Bears, the Wolf Pack was in a giving mood. Nevada lost 21 yards on a bad snap on a third down, knocking themselves out of field goal range and keeping the Bears down by only two scores.
The break woke up the Bears, who took advantage of the good fortune of Nevada's foible. Maynard capped a six-play, 77-yard drive with a 37-yard touchdown strike to freshman Bryce Treggs to bring the Bears to within 14-7. (Hmmm...true freshman wide receiver, jersey number 1, scoring touchdown in first college game at Memorial Stadium. Sounds like Desean Jackson!) Cal had a chance to get even closer right before the half, but Vincenzo D'Amato pulled a 31-yard field goal wide left to keep it a seven-point deficit at halftime. Though the Bears were down by seven at the half, they had at least showed some signs of life on offense: Cal finished the half with 168 yards of total offense after having gained only 59 at the 7:23 mark of the second quarter.
Nevada, however, did its part to quell whatever momentum the Bears had. After Cal failed to recover a Nevada fumble forced by Keni Kaufisi on Nevada's second possession of the third quarter, the Wolf Pack made the Bears pay. Capping a 12-play, 79-yard drive consisting exclusively of Fajardo completions and Stapfon Jefferson runs, Jefferson ran for a 2-yard touchdown (one of his three touchdowns on the day) to give Nevada a seemingly commanding 21-7 lead with 6:20 left in the third quarter.
Bryce Treggs caught a 37-yard touchdown pass for Cal's first points of the season (via cdn3.sbnation.com)
But again, Nevada kept the Bears hanging around. After Jefferson's touchdown, Cal began the ensuing drive at its own 49 yard line after a short kickoff, a good return by Daniel Lasco, and a personal foul penalty on Nevada tacked on. From there, it took two plays for Cal to score, the capper being a 39-yard run by Allen on a reverse around the left side. Suddenly, it was 21-14. And it looked to get even better for the Bears when Kameron Jackson recovered a fumble (forced by J.P. Hurrell) at the Nevada 27-yard line on the ensuing kickoff. Cal settled for a 40-yard field goal by D'Amato and Cal was behind only 21-17.
Cal squandered a good opportunity early in the fourth quarter when Maynard fumbled at the Nevada 22, but the Bears sprang to life later with the game on the line. Down 24-17 with under nine minutes left, the Bears marched to the end zone on a five-play drive that was probably their best of the game: a 32-yard completion to Allen, two bruising runs by C.J. Anderson, and a 13-yard touchdown pass from Maynard to freshman Chris Harper tied the game at 24 with 7:24 remaining.
But a comeback victory in new Memorial Stadium's debut was not to be. Cal found itself in a field-position pickle when it was forced to punt from its 11-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Though freshman punter Cole Leininger booted a 50-yard punt with the help of the members' bounce, Nevada still began what would be its final drive with good field position at its own 39 with 3:24 left. From there, Fajardo was clutch. The Wolf Pack quarterback converted two third downs, the second one for 19 yards to Brandon Wimberly to put Nevada at the Cal 2-yard line with under a minute to play. Jefferson (35 rush, 140 yards, 3 TD) took it in from there for the winning touchdown and the final margin of victory.
To be sure, the loss is a bitter pill to swallow for the Bears. With so much optimism coming into the season, they have to be stunned to have been outplayed on their home field. Nevada amassed more yardage in total offense (449-359), completed a considerably higher percentage of passes (78% to 47%), and outrushed Cal by a wide margin (57 rushes for 219 yards to 29 rushes for 114 yards). On defense, Cal had trouble mounting a consistent pass rush on Fajardo and seemed bewildered at times defending the pistol -- again.
What do we make of this one? Certainly nothing good at the moment. The best the Bears can do is put this one behind them and focus on getting better. Goodness knows there's plenty to get better at.