[We are ranking the best non Big Games of the 2000s. So far, we have #10 - Baylor, 2002, #9 - Washington, 2006, #8 - Michigan St. 2002, #7 - Texas A&M 2006]
The 2003 Insight Bowl was a game that had everything - except defense. Over 100 total points, 1,000 total yards, multiple double digit comebacks, special team triumphs and disasters and a last second, game deciding score all made this game a classic. But beyond the stats this was a game that meant the world to Cal fans and the Cal program.
It had been seven years since a Cal bowl appearance (a meaningless loss to Navy in Hawaii) and a full decade since a bowl win. That Cal was even in a bowl was a huge deal for a program just two years removed from 1-10. That the Bears were matched up against an established power program like Virginia Tech was just a bonus. But it would become an opportunity to notch a statement victory and it would ultimately launch Cal towards one of the most successful seasons in school history.
The game was wild from the start and wild til the finish. At least three touchdowns were scored in every quarter and there were no turnovers and only six total punts. The game started well enough for Cal as Rodgers drove Cal down the field on a 79 yard drive for an early 7-0 lead. But the game turned quickly as the Hokies responded with three straight touchdowns. Meanwhile the Bear offense floundered with three straight three-and-outs. Cal faced a 21-7 deficit as Virginia Tech lined up for a 40 yard field goal. Things were looking bleak.
But the normally reliable Virginia Tech special teams unit failed, and something clicked for the Cal offense. What was that something? My guess is that Tedford put the offense on the shoulders of Aaron Rodgers. He responded with one of his best performances as a Bear. Shaking off the early offensive doldrums, Cal would score six touchdowns in six possessions, including 28 unanswered points at one point in the 3rd quarter.
Aiding Rodger's aerial assault was Chase Lyman and Burl Toler. Lyman's game seemingly came out of nowhere - he was out for most of 2003 with injuries and burst onto the scene in Arizona as a dangerous deep threat. Toler played the role of possession receiver admirably. Rodgers spread the ball to 8 receivers in all as a slumping running game increasingly placed the burden on Rodgers and his receiving core. Echemandu and Arrington only gained a combined 79 yards on 24 carries, though both contributed in the passing game.
When Vinny Strang scored on a 13 yard run to give Cal a 49-35 lead with just 6:26 to go the game finally seemed in hand. Cal had scored on 6 straight possessions and looked unstoppable. But Bryan Randall continued his stellar play by leading the Hokies down the field in just 1:58. Then Cal committed a poorly timed delay of game penalty and went three and out to force their first punt since the 1st quarter...which was promptly returned for a touchdown by Deangelo Hall. D'oh.
But certainly, with 3:11 left and 49 points already on the board, Cal could summon another drive? Well, how does this look:
1 and 10 at CAL35Rodgers, Aaron sacked for loss of 6 yards to the CAL29 (Lewis,K), fumble by Rodgers, Aaron recovered by CAL Murphy, Chris at CAL29.
OK, that's not the best start. Let's try again!
2 and 16 at CAL29Rodgers, Aaron pass complete to Arrington, JJ for 11 yards to the CAL40 (Lewis,K).
3 and 5 at CAL40Rodgers, Aaron pass complete to Hall, Brandon for 18 yards to the VT42, 1ST DOWN CAL (Crawford,M;Warren,B).
1 and 10 at VT42Rodgers, Aaron pass complete to Toler, Burl for 22 yards to the VT20, 1ST DOWN CAL (Crawford,M).
1 and 10 at VT20Arrington, JJ rush for 5 yards to the VT15 (Green,E).
2 and 5 at VT15Rodgers, Aaron rush for loss of 3 yards to the VT18.
3 and 8 at VT18Timeout California, clock 00:02.
A 35 yard field goal to end regulation? Color me nervous. Tyler Fredrickson had a good leg, but inconsistency and blocks meant that he was only a 50/50 prospect in 2003. But when it mattered most, he came through:
Interestingly, despite this game coming in the middle of the ALAMAAAAAAR era, it was special teams that swung the game in Cal's favor (punt return TD none withstanding). Virginia Tech's Beamer-ball missed three FGs, while Fredrickson hit his only attempt. Granted, most of the credit goes to Cal's offense for not leaving it up to the FG unit to decide the game.
With the win Cal made a number of statements. They capped their most successful season in a decade with a memorable, crazy game highlighted by a 394 yard passing performance by a sophomore with plenty of returning weapons. Cal became a boutique pick as a rising program overnight and started 2004 ranked, quite a rarity for the pre-Tedford Bears.
Just further confirmation that Cal had found the perfect coach to lead the program to its longest sustained run of excellence since the 1950s.