It was one of those key defining swings in game momentum that a seasoned and scarred observer of Cal football thought for sure would work against the Bears. Leading 24-14 in the second quarter, Cal's Marc Anthony intercepted a Brock Osweiler pass and returned it deep into Arizona State territory. Alas, the Bears could muster only a field goal to increase their lead to 27-14. Though Cal had a 13-point lead after the field goal, getting a touchdown there might have been soul crushing to an ASU team that had lost three straight games and had no Pac-12 South Division championship to play for anymore after Utah lost to Colorado earlier on Friday.
Settling for a FG looked especially costly when ASU scored two touchdowns before halftime (the first on a 4th-and-10 play and the second one after a Cal fumble on the ensuing kickoff) to take a 28-27 halftime lead. Suddenly, the Bears found themselves behind in a game they had controlled for most of the first half. And when ASU took the second half kickoff and drove for a field goal to make it 31-27, a Cal fan could not be blamed for resigning himself or herself to the doom that was sure to befall the Bears.
But Cal never quite made it to the land of doom. Instead of folding in the face of a resurgent ASU team, the Bears reseized control of the game. Cal outscored the Sun Devils 20-7 over the last 27 minutes on the way to a satisfying 47-38 win that assured the Bears (7-5 overall, 4-5 Pac-12) of their ninth winning season in the last ten years. The win also gave Cal its first Pac-12 road victory of the season and first Pac-12 road win since November 6, 2010 at Washington State. What's more, Cal likely nudged itself ahead of Arizona State (6-6 overall, 4-5 Pac-12) in the pecking order for the Pac-12 bowl tie-ins, as the loss sent the one-time frontrunners in the Pac-12 South race to a fourth consecutive loss.
Look out San Antonio, San Diego, El Paso, or Vegas: here come the Bears.
Cal's ability to take control of this game had a lot to do with the offensive line and running backs. The Bears rushed for 247 yards, going over 200 yards for the third time in the last four games. Cal averaged a fat 6.2 yards per carry, with the lion's share of the damage done by Isi Sofele (21 carries, 145 yards, 1 TD) and C.J. Anderson (10 carries, 48 yards, 2 TD).
But it was not only the running game that came through for the Bears. After falling behind 31-27, quarterback Zach Maynard led Cal on a seven play, 77-yard drive that featured four runs and three passes. Maynard completed all three of his passes on the drive, which culminated in a 3-yard TD run by Anderson to give Cal the lead for good.
And Maynard was not done making plays with his arm and feet. After the Cal defense forced an ASU punt, Maynard and Anderson hooked up for one of the biggest plays of the night. Facing a 3rd-and-4 at the Cal 26-yard line, Maynard slid out of the pocket to his left to elude the ASU pass rush and buy some time. On the run, he found Anderson, who made the catch behind a defender and took care of the rest, rumbling down the sideline for what became a 74-yard touchdown reception to give Cal a 41-31 lead with 2:53 left in the third quarter. It was Cal's longest pass play to a running back since Kevin Riley's 59-yard touchdown pass to Shane Vereen in the 2008 Big Game. For the game, Maynard completed 19 of 26 passes (73%) for 237 yards and one touchdown, posting a completion percentage of at least 68% for the third straight game (and his fourth straight game completing at least 58%).
ASU appeared to rathet up the offensive shootout with a touchdown to pull within 41-38 at the end of the third quarter. But Cal's defense, which gave up 477 yards of total offense, pitched a shutout in the fourth quarter, picking up timely turnovers along the way to stifle the Sun Devils' chances at a comeback. After the Cal offense kept the ball for the first 5:52 of the fourth quarter, getting a 19-yard field goal by Giorgio Tavecchio (one of four field goals made without a miss by the Cal senior), the defense got the turnover the Bears needed. With ASU driving to take the lead, D.J. Campbell forced a fumble at the end of a 22-yard run by ASU's Cameron Marshall. Cal's Mustafa Jalil recovered at the Cal 40-yard line. Though Marshall was ruled down on the play, the replay forces finally worked in Cal's favor: the call was reversed, as replay showed the ball coming free before Marshall hit the ground. The Bears had the recovery and a chance to put the game out of reach.
And the Bears did just that. Cal kept the ball for 5:25, drove 47 yards on eight straight running plays (including a highlight reel 26-yard run by Sofele capped by a brutal lowering of the boom on an ASU defender), forced ASU to burn all of its timeouts, and got a 30-yard field goal from Tavecchio to increase the lead to 47-38 with 3:32 left in the game.
Cal ended all reasonable doubt on the next drive when Josh Hill intercepted Osweiler for ASU's fourth turnover of the night (to just one for Cal). And on a night on which Cal scored its most points in a Pac-12 road game since 2009 (in a 45-26 win at UCLA), the Bears won a high-scoring shootout and picked up its seventh win of the season.
A winning season belongs to the Bears. And a confident team will be headed to the program's eighth bowl appearance in ten years.