Coming into Saturday's game against Arizona State at Memorial Stadium, the California Golden Bears had won eight of the last nine meetings against the Sun Devils. The way Cal built that run of success against ASU had as much to do with the play of the Sun Devil teams under coaches Dennis Erickson and Dirk Koetter as it did with the way the Bears played in those games. When Cal played Arizona State in recent years, you could count on ASU penalties and untimely mistakes helping the Bears along the way.
On Saturday, there was a role reversal of sorts. Playing Cal for the first time under first-year coach Todd Graham, ASU did not turn the ball over and committed only two penalties. Meanwhile, Cal shot itself in the foot with 12 penalties for a whopping 119 yards, the second time this season that the Bears committed more than 10 penalties for losses exceeding 100 yards. To make things worse, ASU played the game faster and was more physical than Cal throughout the game. The formula added up to a 27-17 ASU victory over Cal in front of a Memorial Stadium crowd that appeared to feature many people dressed as empty bleachers. The loss dropped the Bears to 1-4 overall, 0-2 in the Pac-12, marking the first time during Coach Jeff Tedford's tenure that Cal has started a season 1-4. The Sun Devils, meanwhile, improved to 4-1 (2-0 Pac-12), continuing their fast start under their first-year coach. The win was also ASU's first over Cal since 2007 and its first in Berkeley since 1997.
The superior physicality of the Sun Devils was evident early. The ASU defense sacked Cal quarterback Zach Maynard four times in the first quarter alone (six total for the game) and racked up several more tackles for losses as Cal struggled to get things going offensively at the outset. ASU held Cal to only 39 yards of net total offense in the first quarter, 32 of which came on an Isi Sofele run from scrimmage on the Bears' first offensive play of the game. For all the Bears' problems on offense and ASU's seeming dominance of the trenches, Cal was fortunate to be down only 7-0 after the first quarter of play.
Cal did show some signs of life in the second quarter, aided by a fumble by ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly that resulted in a loss of 20 yards and essentially killed an ASU possession. After an ASU punt, Cal struck with a lightning quick three-play, 76-yard drive. A 44-yard completion from Maynard to Keenan Allen, an 8-yard screen play to Bryce Treggs, and a 24-yard burst up the middle by Sofele to the end zone temporarily took Cal out of the doldrums and tied the game.
After the Sofele touchdown, however, the Bears would not threaten to score again for the remainder of the half. But not only did the offense fail to score, it also put the Bears' defense in a tough spot. Just one play after Sofele reeled off a gain of 11 yards on an impressive first-down run late in the half, Sofele followed it up with a fumble. ASU's Alden Darby recovered at the Cal 37 and, suddenly, it was ASU that had a chance to score with 3:11 left in the half.
And score the Devils did. Kelly engineered a nine-play drive, converting two third downs with completions to tight end Chris Coyle along the way. Kelly ended the drive with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Ozier, who made a tough catch at the goal line to give ASU a 17-7 lead with 53 seconds left in the first half. And when Cal chose to kneel down to end the half after a holding penalty on Jordan Rigsbee (a penalty? surprise, surprise!) negated a 31-yard completion from Maynard to Chris Harper, the displeasure of the Cal faithful who chose to show up to Memorial Stadium was audible, in a sound that rhymes with "zoo."
The first half numbers were ugly for the Bears generally, but none uglier than seven penalties for 80 yards. The low point was undoubtedly the stretch where Cal picked up 15-yard penalties on consecutive plays -- a fair catch interference penalty on Lucas King followed by a facemask on Marc Anthony -- that gave ASU 30 free yards into Cal territory.
But through all that, Cal remained in the game in the second half, thanks in large part to ASU. The Sun Devils arguably dominated the third quarter with two long drives into the red zone. But ASU came away with only three points to show for those drives: both stalled and ASU kicker Alex Garoutte missed a 39-yard field goal after one of them. Cal was able to cobble together a nine-play, 58-yard drive before the third quarter ended, getting a 35-yard Vince D'Amato field goal to cut the deficit to 20-10 heading to the fourth quarter.
Things looked bleak for the Bears in that fourth quarter when ASU put together a 12-play, 60-yard drive that seemed to expose fatigue that was setting in for the Cal defense. But with ASU poised to put the game out of reach, a funny thing happened: the Bears caught a break and then made a play. The break came on a 2nd-and-9 at the Cal 16: an errant shotgun snap resulted in a loss of 20 yards. And then, after ASU got back into field goal range, Cal linebacker Nick Forbes made a play: he blocked Garoutte's 37-yard field goal attempt, keeping the Cal deficit at 10 points and stirring life in a largely quiet Memorial Stadium crowd.
Forbes' play paid dividends. The Bears' offense awakened with an eight-play, 80-yard drive. C.J. Anderson provided the spark, scampering down the right sideline for a gain of 44 yards to set the Bears up at the ASU 10-yard line. From there, Maynard (9 of 28, 126 yards, 1 TD) threw a fade to Keenan Allen (who was battling illness throughout the game), who caught the ball in the left corner of the south end zone and dragged his right toe inbounds. A replay review reversed the original call of incomplete pass on the field, and the touchdown pulled the Bears to within 20-17 with 9:33 left in regulation. The crowd had something to cheer about, the Cal bench was energized, and Uncle Mo was wearing a blue jersey.
But the enthusiasm was short lived. With Cal threatening to steal a game that ASU had arguably dominated, the Sun Devils answered Cal's rally in a way that good teams do. Kelly (26 of 45, 292 yds, 3 TD) led the Sun Devil offense on a nine-play, 74-yard drive that culminated in a 22-yard touchdown pass to Ozier on a 3rd-and-11 play (ASU's only third down of the drive). Even though 6:17 still remained after Ozier's touchdown, the 27-17 lead seemed insurmountable; the Bears were done.
And done they were. Cal ran only seven more offensive plays with the last, appropriately, ending in the indignity of a sack of Maynard for a loss of eight yards. And with that, Cal went out with a whimper and a 1-4 record, which is the worst start to a season during Tedford's reign as the Golden Bears' head coach.
Where does Cal go from here? Good question. This is the worst case scenario Cal could have anticipated heading into the 2012 season. And not only is Cal 1-4 (with the only win against an FCS opponent), the Bears have not looked particularly good in getting to that point, save for perhaps two quarters of play at Ohio State two weeks ago. Cal has a multitude of questions to answer, including what is wrong with the offensive line and why did Brendan Bigelow not touch the ball a single time in this game? Regardless of what the answers are, have to call a spade a spade at the point: this is not a good football team. At all.
Good or not, though, there is plenty of season left. The Bears have seven regular season games remaining, five of which they need to win if they want a chance to play in a bowl game. To paraphrase Red from The Shawshank Redemption, will Cal get busy living or get busy dying? Perhaps we'll find out next Saturday night at home against UCLA. If the Bears can't pull themselves together for that one -- being 1-4, playing a night game at Memorial Stadium in the Joe Roth Memorial Game against a team that punked them by 17 points last season -- I don't know what they'll pull themselves together for.