Though we may not want to admit it, there was probably a lot of hubris around here about Saturday's game against FCS opponent Portland State. After all, Cal went toe-to-toe with a ranked opponent last week and, even though the Bears lost, the denizens of Cal Bear Nation were by and large feeling good about what the Bear Raid would bring this season. Visions of a big, confidence-building win probably danced through a lot of our heads. Many of us even thought we'd get to see Zach Kline and other backups play significant amounts after Cal built a comfortable lead against the team picked to finish 11th in the 13-team Big Sky Conference.
A funny thing happened on the way to victory. For the second year in a row, Cal found itself in a battle with an FCS opponent, with the game in doubt far longer than most of us thought it would be. Last year, the Bears used a 4th quarter scoring outburst to beat Southern Utah in a game that was closer than the 50-31 final score would indicate. On Saturday, Cal came from behind to defeat a game Portland State Vikings team, 37-30, in a game that was every bit as close as the 7-point margin would tell you it was.
That this game was competitive should give all of us some pause after finding so much good in last week's competitive loss to Northwestern. And it was competitive from pretty much the word go. Portland State served notice on the game's second play of the game when Kieran McDonagh connected with Kasey Closs on an 81-yard touchdown pass to give the Vikings a 7-0 lead just 45 seconds into the game. And even though Cal quickly tied the score after freshman running back Khalfani Muhammad capped a quick seven-play, 63-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown run on the Bears' first offensive series, PSU answered back with an even quicker five-play, 75-yard drive to take a 14-7 lead. Three touchdowns in a little over five minutes made it clear what the themes of the day would be: (1) game on and (2) Cal's defense was not going to give us much confidence as we watched the game unfold.
Hard as the Bears tried, they could not seize control of the game in the first half, as PSU gashed the Bears on the ground mostly with D.J. Adams, who rushed for 139 yards on 21 carries in the game. The Vikings also torched the Bears through the air: McDonagh passed for 183 yards in the first quarter and finished the game with 308 yards on just 13 of 28 passing.
As well as Portland State played offensively, the Vikings gave Cal some life with a multitude of penalties and a couple of costly turnovers. With PSU leading 20-10 with under 11 minutes to play in the first half, Cal safety Michael Lowe recovered a fumble by PSU's Shaquille Richard at the Cal 49 yard line. The Bears immediately capitalized: on the first play after the turnover, QB Jared Goff found Bryce Treggs for a 50-yard gain to the PSU 1-yard line. Goff scored on a keeper on the very next play to bring Cal to within 20-17. After the Cal defense made a rare first-half stop, Cal then took its first lead of the game on its next possession, a 13-play, 85-yard drive that was almost evenly split between pass plays (7) and run plays (6). The drive ended on what may be, next to last week's fake field goal, the play of the year so far for the Bears. On 3rd and 6 at the PSU 10, Goff zinged a pass to the back of the end zone that looked like it would be overthrown. Wide receiver Maurice Harris, however, snagged the tip of the football with one hand and held on for the touchdown that gave Cal its first lead of the game, 24-20.
After an interception by Cal's Kam Jackson led to a Vince D'Amato 39-yard field goal, it looked like Cal might have righted the ship after the shaky start. And when PSU faced a 3rd and 12 at its own 23 with less than a minute left in the first half, it looked as though the Bear Raid might have another chance to post points before halftime. But Cal's defense ruined that plan, yielding a 26-yard run to Adams that gave PSU a first down at midfield. A 14-yard run by McDonagh helped set up a 46-yard field goal at the end of the half that cut Cal's lead to 27-23 at halftime and stunted the momentum the Bears had built up in the closing minutes of the half.
Cal coach Sonny Dykes was noticeably irate as his Bears left the field at halftime. Apart from the Bears' performance failing the eye test in the first half, the halftime stat sheet was also a good reason for Dykes's ire. PSU rolled up an obscene 430 yards of total offense in the first half alone, outgaining the Bears 430 to 310. Cal's less-than-stellar defensive performance overshadowed the passing exploits of Goff, who completed 15 of 20 passes for 172 yards in the first half.
The second half did not start much better than the first. Cal running back Brendan Bigelow fumbled on the opening series of the half, setting up PSU in excellent field position at Cal's 44-yard line. Seven plays later, PSU was in the end zone, taking a 30-27 lead that had many Bear fans understanding what the Oregon State Beavers felt like last week in their home loss to Eastern Washington.
Things almost got worse before they got better. After Cal went three-and-out, PSU looked to have another touchdown that would have given the Vikings a 10-point lead. On a 3rd-and-10 from the Viking 35 yard line, McDonagh threw a pass toward WR Roston Tatum that was broken up by Cal safety Damariay Drew. PSU wide receiver David Jones, who was behind the play, caught the ball after it bounced on the Memorial Stadium turf. Hearing no whistle, Jones alertly ran to the end zone, where the game officials inexplicably ruled the play a touchdown. Perhaps the officials thought Jones caught he ball on the fly; perhaps the officials thought Tatum had possession long enough for the play to be ruled a catch and a fumble that Jones recovered. Either interpretation of what actually transpired was absurd and the ruling on the field was overturned on replay. Rather than enjoy a fluke 65-yard touchdown and a 10-point lead, PSU had to punt.
The replay reversal proved to create a 14-point turnaround. On the first play after the punt, Goff made us think "No! No! No! --- Yes! Yes! Yes!" Rolling to his right after being flushed from the pocket, the freshman committed the usually sinful act of throwing the ball across his body to the other side of the field. Goff's "sin" was absolved, however, by a wide open Richard Rodgers. Rodgers snagged the throw and rumbled the rest of the way down the left sideline for a 75-yard touchdown to give Cal a 34-30 lead midway through the third quarter. It was a lead that the Bears would not relinquish.
A D'Amato field goal late in the 3rd quarter provided the only other points Cal would get. Although more points would have made us all more comfortable as we watched the game, Cal's defense made sure more points were not necessary. After being moved on and scored upon repeatedly until the 11 minute mark of the third quarter, Cal's defense managed to hold PSU scoreless on the Vikings' final six offensive possessions and the final 26 minutes of the game. (Admit it: you're surprised to read that stat because it felt like PSU moved the ball at will all day!) And even though Cal's offense did not score in the fourth quarter, it played an effective game of keep away to ensure that the Cal Marching Band would play Palms of Victory for the first time this season. After Khairi Fortt and Todd Barr teamed up to sack McDonagh on a key 3rd down play to force a punt, Cal's offense took over and kept the ball for the final 4:41, the key play being an 11-yard strike from Goff to Darius Powe Jr. to convert a 3rd and 7.
Victory is nice, but the numbers are not. Despite the Cal defense clamping down in the fourth quarter, the fact remains that the Bears yielded 553 yards of total offense to an average FCS team. Cal showed no signs of being able to stop either the pass or the run, giving up 308 yards passing and an even more disturbing 245 yards rushing. Apart from those disturbing stats, Cal was consistently beaten up front by the PSU offensive and defensive lines, something that was difficult to watch (to say the least). The offensive line yielded five sacks, meaning that Goff has been sacked nine times in the first two games of this season. True, the Bears' offense made up for the defense, racking up 616 yards of total offense in 95 offensive plays (more yards than last week in four fewer plays run). And we continued to see the bright future of Goff, who threw for 485 yards to become only the second Cal quarterback (Pat Barnes, 1996) to pass for more than 400 yards in consecutive games. But the defensive woes that we saw last week continued this week and that is probably the more enduring memory from this game for a fanbase that tends to view the team's performances through a hypercritical lens.
A win is a win, and squeaking by against an FCS opponent is certainly better than losing to one. (Just ask the eight FBS teams that lost to FCS teams last week.) But there is plenty to worry about this week as Ohio State looms as the Bears' next opponent. With or without its Heisman Trophy candidate QB Braxton Miller (who was injured in the first quarter of the Buckeyes' win over San Diego State on Saturday), Ohio State will be infinitely more formidable than PSU. Cal will need to step up its game -- especially on defense -- if it does not want to be embarrassed at home on national television next Saturday.