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Cal blows lead, storms back for vital win over Oregon State

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The Bears ride a dominant run game and an opportunistic defense to their fifth win of the season. A bowl game beckons - can Cal close the deal?

Got those moves like Jared
Got those moves like Jared
Susan Ragan-USA TODAY Sports

In my mind, and in the mind of more than a few other Cal fans, this game was a referendum on the 2014 season. A first-Saturday-in-November type of thing, perhaps. For multiple reasons, this was a game the Bears had to have. It was perhaps harder than it could have been, but in the end Cal emerged with their 3rd road win of the year. The Bears won't have to leave the state of California again this year . . . unless and until they earn one more win and a bowl invitation.

It was a game of runs that saw Cal overcome a frustrating first quarter before building up a 2710 lead early in the 3rd quarter. Oregon State responded with three touchdowns in the span of nine minutes of game time, but the Bears crawled off of the mat in time to finish the game off with 18 straight 4th quarter points and a 4531 win.

Cal won the game in a very different style than earlier wins this season. For much of the year the 2014 version of the Bear Raid has been all about big plays and quick strikes through the air. But when forced by superior defenses to be more balanced and to sustain drives, the offenses has been much less successfuluntil Saturday night in Corvallis. Would you believe that Cal ran 94 plays without a single gain longer than 31 yards? Oregon State's veteran linebackers and secondary generally tackled well and kept Cal covered deep, and Jared Goff was unusually inaccurate down the field.

But it didn't matter in the end, because Cal churned out 510 yard gain after 510 yard gain, moving the sticks with regularity. Seven drives ending with a field goal attempt or touchdown lasted at least 8 plays.

Cal managed to keep the ball moving despite an uncharacteristically poor game from Jared Goff, who barely completed half his passes and had multiple bad reads and inaccurate throws. Most of the credit on offense goes to Daniel Lasco and the Cal offensive line, who took full advantage of a struggling, beat up OSU defensive front to the tune of 269 rushing yards. Four different Cal running backs got carries, and all four averaged at least six yards/run. It's easily the best single game rushing performance Cal fans have enjoyed since Sonny Dykes took over last year.

The 45 points put up by the offense was more than enough thanks to a defense that played great football for 35 minutes, lost its way, then recovered to make perhaps the two biggest plays of the game.

Holding Oregon State to ten points on their first seven meaningful possessions is phenomenal. Granted, the Bears had some help. The Beavers looked oddly unwilling to test Cal down the field early in the game, and later had two drives stall out on dropped 3rd down passes. Still, Cal gets tons of credit for making plenty of solid tackles to force 3rd downs, and then making the stops when given opportunities.

The less said about everything that happened between 8:42 in the 3rd quarter and the 12:02 mark of the 4th quarter, the better. Three straight OSU drives ended in the end zone, with minimal resistance from the Cal defense. But to be fair, the Cal defense was not helped by the offense (one three and out, one six and out) and special teams (one poor kickoff return and one poor punt) that kept the defense on the field.

Perhaps losing the lead woke the offense back up, or perhaps the offense just needed to recommit to the run. Whatever the reason, Cal responded with a touchdown drive to retake the lead, which set up the two biggest plays of the game from Cal's defense.

Huge Play 1: On 2nd and 11, Caleb Coleman intercepts Sean Mannion. Three wonderful things happened on this play. 1) Cal's secondary has tight enough coverage that Sean Mannion can't throw to his first read, and pulls the ball down. 2) Freshman DE Jonathan Johnson (who recorded a sack later in the game) cuts inside of his man and chases down Mannion, wrapping him up. 3) Mannion makes the critical mistake of forcing a throw, but Coleman sees it and makes a play on the ball.

Unfortunately, Cal's offense goes 3 and out and settles for a field goal, which means that OSU can still take the lead on their next drive with a touchdown . . . which sets up:

Huge Play 2: On 4th and 2, OSU runs a simple flat route to RB Chris Brown. Unfortunately for OSU, Caleb Coleman reads the route and Mannion's intentions and takes a beeline towards the receiver, wrapping him up a yard short of the first down marker.

Who exactly is this Caleb Coleman? I'm a Cal football obsessive and I wasn't even entirely sure. He's a redshirt freshman who came to Cal as a 2 star WR recruit in 2013. This is the reality of the Cal defense: the Bears are relying on converted freshmen to make huge plays in key moments. And damned if it didn't work.

Cal's offense took over and scored a touchdown to ice the game five plays later. Fittingly, it was a 15 yard run from Lasco, his 3rd touchdown of the game, that killed off any chances of another OSU comeback.

What can we take away from this game, other than the W? That's hard to say. Statistically, this was a weird game. Oregon State actually out-gained the Bears on a play-by-play basis, 6.9 to 6.3. And yet Cal was in control for the majority of the game, and could have actually had an easy win with some better decision making. This will likely be discussed in greater detail later in the week, but the in-game management from the Cal coaching staff must again be scrutinized. Here are the plays in particular that annoyed me:

  • 3rd and 8 from the OSU 40: Stephen Anderson makes a nice catch and clearly gets a foot down, but the refs call him out of bounds. Shockingly, the review ref does not call for a review. Rather than challenge the call, Sonny waits as long as he can before punting for a touchback that netted 20 yards of field position. The first mistake was not challenging the call. The second mistake was punting.
  • 4th and 1 from the Cal 46: Why punt here? Prior to this play, Cal had handed off to a running back five times and four of those plays went for at least 5 yards. Surely we know enough about Daniel Lasco to give him a 2nd chance to get just one yard?
  • I don't know how it happened, but having multiple players on the field with the same number shouldn't happen, and it cost Cal 12.5 yards of field position.
This was all in the 1st quarter, and the sense at the time was that Cal squandered multiple chances to build a big lead. As it turns out, scoring only three points on four 1st quarter drives that all at least reached midfield made the 2nd half significantly more stressful than perhaps it needed to be.

I'll continually be frustrated by Sonny's relative conservatism on 4th down, but I will give the coaching staff credit for doing a good job with both drives in the final two minutes of either half. One led to a Cal field goal that didn't leave time for OSU to score, and the other burned off more than 2 minutes to go along with the decisive touchdown.

Taking the good with the bad, it's a great result. Would you have envisioned Cal winning in Corvallis by 14 with an undeniably substandard game from Jared Goff? It's a sign of how much the rest of the roster has grown, that this team can win a game without being carried by the one player recognized as a game-changer.

Goff will likely be much better next time out, in part because we know he can play better, and in part because he might have a healthier group of wide receivers. The entire team now has two weeks to get healthy for USC, as they get their first crack at a sixth win and a bowl game that would make this season a wonderful success.