The California Golden Bears were poised to do something great on Saturday night against the Arizona Wildcats. On the road against a "White Out" crowd ready to be rowdy, Cal got off to a fast start and seemingly had an answer for every Arizona threat to get back in the game. The Bears were ready to break their 14-game conference losing streak and win their conference opener for the first time since 2008.
But something horrifying happened on the Bears' way to victory. Arizona rallied for 36 points in the fourth quarter, the last six coming on a 47-yard Hail Mary pass from Anu Solomon to Austin Hill as time expired, to give the Wildcats a wild and improbable 49-45 win in their Pac-12 opener. Trailing 31-13 entering the fourth quarter and 45-30 with 5:31 left, Arizona took full advantage a Cal turnover, a recovered onside kick, and less-than-stout defense by the Bears to not only get back into the game, but steal it unmercifully from a Cal team that could not put it away. The 36 points Arizona scored in the fourth quarter set a record for the the most points Cal has yielded in quarter, surpassing the 33 scored by USC in the 3rd quarter against Cal in 1930.
Cal fans will be forgiven if they do not appreciate the historic nature of Arizona's fourth-quarter point outburst. Seared into our memories are the frenetic series of events that turned an 18-point Cal lead into a defeat at the final gun. After Arizona kicked a field goal to pull within 31-16, the Bears were bitten by the same misfortune that triggered Northwestern's (ultimately unsuccessful) comeback bid in week one. The Wildcats' Tony Bondurant intercepted a pass intended for Stephen Anderson -- a pick aided by an unfortunate deflection by Anderson that kept the ball airborne -- and returned it to the Cal 17-yard line. Two plays later, Hill caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Solomon to make it a one-possession game at 31-23 with 13:36 remaining in the game.
The nervous Cal faithful were assuaged somewhat after that, however, when the Bears answered Arizona's score with one of their own, just as they had done so well in the first half. Khalfani Muhammad broke loose for a 50-yard touchdown, Cal's first touchdown since the second quarter, to extend the lead to 15 with 10:56 left. And then it really started to get weird.
The Cal defense that had played pretty well through the first three quarters of the game began to give up yards way too freely and easily, particularly on slant passes to the middle of the Cal secondary. Arizona answered Cal's touchdown with a 9-play, 75-yard drive that took only 2:47 off the clock. Solomon completed all six of his passes on the drive, three of them to Cayleb Jones, who gave the Bears fits in the second half. Jones caught the drive's final pass, a 16-yard post pattern to beat Darius Allensworth (the second time Jones beat Allensworth for a touchdown), and it was once again a one-possession game at 38-30 with 8:09 still to play.
Cal answered again with a statement drive that, if you didn't know any better, made you think the Bears had put the game away. After an Arizona personal foul enabled the Bears to start at their own 40-yard line, Cal easily marched to the end zone in just six plays. Muhammad rushed for 31 yards on the drive, including the final six yards into the end zone to seemingly restore order. Cal led 45-30 with 5:21 remaining.
Kaufman: "Didn't get the job done that falls on my shoulders." pic.twitter.com/xfao4yXgfw— Cal Rivals (@CalRivals) September 21, 2014
But Cal's defense just couldn't get the stop it needed. Arizona scored far too easily on the ensuing drive, marching 75 yards on 8 plays as Solomon (who struggled in the first half) completed 5 of 6 passes on the drive. For the night, Solomon threw a school record 73 passes, completing 47 of them for an obscene 520 yards. But the truly obscene number was the 248 yards Solomon passed for in the fourth quarter alone. When Arizona's Terris Jones-Grigsby capped the drive with an 6-yard run up the middle of Cal's defense, Arizona had cut it 45-37 with 3:30 left.
Even though more than three minutes remained, the onside kick was in order, considering that Arizona had shown no signs of stopping Cal's offense in the fourth quarter. And things looked promising for Cal when the onside kick try went to Maurice Harris on a big hop. Instead of catching the ball, however, Harris inexplicably grabbed it and in one motion threw it out of bounds to the Arizona sideline. That act resulted in an illegal batting penalty, which gave Arizona another chance at the onside kick from its own 45-yard line. (Cal was also offsides on the kickoff, meaning Arizona would have gotten a second chance even if Harris had caught the ball.) Arizona ran the same play -- using two kickers and having one of them fake the kick before the other executed it -- and this time had it work to perfection. Arizona recovered on the Cal 41 and scored a touchdown just four plays later on another Solomon-to-Jones pass to the right corner of the end zone (this time beating Cameron Walker). It was suddenly 45-43 with 2:44 left. Arizona's two-point conversion failed, however, when Jalen Jefferson deflected a Solomon pass, keeping Cal ahead and giving the Cal faithful hope that the Bears could hold on.
Hope sprang even more eternal on the ensuing kickoff, when this time Cal's Raymond Hudson recovered the onside kick. And when Cal was able to get a first down after a pass interference penalty, the Bears forced Arizona to use all of its timeouts. But the Wildcats got the ball back on their own 29 yard line with 52 seconds left after James Langford missed a 47-yard field goal attempt. Arizona converted a 4th and 7, completed another pass to the Cal 47-yard line, and spiked the ball with 4 seconds left. And then what happened happened.
The ending spoiled what could have been a special night for the Bears. Cal came ready to play, jumping to a 14-0 lead on explosive touchdown plays on the first two possessions (a 44-yard run by Daniel Lasco and an 80-yard touchdown pass from Jared Goff to Bryce Treggs). Goff threw for 294 yards in the first half alone, including two more touchdown passes to Stephen Anderson and Chris Harper to give Cal a 28-6 lead at the half. Cal's defense held Arizona without a touchdown in the first half, the first time the Bears had pulled that feat since October 13, 2002 against Washington State. And the defense impressively stoned Arizona on two red zone chances. In the first quarter, the defense bailed the Bears out of a Luke Rubenzer fumble deep in Cal territory by holding Arizona to a short field goal attempt (which was missed). And in the second quarter, with Arizona looking to get a touchdown before halftime, Griffin Piatt stepped in front of a Solomon pass and intercepted it, getting his third interception in as many games this season.
But Cal could not sustain the magic in the second half. Goff (18 of 30, 380 yds, 3 TD, 1 INT) passed for only 86 yards in the second half and Cal could not put the Wildcats away when they had their chance to do so. And even though the defense kept Arizona out of the end zone in the first half, Cal ultimately yielded 43 second half points and 627 yards of total offense. The defense couldn't get off the field: Arizona ran 106 offensive plays in the game, to only 72 for Cal. Arizona (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) felt like it ran about 80 of those in the fourth quarter alone, when Cal had no answer to the Wildcats' use of slants or to passes of any kind to Jones. And when Piatt (the closest Bear on the play) could not knock down the Hail Mary to Hill, it was a horrific end to a night that started out as a celebration of Cal football.
This one stings. This one hurts. But Cal (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12) must get up and keep fighting. Colorado comes to Berkeley next week and the Bears cannot afford to wallow in sorrow with a winnable game coming up.