I had the good fortune to attend Saturday’s Cal-Utah matchup and had the double-good fortune of having a young, healthy heart—at least I did going into the game.
I wanted to recount the game from a fan perspective, but determined I don’t have the constitution to relive the entire 60 minutes.
Instead, we begin at the start Utah’s final drive:
With 4:21 left on the clock, #18 Utah took possession of the ball trailing Cal 23 to 28. Despite the Bears’ lead, it felt as though the Utes were in the driver’s seat..
For one, Utah started their drive at the Cal 49 yard line, courtesy of a blocking in the back foul against Utah which the refs mystifyingly transmuted into 15-yard unsportsmanlike against Cal.
This was made worse by the fact that Utah’s last three drives entered red zone, two of them resulting in touchdowns. These drives combined to milk 14:22 of clock and were nothing, still, in comparison to Utah’s 9:08 scoring drive in the 2nd quarter.
That the Utes would beat us on a 4-minute, 51-yard scoring drive didn’t just seem likely, it felt inevitable.
The drive got moving on second down when Utah quarterback Troy Williams hit up-and-coming wide receiver Raelon Singleton for 15 yards, moving the Utes to the Cal 34.
The teenager who’d been sitting with his back arched into my knees lurched forward and pulled his hoodie tight over his face and put his hands over his ears. The Old Blues in the family section, where I was seated, groaned as though the game were already lost. Saddest of all was the defeated Cal fan who just sat silently swigging from a flask and shaking his head. That fan was me.
The one solace was that at least Utah was on track to score in a timely manner, perhaps leaving the Bears enough time for a rebuttal.
And then Utah began rushing. Again and again and again—6 yards, 6 yards, 13 yards—until they’d reached the Cal 9 yard line with 2:30 on the clock.
I, like the other hysterical fans, wondered loudly why Sonny Dykes was declining to use his timeouts; he’d now allowed nearly two minutes to bleed out of the game. At this point, the know-it-all fan in front of me explained that Sonny was displaying "a stroke of genius" by waiting to use his timeouts until the goal line stand. This would allow Dykes to to rest and prep his guys for each crucial play on the final set of downs.
This explanation made no sense to me, but it still made more sense than what Sonny Dykes’ plan turned out to be. Dykes would not use timeouts to stop the clock, he would let it run down. There would be no Cal rebuttal. Dykes was going to leave it to his 124th-ranked rushing defense to make a goal line stand against a Utah rushing attack averaging 4.4 yards per carry versus FBS opponents.
"What madness is this, Sonny? What foolishness!" shouted an Old Blue behind me.
"Madness, foolishness? Maybe," answered the know-it-all, "but if Dykes pulls this off, they’ll name him a genius."
"No," said the Old Blue, "if Sonny pulls it off, they’ll call him a lucky fool."
As Utah set up for 1st-and-goal from the 9, the entire family section rose to their feet and began to roar. (This is truly rare. Sometimes whole seasons go without such an occurrence.)
Utah running back Zach Moss took the ball for a 2-yard scramble up the middle and into a mob of Bear defenders. Dykes continued to let time run off the clock as the Bear defense awaited 2nd-and-goal at Utah’s leisure.
With 1:32 left on the clock Williams handed the ball off to running back Armand Shyne. Shyne followed his lead blocker to the strong side of the line, looking for holes that never opened thanks to Hamilton Anoa’i’s well-timed penetration into the backfield. Shyne looked to break for the perimeter but was instead met by Raymond Davison who, after throwing Ute tight end Ken Hampel to the ground, made quick work of Shyne for a gain of zero.
Players and fans went wild. As the clock ticked under a minute I began to talk to out loud, to no one in particular. "Two more plays, that’s all we need."
On 3rd-and-7 from the goal Williams dropped into the pocket with 4 receivers downfield. He couldn’t have taken more than a step before realizing that an untouched Devante Downs rushing from the outside was hurtling downfield at him at ramming speed. Williams immediately tucked the ball and took off running—right into the 6-3 frame of defensive end Cameron Saffle. Loss of four yards.
Utah now faced 4th-and-goal from the 11. 43 seconds remained, but time no longer seemed to matter. At 20 seconds, Whittingham took his second timeout.
"Just one more play, that’s all we need," I screamed, waving my pointer finger in the air and prancing up and down the stairs.
The Utes came out in shotgun formation, three wide to the left, one wide to the right. Cal matched with the nickel in what appeared to be man coverage.
Sonny must have seen something because, at last, he called Cal’s first timeout.
Between the two timeouts we waited minutes on end for the game to resume and I found myself wondering if Dykes just called his to build the suspense in the interest of promoting his brand of "exciting" football.
Both teams returned from the second time out and assumed virtually the same formations they had prior to the timeouts.
Utah’s two interior receivers ran slants to the middle on the play, leaving wideout Raelon Singleton one-on-one with Cal junior cornerback Marloshawn Franklin Jr.
Franklin Jr. stayed on Singleton, pressing him with hands and bodies along the left corner of the end zone.
Williams loosed what was either a comeback route or a severely under-thrown ball.
Franklin Jr. missed Singleton’s pivot back to the ball and as Singleton lurched forward for the catch, Franklin Jr. simply wrapped up him up, effectively stopping the touchdown but drawing a pass interference call.
There is no adequate way to describe the manner in which I howled and stomped. The closest approximation would be that of a Leprechaun who has been tricked out of his gold.
Utah now stood at the 2-yard line with 14 seconds on the clock and two timeouts. They’d have time for at least three rushing attempts and perhaps a pass.
Surprisingly, watching the game suddenly became a little easier. The Bears would lose, I was sure of it. We’d fought harder than any other Cal team in recent memory so there was no shame to be had, and at least Sonny had kept things interesting once again.
Then came one of those blessed moment when fan noise makes a direct impact on the game.
Kyle Wittingham asked a referee for clarification on the play clock. Because of the sheer volume in Memorial Stadium, however, the ref misunderstood and charged Wittingham a timeout.
Unfortunately for Utah, if there’s one thing we learned one thing from the Oklahoma State-Central Michigan game it’s that there no take-backs in college football.
Utah now had only one timeout left. They could only run the ball twice now—one run prior to the timeout and one more as the last play.
Moss took the first run and broke outside the perimeter. Moss was in a sideline-to-sideline foot with several Cal defenders to the left pylon and for a few horrible moments Moss appeared to have everyone beat. If not for the amazing closing speed of safety Khairi Vanderbilt, Moss could’ve trotted in. Instead he was brought down by Vanderbilt, with assistance, only feet from the goal line.
With seven seconds left, the clock froze for an injury timeout; Raymond Davison was hurt.
Poor Kyle Wittingham. He must not have noticed the clock had stopped because he called another unnecessary timeout.
When the Utes set up for 2nd-and-1, I think everyone in Memorial was wondering if this would be the last play. It damn near was.
Williams faked the hand-off and rolled out of the pocket, running toward the right pylon with senior tight end Evan Moeai four yards ahead, running parallel. Williams tossed the football to Moeai and Moeai dropped it! The play had been a sure touchdown no matter which way you looked at it—Moeai was wide open and Williams could’ve walked in the ball himself. But the catch was placed just above Moeai’s head and he dropped it!
There were three seconds left on the game clock and the play clock was already ticking as Kyle Wittingham jawed at the refs. Utah looked uncertain and struggled to the set up the play. They didn’t break the huddle until 11 seconds remained on the play clock.
Moss lined up next to Williams on the weak side of the backfield, Moeai lined up in the h-back position, a yard behind the strongside tackle. As the play clock hit single digits, Memorial Stadium was utter bedlam. Even some of Utah fans were on their feet screaming, despite fellow Utah fans pleading with them to be quiet so their offense could get the play off.
With five seconds on the play clock Utah’s wide receivers finally got set and no sooner the ball was hiked.
The play was a strongside run with Utah’s weakside guard pulling to lead block for Moss. For reasons we may never know, Moss hesitated to follow his guard and moved instead toward the hole his guard had just vacated or perhaps he, again, hoped to beat the perimeter. That was when 280 pounds of pure James Looney came crashing down on him, flattening Moss into the grass in the backfield.
Cal 28, Utah 23, 0:00.
We danced in the aisles. I took deep breaths and hugged strangers. I double and triple checked the scoreboard, just to make sure. Somewhere out there Coach Dykes was jumping into the arms of Davis Webb like a big baby koala. The family section, who sit above the home team’s tunnel, cheered on the Bears with chants of "De-fense bears, de-fense." I could not recall the last time I’d heard that chant uttered in celebration, rather than as a plea.
Dykes had put the game on his D and they’d come through. Big time. Utah took seven shots from within the 10-yard line but had been held just shy. I could not have been more surprised if you told me that a Tom Holmoe-coached Cal team, led on the field by a re-enrolled Joe Ayoob, had taken us to the Rose Bowl.
I still don’t know how to feel about this ending besides being emotionally frayed. I don’t know what to think of Dykes decision making. Did Sonny recklessly ignore good sense or did he see something in his defense beyond the stat sheet?
What do you think—is Sonny Dykes a genius or a lucky fool?