Cal’s up-and-down season came to a mostly satisfying conclusion Saturday night, as the Golden Bears drubbed the visiting Bruins in an all-phases win. It wasn’t always pretty, as Cal’s offense didn’t really click until the second half, but the Bears were the best team on the field for the first time in far too long. Some of that was the result of a dreary performance by the Bruins, who looked like they were still mourning last week’s loss to USC. But Cal fans don’t need to do too much mental gymnastics to feel good about this win: the defense allowed the fewest points of any game under Sonny Dykes, Cal’s offense actually improved as the game went on, and Ross Bowers even got a few snaps in garbage time. He didn’t throw a pass, but still. Baby steps.
The narrative could hardly be better for Cal’s seniors, many of whom had never experienced a win over UCLA while on the roster. Khalfani Muhammad had the kind of night fans always knew he could have, exploding for 116 rushing yards and another 48 through the air. Former walk-on Bug Rivera also had a good game, reeling in six catches including a two-yard score. Davis Webb, though he’s only been with us for a year, certainly earned his senior night recognition as well. Tonight’s line—32/48 for 301 yards and 2TDs—gave him a season passing total over 4,000 yards, making him the second (consecutive) Cal QB to reach that mark. Cameron Walker also had a nice final game for the Bears, leading the team with eight tackles and adding a PBU.
Neither team seemed too eager to get the festivities started, trading three-and-outs to open this soggy and sparsely-attended matchup at Memorial Stadium. Davis Webb struggled early, missing four of his first five throws and throwing a handful of near-interceptions that clanged off the hands of Bruin defensive backs. His pooch punting was in top form, however, as he pinned UCLA inside their own 10 after Cal’s second drive faltered near midfield.
The Bruins tried to establish the run early, in hopes that Cal’s 127th-ranked rush defense help their own 127th-ranked rush offense find its footing. Though Nate Starks broke out for a few moderate gains on their second drive, a combined sack by Cameron Saffle and Devante Downs forced another punt.
Unable to convert a third and short in UCLA territory, Sonny Dykes decided to take a more aggressive route and hurried the offense to the line. Webb found Jack Austin on a quick screen to get the conversion and move into field goal range. Matt Anderson would reward this strategy a few plays later with a 43-yard field goal to give the Bears the lead.
Despite their much-maligned rush offense, it would be the Bruins’ passing game that let them down in the first half. Mike Fafaul missed two throws on the next drive and would finish the first quarter without a completion. Cal’s offense was comparatively thriving, riding a nice Khalfani Muhammad run and Bug Rivera catch into the red zone. Tre Watson then converted a short fourth down to set Cal up with a 4th and goal.
The Bears would have to wait a bit longer to score their first touchdown, as an apparent TD pass to Jordan Veasy was called back on a rare illegal blocking penalty against Chad Hansen. The Bears would settle for a field goal to take a 6-0 lead.
The Bruins’ next drive was a microcosm of Jim Mora’s night: an unremarkable run, an errant throw, and a dropped pass led to yet another punt. Meanwhile Cal was settling into a pattern of its own, driving into UCLA territory but settling for field goals over touchdowns. Matt Anderson’s third, this one from 44 yards, extended the lead to 9-0.
A pooch kickoff out of bounds gave UCLA good starting field position, which they used to march into plus territory for the first time. An offensive holding call and a false start kept the Bruins out of field goal range but allowed the ensuing punt to pin Cal at its own one-yard line. Davis Webb took the setback in stride, hitting Chad Hansen for two solid gains and driving the Bears into the red zone. Once again they would have to settle for a field goal, as he couldn’t complete any of his three attempts inside the 10. With a 12-0 lead, it seemed like Cal’s inability to finish drives could lead to disaster at any moment.
That moment wouldn’t come until later, as Patrick Mekari recorded his first sack of the season to stifle UCLA’s next drive. Cal would go into the half with a shutout, having allowed just 97 total yards and a paltry 3.6 yards per Bruin play.
In a repeat of the first half, both teams opened the third period with quick punts. UCLA soon broke through, however, as Fafaul struck with two long completions and a 7-yard TD to Kenneth Walker. This was just the scare the Bears needed. Davis Webb responded with a 33-yard pass to Chad Hansen, who initially appeared to touch the pylon but was ruled to have stepped out just short of the end zone. Malik McMorris continued his ascent into the ranks of fan favorites with a touchdown plunge on his first-ever rushing attempt. Cal’s lead grew to 19-7 with the PAT.
Cal’s pooch kicking strategy paid off on the ensuing play, as Kaodi Dike pounced on a muffed catch to give the Bears the ball with great field position. Davis Webb nearly squandered it, throwing a momentum-killing interception into the hands of UCLA safety Nate Meadors. But Meadors was ruled to have held onto the intended receiver, negating the pick and saving the drive. Webb atoned with a long ball to Chad Hansen and a short TD pass to Jordan Duncan. The freshman’s first collegiate touchdown extended Cal’s lead to 26-7.
Mike Fafaul, now seeming more comfortable with his receivers, quickly marched the Bruins down into the red zone. A near-interception off the hands of Raymond Davis stopped the bleeding, forcing the Bruins to settle for a field goal. Khalfani Muhammad took the ensuing kickoff back to midfield on a blazing return, setting Cal up nicely at the end of the period.
Muhammad’s magic continued as he opened the fourth quarter with a shifty run to convert on a 3rd and 13. He couldn’t get the Bears into the end zone without help, though, and a couple of red zone misses by Webb meant Matt Anderson would have to finish the drive once again. He did, pushing the score to 29-10.
The unexpected rout continued as Devante Downs picked off Mike Fafaul, watching his eyes the whole way and sliding over to make the interception. Set up by a long screen and run by Muhammad, Davis Webb rolled out and hit Bug Rivera for the score. The 36-10 margin would hold, as the Bears got one more stop late in the fourth quarter. The Bruins forced a punt with less than three minutes remaining, but a roughing the kicker penalty gave Cal a chance to run out the clock. Ross Bowers saw his first snaps of the season, handing the ball off a few times and running for a two-yard gain of his own.
This was by no means a perfect game, and it won’t change the minds of many in the Sonny Yikes crowd. As nice is it is to beat our ursine brothers from down south, the Bruins are not a good enough team to change the narrative regarding Sonny’s struggles with quality opponents.
All that said, how can you not feel good after this win? After slogging through a brutal second half of the season, this team came out with a gritty performance in a mostly meaningless game. Art Kaufman did his finest work in what will almost certainly be his final game as Cal’s DC. Though UCLA repeatedly shot itself in every appendage it could reach, Cal’s defenders did an admirable job of pressuring Fafaul and capitalizing on mistakes. On offense, Jake Spavital adjusted his scheme to attack the Bruins’ weaknesses, trading downfield passes for screens and inside runs. This wasn’t always a great year for Cal football, but a drama-free win against a rival makes up for some of the previous stress and heartache. This Bears team could well look very different next fall, so this is a nice parting gift for all of the departing members of this team.