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The Wrap: Cal blows 14-point lead, loses to ASU 51–41.

Back to reality we go!

California v Arizona State Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Was it just me or was there something eerie about Cal jumping out to a 14-point lead at the half? It felt almost irregular, if anything because the Sonny Dykes era hasn’t been one known for solid, dominant wins. Cal put on an impressive first-half performance, slicing up the Arizona State defense through the ground and through the air. Davis Webb was flawless (though later in the game he would come crashing back to earth) and our experienced offensive line was beating a stout Arizona State run defense. An easy prediction at the half might have been something along the lines of 48–24, Cal wins and starts to position themselves favorably in a down year in the Pac-12. Add in the fact that Arizona State’s defense has a pattern of progressively getting worse as the game goes on, Cal was in the best possible position to slam the door on the Sun Devils.

Well, in case you need another reminder that this isn’t your ordinary sports team, the second half brought back that harsh reality. This is Cal and sometimes you just have to love it for what it is. So something had to give in the game. And give it did. Arizona State found its way back into the game rather quickly, finally breaking through the Cal defense that had played so well in the first half. Davis Webb would falter as the offense became more one dimensional and the Bears would look rather hapless on offense for the rest of the second half. The Bears suffered a somewhat tolerable but ultimately incredibly disappointing defeat in perhaps the most Cal way possible. Onwards we go to the wrap:

First Quarter: Larger than life

Cal had the first possession of the ball game and didn’t look sharp on their first drive. There was confusion by Melquise Stovall on the route and the Bears would punt after a quick three and out. The next Arizona State possession provided a fantastic harbinger for what was to come in the remainder of the first half. DeVante Wilson and Cameron Saffle both made great plays upfront and forced the Sun Devils into a third-down situation. The ball popped out of the Arizona State receiver’s hands and Cal would receive a punt.

The second Cal possession would allow the Bears to take their first lead of the game. After a pooch punt landed them at their own two-yard line, the Bears were forced further back to the one-yard line after a false start penalty. Webb would find Chad Hansen down the line on a leaping, acrobatic catch that should make the top ten plays of the week. Hansen leapt up and was fading out of bounds yet somehow managed to secure the football and curl his foot in bounds before the rest of his body fell out of play—it was a thing of beauty. Stovall would show up with another massive gain—a consistent theme of the night—and Demetris Robertson beat the ASU secondary over the top for the first Bears touchdown. On a night where Cal needed their younger wide receivers to step up to help Hansen, this sure looked like a healthy sign for the Bears. 7–0 Cal.

The next Arizona State series, Cal would make one of their biggest plays of the evening but not before a very important injury. On the kick return, starting safety Evan Rambo was helped off the field and did not return on the night. His loss had a massive impact in the second half and allowed Arizona State to move the ball more effectively downfield. The run defense held the Sun Devils in check and on third down, shutdown corner Darius Allensworth would jump the route to make a great interception on Wilkins. Cal would start their next possession with excellent field position.

After a Tre Watson 9-yard run, Cal would shoot themselves in the foot while also getting some unwanted help from the Pac-12 refs. Davis Webb bobbled a snap and immediately took a knee and after doing so an Arizona State player would tackle him anyways. This is a clear late hit, particularly on a quarterback, but miraculously it went uncalled and left the Bears with a long distance situation. The next play, Webb would hit Malik McMorris who (luckily) couldn’t hang onto the football and forced Cal into a field goal. Matt Anderson, who has been absolutely lights out this year, would end up missing the kick. And yes, as you might imagine these three points ended up being incredibly important at the end of the night.

The Cal defense once again held Arizona State and forced them to punt with Hamilton Anoa’i sacking Manny Wilkins to help put the Sun Devils in a tough down and distance. Cal would take possession and again get in their own way. Raymond Hudson dropped an easy first down and Cal was forced to punt the ball back to the Sun Devils.

Arizona State would finally build some offensive momentum, moving the ball downfield, but still struggling on the ground. Arizona State running back Kalen Ballage would leave the game in what looked like a devastating knee injury but ended up returning later. His absence was important in allowing Cal’s defense to be successful in defending the run. On 3rd and 5 from the Cal 11-yard line, Devante Downs would sack Wilkins and force Arizona State to kick a field goal. The score then moved to 7–3 Cal and would stay the same through the end of the first quarter.

Second quarter: I want it that way

Cal would use two more completions to Hansen and some nice running plays with Khalfani Muhammad to move the ball downfield. The Bears faced a fourth down situation in Arizona State territory and Webb would hit Chad “so hot right now” Hansen on an out route to get the first down. Webb would then use an excellent fake to hit Hansen for a touchdown and the Bears moved to a 14–3 lead over the Sun Devils.

Arizona State would punt AGAIN as the Cal defense was stifling their rushing attack and Raymond Davison made a great tackle for loss. Unfortunately the Cal offense would stall and the Bears would give the ball right back to Arizona State.

The next Sun Devils possession was more of the same from the Cal defense. The run defense held their own and through six Arizona State possessions were holding them to 2.5 yards per carry. Arizona State would punt again to the Bears who then had an opportunity to really blow the game out of the water. Vic Enwere would take the ball for a solid run and a face mask penalty would add another 15 yards onto the end of the play. Webb found Chad “so hot right now” Hansen again and Hansen made another ridiculous catch. After a fumble that Cal would fortunately fall on, Vic Enwere ate up a ton of yards to get the Bears back to a manageable down and distance. Webb would then hit Stovall who tip toed his way up the sideline to get the Bears into a first and goal situation. The drive would stall with two narrow misses and an interception negated by an offsides call which left Cal to settle for a field goal. 17–3 Bears.

This is when the Bears started notably hurting themselves. On the ensuing Arizona State possession, Cal would be called for pass interference and roughing the passer which immediately put the defense on their heels. After a Wilkins run brought the Sun Devils across midfield and deep into Cal territory, he would finish the job on a QB keeper. 17–10, Cal still leading.

Cal received the ball with 1:24 to go in the 2nd quarter. Khalfani would kick things off with a 27-yard run, which he nearly broke to the house for a touchdown. Khalfani would continue to eat up yards on the ground, displaying great balance and being unafraid to use his patented spin move. Vic Enwere would secure a first down before Davis Webb would find Brandon Singleton (hello young wide receivers) on a beautiful pass for a 23-yard touchdown. The Bears would take a 24–10 lead at the half.

Third Quarter: Quit playing games with my heart

Arizona State would start with the ball in the third quarter and waste no time scoring on a Cal defense that would be much less effective in the second half. The Sun Devils converted a couple short third-down situations, something they struggled with in the first half, and eventually score on another Manny Wilkins run. 24–17, Cal still leading.

Cal’s first possession of the second half felt important to reestablish the lead back to double digits. Demetris Robertson had a huge reception downfield that set the Bears up in Arizona State territory. Webb then hit Melquise Stovall in the hands, but perhaps led him by just a step and he couldn’t come down with the reception. The Bears would settle for a field goal that Matt Anderson put through the uprights. 27–17, Bears.

The next Arizona State drive Kalen Ballage would return for the Sun Devils and he would be well-utilized the entire second half. Cal had numerous missed tackles on more than one play this drive and Arizona State quickly made its way into Bear territory. The defense would battle back and force Arizona State to kick a 44-yard field goal to bring the game within one score once more. 27–20, Cal.

Cal would go three and out without much signs of life on offense. The nerves started to settle in for all Cal fans watching as the Sun Devils prepared to receive the ball, only down seven.

Yet the defense would battle back, Cameron Saffle continued to disrupt the Arizona State offense and James Looney also made a couple of nice stops. Saffle would end up sacking Wilkins and the Bears defense would force an Arizona State punt.

Cal started this possession at the five-yard line and perhaps the most egregious and important call of the game was about to happen. Webb found Hansen for a big gain which was inexplicably called back due to pass interference on Demetris Robertson. Replays showed that he wasn’t in a blocking stance and was merely tangled up with the Arizona State defensive back. What would have been a 20+ yard gain was called back and the game would spiral away from the Bears in the fourth quarter.

Fourth Quarter: Show me the meaning of being lonely

The Khalfani disappearing act is and will be one of the most interesting aspects of this game. Khalfani was averaging eight yards per carry and was nowhere to be found late in the game (as I am writing the wrap, I haven’t been able to see Sonny’s conference to see if he was hurt). The Bears were backed up in their own territory after the awful pass interference call would move the ball up on a pass to Demetris Robertson. The drive would stall as Vic Enwere would get stuffed at the line, a recurring theme of our running backs not named Khalfani in the fourth quarter. Cal called a bizarre screen play to Hansen that was blown up and was forced to punt the ball away again.

The following Arizona State drive, Cal would be called for a targeting penalty and then the call was reversed on field, which was absolutely the right call (in reference to targeting). Later in the same drive, Cameron Saffle was pursuing the quarterback and was hit on a brutal block which seemed like an easy targeting call as well. Yet it went uncalled and the drive moved forward. The Bears defense was able to force Arizona State into a third-down situation, but they converted once more and then attacked Jacob Anderson deep. The Bears felt Rambo’s absence and eventually gave up another touchdown, another Wilkins rush. 27–27, the game was tied up.

The Cal offense started their drive at the 25 and continued to find little room on the ground. The Bears then unleashed one of the more complex trick plays that saw Brandon Singleton just barely lose control of the ball as he hit the ground. The next play, Webb found Tre Watson on a screen play which Tre took 74 yards to the house for the score. Cal retook the lead and the momentum, 34–27 Bears.

The next possession for Arizona State might have determined the rest of the game. The Sun Devils continued to find success through the air but were forced into a fourth and one situation. Todd Graham finally decided to go for it and used the “Sparky” formation to beat the Bears on the ground. Kalen Ballage continued to eat up yardage on the ground and Wilkins then beat Luke Rubenzer over the top when the Bears sold out on the run. Touchdown Arizona State and the game was tied once more, 34–34.

Cal would begin at their own 25 and this drive wouldn’t last long. Davis Webb on his first pass attempt would completely miss Arizona State linebacker Salamo Fiso, who read his pass the entire way and stepped in front of the receiver to intercept the pass. The Cal defense would respond and force Arizona State into a field goal that hit the post and bounced in nonetheless. The Sun Devils took their first lead of the game, 37–34. That missed field goal from the first quarter sure hurt now.

The next Cal possession ended similarly to their previous one, with Khalfani Muhammed being absent from the run game and Webb throwing another interception. This particularly felt like the dagger as the Arizona State defender took it for a score and Webb made a terrible, terrible decision trying to find Hansen. 44–34, Arizona State.

Facing a similar deficit to the one they found themselves in against San Diego State, the Bears started to march down the field to work on a miraculous comeback. Patrick Worstell made a couple of nice catches, included a diving catch for a first down. After Hansen would mistakenly run backwards in an attempt to get out of bounds, the Bears would convert a fourth down try to Bug Rivera. Webb then found Robertson on a beautiful touchdown pass and an incredible toe drag by Robertson. 44–41 Arizona State.

The Bears would need to rely on an onside kick to have a chance to win the game and unfortunately the magic wasn’t in Tempe tonight for Cal. The kickoff was returned, albeit ill-advised, for a touchdown which gave the Bears another shot to try and pull off the comeback. However it wasn’t in the cards tonight and the game would conclude on a Webb fumble.

Ultimately there are about as many positives as negatives from the game tonight. The defense should take some confidence from playing outstanding in the first half and there is a strong case that Cal should have been up 17 or even 24 points in the first half with how well the defense played. This team can put up points in a heartbeat and in a down year in the Pac-12, this loss hardly feels like the end of the road. At the same time, this is a game you have to win. Arizona State statistically plays worse over time defensively and yet somehow it was Cal who lost their grasp on the football game. The Bears fall to 2–2 and will look to another home game against a ranked team to bring back their winning record.