If the North Carolina game was the introduction to the Justin Wilcox era, consider last night’s game the graduation. What took place in Memorial stadium was a complete departure from the Sonny Dykes era which we all were witness to over the last four years. During the season opener North Carolina game, you still heard whispers questioning the defense and Weber State brought on memories of Portland State with safeties taking questionable paths to receivers. There was nearly nothing that was familiar about last night.
The Golden Bears took down Ole Miss 27-16, leading another second half comeback yet this game was all about the Golden Bears defense. Mississippi entered with the top ranked offense in the nation led by superstar Shea Patterson and many openly questioned how the Bears could handle such a talented team on defense. Consider those questions answered and then some. After a first quarter and change that saw Patterson starting to trend towards a 500 yard passing night, the Bears completely shut down the Rebels for nearly three quarters of football. Let’s state that again, the California Golden Bears shut out the best offense in the nation for nearly three quarters. Welcome to the new era of Cal football.
Watching this team in person it is abundantly clear just how significant the transformation is that took place this offseason. The defense swarms to the ball and no defender assumes a tackle is going to be made, therefore you have multiple defenders taking guys down on every single play. You also saw contributions from nearly every spot on the defense with key plays from Downs, Goode, Bynum, Franklin, Hawkins and Funches. Oh and by the way they did all of this without Cameron Saffle, Tevin Paul and Jordan Kunaszyk. The next man up identity this team has taken on represents another clear example of the 180 degree turn the program has taken under coach Wilcox.
Lastly this team is humble. Wilcox went out of his way last night to thank Ole Miss and their players and then refused to accept the victory on behalf of the defense but rather continued to emphasize it took the whole team to win. Bowers and Laird echoed the same sentiments in their post game comments, celebrating the defense along with their own achievements. Lastly Devante Downs and Cameron Goode highlighted the fact that this team doesn’t focus on wins or records but on executing in and out each week. To put this in perspective, we are not even one year removed from our head coach jumping on players after a conference victory or our quarterback openly celebrating in a press conference after beating a non-conference opponent. The contrast is both significant and refreshing as we welcome ourselves and the country to the 2017 edition of Cal football.
Right off the bat the Ole Miss offense was firing on all cylinders. The Rebels took their first possession and Patterson immediately hit D.K. Metcalf for 42 yard completion on a slant which brought the ball down to the Cal five yard line. The Bears defense rallied for a critical stop and forced the Rebels into an early field goal. 3-0 Ole Miss leads.
The Bears next possession would end quickly however the defense would set up the Bears for future success. Patterson’s third pass of the drive was tipped by Ramon Davison and collected by Jaylin Hawkins who brought it down to the Ole Miss 21 yard line. The Bears took over and eventually found the end zone on a nifty option play that allowed Laird to score on an outside run. 7-3, Cal takes the lead.
Ole Miss would immediately answer on their next possession with Patterson hitting DaMarkus Lodge for a 72 yard touchdown. A lot of credit deserves to go to Lodge who split the middle and outside linebacker and curled the route so the safety couldn’t get to him until he was in the end zone. 10-7 Ole Miss leads once more.
Before the end of the quarter, Ole Miss was driving downfield and Marloshawn Franklin broke up a pass and Devante Downs picked it off. The defense was huge in taking Ole Miss off the field and allowing the offense to move the ball to midfield before the end of the quarter.
The Bears would immediately get the ball to the Ole Miss 25 yard line on a 17 yard Vic Enwere run but the drive would stall. The Bears settled for a Matt Anderson 46 yard attempt and shockingly Matt missed it wide left. Ole Miss took over and the next play Patterson hit D.K. Metcalf for a huge 71 yard touchdown. The Rebels would miss the PAT and their kicker unfortunately got hurt on the play which would have an impact later in the evening.
The Ole Miss defense was actually quite impressive in this football game, especially early on. After reading all week about how they were going to give up a ton of points, the Bears offense found themselves stifled. The running game was somewhat effective but it wasn’t enough to sustain long drives early in the game.
What ended up being a major boost to the Bears was the sheer number of penalties the Rebels committed on the evening. The Rebels constantly put themselves in long down and distances throughout the night with silly penalties. This ended up having a big impact on the game because early on it didn’t feel like Cal’s defense was going to stop Patterson. However once the penalties started putting the Ole Miss offense in less achievable positions, Cal was able to get off the field consistently and do so for the rest of the game.
The Cal offense finally woke up advancing the ball into Ole Miss territory on a few nice receptions by Brandon Singleton. The Ole Miss defense would help the Bears out with a defensive holding and the Bears had a fresh set of downs in the Rebels territory. The drive would stall again and the Bears sent out Matt Anderson for a field goal attempt. On that attempt, Ole Miss would be flagged for leaping which gave the Bears a first down. After an ineffective run by Vic Enwere, Bowers would make his worst throw on the evening and be picked off at the goal line by C.J. Moore.
The quarter would come to a close with the Bears unable to drive downfield to score points before the clock ran out and many fans wondering what Cal was going to do to wake up on offense. At the half, 16-7 Ole Miss.
The Bears would come out of the break firing on offense. Kanawai Noa came up with a huge fourth down reception and was enormous for the Bears all night long. Bowers would then find Wharton on what looked like a skinny post right after taking a huge hit from a Rebel player. The Bears had closed within two points, 16-14.
Ole miss was completely shut down in the second half on offense and their mental mistakes were not making things easier on themselves. Cal would take over after Ole Miss put themselves in a 2nd and 26 in their previous drive and would start moving the ball once more. The Bears started to feed Patrick Laird both on the ground and in the air as he took a reception to the Ole Miss 35. The Bears then benefitted from a hands to the face penalty and had three shots at scoring from within the Ole Miss five yard line. The Bears would come up short with Vic Enwere unable to get the touchdown or the first down at the one yard line and settle for a Matt Anderson field goal to take the lead. 17-16 Cal would hold through the end of the third quarter.
Ole Miss drove downfield but eventually found themselves stopped short again after another excellent defensive stand from Cal. The Rebels would settle for a field goal with their backup kicker who didn’t come close on the attempt. The Bears took over and started driving the field, many wondering if the time change was starting to effect the Rebels defense. Bowers would try to leap for the first down and come up just a few yards short which brought up a critical fourth down. The coaches opted to go for it and one of the best plays of the night happened.
Malik’s tremendous block on this play helped spring Vic Enwere all the way down to the Ole Miss 21 yard line. The drive would stall again and Matt Anderson would come on for a forty yard field goal. The end result? Not close. All of a sudden it looked like Cal was starting to play down to the Rebels level.
However the Cal defense was determined and completely shut down Ole Miss on the next drive, forcing the Rebels defense back onto the field. The next drive Noa had another huge catch on third and four getting the Bears down to the Ole Miss 27. Bowers would then hit Veasy on a huge play which could have nearly sealed the game but the ball came out and it was called incomplete. At the time that play was devastating, particularly because the receiving core had more than one critical drop on the night. Matt Anderson came in and drilled a 41 yard field goal, the Bears lead was up to 4. 20-16.
With 3:45 left in the game the Rebels took over. In an ode to Sonny Dykes and the past Cal era, they started off their drive running the ball which took serious time off the clock. The next Patterson pass was tipped by Cameron Goode and the following play Goode stepped up again. Goode slid into the window of the quarterback and picked off the ball, taking it all the way back to the end zone for a touchdown. Memorial stadium erupted, the Cal sideline went crazy and Cal’s defense had made their final statement of the night. The Bears led 27-16 and that score would stand for the rest of the evening.
Final score: Cal 27, Ole Miss 16. The Golden Bears are 3-0.