After coming within one point of predicting the score of Cal’s 23-17 win over North Texas last week, soothsayer and CGB writer extraordinaire Avinash Kunnath predicted an even lower scoring game this week.
So naturally, with the expectation being a hard fought, low scoring game with offensive yards and points being at a premium, the game went exactly the opposite direction. Cal and Ole Miss combined for 958 yards of total offense, a staggering 721 yards through the air, and had a bevy of explosion plays between them. But in the end, it was the Cal defense that came through with the stop the Bears needed to win the game. With time winding down, Ole Miss out of timeouts, and facing a 4th and goal at the 1 yard line, Cal linebacker Evan Weaver stoned Ole Miss backup quarterback John Rhys Plumlee (more on him later) on a sneak attempt as time expired. The goal line stand preserved a 28-20 Cal win, moving the No. 23 Bears to a 4-0 start for the first time since 2015.
”We got lucky, we got some push in the middle, and we put it into them,” Weaver said about the game winning stop, which was his 22nd tackle of the game. “Nothing they [could] do against us.”
Earlier in the game, it was the Bears that looked like there was nothing they could do against Ole Miss starting quarterback Matt Corral, a Ventura native and the Rebels’ only scholarship player hailing from the state of California. With effective passing and chunks of rushing yards on zone reads, Corral led Ole Miss to 187 yards of total offense on the Rebels’ first three possessions, staking his team to a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter. On the day, Corral threw for 266 yards on 22 of 41 passing and ran for a team-leading 56 yards on 16 carries, mostly of the zone read variety.
But while Cal’s defense had trouble early with Corral’s command of the Ole Miss offense, the Ole Miss defense likewise had trouble with a slinging Chase Garbers. Cal’s quarterback, who was coming off a pedestrian 9 of 22 passing performance against North Texas, led Cal on a 10-play, 70-yard opening drive that was capped by a beautiful play action touchdown pass to Trevon Clark, Clark’s first touchdown as a Golden Bear. And then after Ole Miss took the aforementioned 10-7 lead, Garbers answered with a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive that was highlighted by a clutch 24-yard completion to Jeremiah Hawkins on a 3rd and 12. Garbers capped the drive with his second (of four) touchdown passes, a 13-yarder to Christopher Brown, Jr., to give the Bears a 14-10 lead with 10:43 left in the second quarter. As it turned out, it was a lead the Bears would never relinquish, though things got a little dicey later on.
Later in the second quarter, Garbers threw his second interception of the season (Cal’s first turnover since the opening game against UC-Davis) when Ole Miss’ Deantre Prince jumped on a seam route by tight end Gavin Reinwald and returned the pick 21 yards to the Cal 35 yard line. The Cal defense held the Rebels to a field goal, however, and the Bears took a 14-13 lead into halftime.
After halftime, it looked like Cal had the better of the adjustments and that the Bears would take control of the game. On the opening drive of the second half, the Bears marched 75 yards in 9 plays, capped by a 9-yard touchdown pass to Mississippi native Jordan Duncan -- a pass that looked almost like it was intended for Nikko Remigio. Cal had a 21-13 lead and the offense was rolling behind Garbers.
”[At halftime,] We talked about some things schematically on both sides, but it was really a matter of execution,” said Cal coach Justin Wilcox. ”I think it’s a little bit over stated, but the offense came out and had a great drive and the defense got a couple three and outs back to back. But the middle of the game, second, and third quarters, the defense played better. But the first and fourth were not so good and we need to improve there.”
After Cal got a three-and-out (highlighted by Luc Bequette stopping Ole Miss running back Scottie Phillips for no gain on 3rd and less than a yard), the Cal offense took over again and came up with the biggest explosion play of the season. Garbers found tight end Jake Tonges wide open down the middle and Tonges turned it into a 60-yard touchdown to increase the Bears lead to 28-13 with 9 minutes left in the third quarter. It was Garbers’ fourth touchdown pass of the game (a career high), on his way to a career best 357 yard passing performance (the first 300-yard passing game of Garbers’ Cal career).
Alas, it would be the last points that Cal would score on the day. And for awhile, it looked like that would not be an issue, as the Cal defense clamped down on Corral and the Ole Miss offense. After blistering the Bears for 187 yards in the first quarter, the Rebels managed just 113 yards in the second and third quarters. And when Ole Miss missed a 29-yard field goal with 9:30 remaining (kicker Luke Logan’s second miss of the game), it looked like the Bears would cruise to victory.
Not so fast.
With Ole Miss middling along midway through the fourth quarter, Corral left the game with an injury and freshman John Rhys Plumlee took over, inheriting a 3rd and 10 at the Ole Miss 38 yard line. And that’s where crazy Uncle Momentum took off his Cal jersey and put on an Ole Miss one. On Plumlee’s first play from scrimmage, he scampered 47 yards to the Cal 15 yard line. Staggered and stunned, the Bears yielded a 15-yard touchdown run to Jerrion Early on the next play, and it was suddenly a one-possession game with 4:29 remaining.
Instead of Cal’s four-minute offense closing it out, the Rebels got one more chance. Though Garbers picked up one first down with a pass to Tonges, Marcel Dancy could not convert a 3rd and inches at the Cal 47. Wilcox opted to punt the ball back to Ole Miss, and Dario Longhetto’s 43 yard punt to the 10-yard line meant that the Rebels would have to march 90 yards in 2:45 with no timeouts to have a chance to tie the game.
And they almost did.
With Cal gladly giving up underneath routes, Ole Miss moved to midfield, taking considerable time in doing so. But the freshman Plumlee then came through with the big play the Rebels needed: he found Demarcus Gregory for a 41-yard gain to the Cal 9 yard line. And then things got weird.
Inexplicably, Ole Miss ran Phillips on first down into the teeth of the Cal defense. More damaging to the Rebels than the minuscule 1-yard gain were the precious seconds taken off the clock. After Plumlee ran for 6 yards to the Cal 3 on second down -- the clock still running -- the Rebels thought they had a touchdown when Plumlee threw to Elijah Moore at the goal line. But the official ruled Moore down inside the 1. And with Ole Miss out of timeouts, the Rebels had to quickly run a play before the replay officials could determine whether to review if Moore caught the ball for a touchdown. They chose to run Plumlee on a sneak, which Weaver and the rest of the Cal defense stopped well short of the goal line as time expired.
Needless to say, Ole Miss was not happy with the ending and its Athletic Director issued a public statement complaining about the Pac-12 officiating crew:
”We find a way to make it interesting,” Wilcox said. “I love the way we battled, we played good in stretches and not so good in others. Some of that is on us, some of that is on the other team. So, coming down here and playing in this type of environment against talent like that and the coaches they have, I feel really excited for our team and we still have a lot of room for improvement.”
In hanging on for the victory, Cal became the first Pac-12 team since 2010 to win a road game against an SEC opponent. The Bears also improved to 4-0 for the first time since a guy named Jared Goff played quarterback, with the Pac-12 home opener coming up next Friday against Arizona State. Though the Bears did not win this one in the way most of us expected -- really, did any of us envision Cal winning a game in which it gave up 525 yards of total offense and lost the turnover battle? -- the emergence of the passing game has to be encouraging for the Cal faithful as we look ahead to the Pac-12 gauntlet and the possibility of contending for the Pac-12 North championship.
- Garbers left the game with an injury in the 3rd quarter, landing awkwardly after being sacked by Austrian Robinson. Devon Modster made his Cal debut, and completed a 16-yard pass to Jeremiah Hawkins on his first play. Garbers returned in the next series.
- With the win, Cal is 9-0 under Wilcox in non-conference games against FBS opponents. [Edit - Wilcox is 9-0 in all non-conference regular season games at Cal, 6-0 against FBS opponents: 2-0 vs. Ole Miss, 2-0 vs. North Carolina, 1-0 vs. BYU and North Texas.]
- Cal swept the home-and-home series with Ole Miss, having won 27-16 in 2017 in Berkeley.
- After stagnating in the second and third quarter, the Ole Miss offense gained 225 yards on the Rebels’ last three possessions of the game.
- Cal rushed for only 85 yards on 33 carries (1.8 ypc). Ole Miss rushed for 177 yards on 38 carries (4.7 ypc), led by Corral’s 56 yards.
- Brown’s touchdown catch was the first receiving touchdown of his Cal career.
- Cal’s defense was undermanned, with Cameron Goode and Tevin Paul out due to injury. Braxten Croteau and Nick Altfin started in their place.
- Garbers was sacked four times; Cal sacked Corral three times.
- After Steven Coutts averaged just 26 yards per punt on his first three kicks (including a 14-yard punt), Dario Longhetto took over punting duties in the third quarter. Longhetto booted a 51-yard punt and also pinned Ole Miss at the 10 yard line to begin the final drive.