After last week’s thrilling win at Ole Miss and Cal’s ascension to No. 15 in the national rankings, rosebuds danced in the heads of Cal fans. With the Bears unexpectedly the last undefeated team in the Pac-12, a win at Washington already in their pocket, and some national attention coming their way, the “We The North” spirit was palpable among the Cal faithful. Perhaps the Bears were a darkhorse, if not legitimate, contender for the Pac-12 North championship and a chance at the program’s first Rose Bowl berth since the 1958 season.
As any Cal fan might tell you, hope is a dangerous thing. And the danger of hope bit the Cal faithful again on Friday night at Memorial Stadium, in the form of an Arizona State team that was thirsting for a win after dropping its Pac-12 opener last Saturday at home against Colorado. The Sun Devils (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) marched into Memorial Stadium and left with a tough, gritty, and hard-fought 24-17 victory over the Bears (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12), effectively placing the proverbial pin into the previously robust balloon of Cal’s season.
There were plenty of reasons for Cal’s downfall. Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin’s 100 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries were a big reason, as was freshman quarterback and erstwhile Cal recruit Jayden Daniels, whose 174 passing yards (on 14 of 24 passing) and 84 rushing yards (on 12 carries) understate the value he gave to the Sun Devils’ offense. But the most prominent reason of all to any Cal-oriented observer was the one that occurred with just under two minutes remaining in the first half. With the game tied 7-7 and Cal marching toward a possible go-ahead score, Bears quarterback Chase Garbers landed awkwardly on his right shoulder after scrambling for a four-yard gain near midfield. Garbers, who at that point had completed 9 of 12 passes for 117 yards and a first-quarter touchdown to Trevon Clark, would leave the game for good, returning only as a spectator with his throwing arm in a sling.
“I saw the young man get hit right in front of me and fell on his shoulder. That had a lot to do with the outcome of this game,” said Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards. “When you lose your quarterback like that, it’s an emotional loss as a football team. I’m hoping he’s going to be OK. These guys have done a great job coaching their football team. They play hard on both sides of the ball, they have an identity. We were very fortunate to get the win today.”
Just two weeks ago after Garbers struggled to a 9 of 22 passing performance against North Texas, more than a few Cal fans clamored for backup quarterback Devon Modster to get a chance to show what he could do at the helm of the Bears’ offense. But with Garbers appearing to pick up where he left off after the encouraging performance at Ole Miss, Modster’s abrupt entrance into the game for an injured Garbers was not a cause for celebration. And Modster did nothing to quell the Cal faithful’s concern, as his first series resulted in an ill-advised pass into the end zone with ten seconds left in the first half. The pass was intercepted by ASU safety Aashari Crosswell, and the turnover cost Cal a chance to take the lead going into halftime.
“He did all right. It’s not an easy situation, but that’s being a backup quarterback,” said Cal coach Justin Wilcox. “Devon could have played better, and he will if need be.”
The Cal passing game that looked rejuvenated under Garbers did not look the same. Modster completed only 5 of 14 passes for 23 yards. But for a brief time, it looked like the Bears did not need to pass to win the game. Taking the ball to start the second half, Cal drove 63 yards on 12 straight rushing plays, capped by a one-yard touchdown run by Christopher Brown, Jr. The Bears took a 14-7 lead and it looked like Cal might ground-and-pound to victory.
The lead was short-lived. A 35-yard kickoff return by Brandon Aiyuk coupled with a facemask penalty on Cal’s Joseph Ogunbanjo put ASU in business at the 50-yard line. Six plays later, Benjamin scored easily on a four-yard touchdown run and the game was tied again.
While ASU’s offense gave the Bears problems (the Sun Devils outgained the Bears 365 yards to a paltry 245), it looked like the Cal defense would will the Bears to victory. Early in the fourth quarter, linebacker Cameron Goode got to the freshman quarterback Daniels for a sack, forcing a fumble that Ogunbanjo recovered at the ASU 30. Cal could gain no yards after the turnover, however, and settled for Greg Thomas’ career-best 47-yard field goal, which gave Cal a 17-14 lead with 10:50 remaining. Despite the sputtering offense under Modster, it seemed possible that Cal could ride the defense to a win.
ASU had other ideas. On the ensuing drive, the Sun Devils took control of the game. ASU embarked on a 15-play, 75-yard drive that burned 6:16 of the fourth quarter clock. Benjamin accounted for 43 yards on the drive, including a 12-yard reception on a 3rd and 4 and the 3-yard touchdown run that capped the drive and gave ASU a 21-17 lead with 4:34 remaining.
With the game on the line and the Bears needing Modster to spark a comeback, the Cal offense failed to rise to the occasion. Cal turned the ball over on downs on its next possession, giving the ball to ASU at the Cal 30 with 3:16 remaining. The Cal defense held ASU to a 43-yard field goal by Christian Zendejas to keep it a one-possession game. But Cal could not muster a first down on its final possession, with Modster unable to complete a single pass. ASU ran out the clock, and the Bears’ highly-anticipated night ended with the first loss of the season.
“As a team we are looking at it not as a loss but as a lesson,” said Clark, who caught 4 passes for a team-leading 68 yards and his second touchdown of the season. “Monday we are going to come through that door and we are going to work to beat Oregon, plain and simple.”
“Obviously, we are not down, but we are just hungry,” added Goode, who contributed 11 tackles, 2 TFL, and 1 sack in his return to the Cal starting lineup after missing the Ole Miss game with an injury. “We want to come back, we are not used to losing, we just know we have to play better and we are hungry to get back to work and get a [win] in Oregon next week.”
The prospect of facing Oregon in Eugene would have been daunting enough had Cal been 5-0 with a healthy Chase Garbers. But 4-1 and the heretofore ineffective Modster leading the Cal offense is how it appears Cal will enter Autzen Stadium next Saturday. A tough task got a whole lot tougher after the loss to ASU.
- Cal special teams were not that special against ASU. The Sun Devils blocked a Dario Longhetto punt in the second quarter, giving ASU excellent field position at the Cal 37. Fortunately for the Bears, it was a missed opportunity: the Cal defense forced a 4th down and Edwards opted for a 50-yard field goal, which Zendejas missed short and right. On the night, Longetto averaged 37 yards on his five punts.
- Goode and Tevin Paul returned to the starting lineup on defense after missing last week’s game due to injury. Defensive back Josh Drayden, who did not play at Ole Miss, started against ASU in place of the injured Traveon Beck.
- Cal wide receiver Kekoa Crawford, who had started the Bears’ first four games, missed the ASU game due to injury. Freshman Makai Polk got the start in his place.
- Two costly Cal drops stalled drives in the first half. Polk dropped a sure first down on a 3rd and 3 in ASU territory and tight end Jake Tonges dropped a 3rd-and-7 pass from Garbers that would have kept a drive alive.
- Cal completed 14 of 26 passes. None of the 14 completions was to a tight end. Last week, the Bears completed four passes to tight ends, including a 60-yard touchdown strike to Tonges.
- Evan Weaver led the Bears with 15 tackles, including 1.5 TFL.
- The win over Cal was ASU’s second of the season against a ranked opponent on the road. On September 14, ASU beat then-No. 18 Michigan State in East Lansing.