Cal Football: No Turnovers and a Defensive Stand Push Bears to 3-0 Start

Final chance foiled: Cal defenders Evan Weaver (89) and Cam Bynum converge of North Texas receiver Jyaire Shorter, forcing an incompletion on the Mean Green's fourth-down attempt in the final minutePhoto by Kelley L. Cox - USA TODAY Sports
Jake Curtis

Well, the notion that Cal has found an offense was premature, but again the Bears made the plays that had to be made at the end of a game to win.

Last week, the offense provided the game-winning drive in the closing moments in a 20-19 upset of then-No. 14 Washington in Seattle.

On Saturday in Berkeley, it was Cal’s defense that snuffed out a late North Texas opportunity to preserve a 23-17 victory over the Mean Green. The Bears nearly blew an early 20-0 lead, but held on and have started the season 3-0 for the third straight year.

An 18-yard touchdown reception by North Texas' Jaelon Darden cut the Bears' lead to 23-17 with 2:59 left in the fourth quarter.

After Cal went three-and-out, North Texas took over at its 35-yard line with 1:51 to go. But a 5-yard penalty against the Mean Green followed by four incompletions ended North Texas' chances.

The Bears’ defense has had better games, but it was still the 10th straight game Cal has yielded fewer than 25 points, its longest such streak since 2006. Inside linebacker Evan Weaver had 11 tackles, including one for a loss, and one quarterback hurry to that led directly to an interception. It was a rather routine game for him, but it was the 10th straight game in which he reached double digits in tackles.

The one low point defensively was that a streak of 17 straight quarters without giving up a touchdown pass was halted.

And this one got dicey, as Cal played much of the second half without its top three outside linebackers – Cameron Goode, Tevin Paul and Ben Hawk Schrider – as well as without running back Chris Brown Jr. Brown carried the ball on the first play of the second half, but that was his final carry of the day as he finished with 47 yards on 13 attempts.

Goode had two tackles for losses, but left the game in the third quarter holding his hamstring.

The status of all four unavailable players for next week’s game at Mississippi remains uncertain.

“I haven’t even talked to the medical staff yet,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said after the game. “We’ll know more later today, and we’ll be able to update you Monday.”

The unavailability of those four players was in addition to the leg injury to offensive tackle Valentino Daltoso that kept him sidelined for the entire game, forcing Cal to go with an offensive line that was missing three projected starters.

That may have contributed to Cal’s offensive woes. After the impressive second-half showing against Washington, when the Bears scored on three scoring drives of more than 70 yards, Cal fell flat offensively against North Texas after a strong first quarter.

The Bears scored 20 points on 129 yards of offense in the first quarter, but scored only three points and collected only 149 yards over the final three quarters.

“Started fast, put some points on the board,” Wilcox said. “Level of execution throughout the rest of the game’s got to be better. There’s no two ways about it.”

North Texas (1-2) controlled play the rest of the game.

“I thought we outplayed them in the second half,” Mean Green head coach Seth Littrell said. “But we dug ourselves a hole early, and it’s hard to overcome that amount of points, especially against a great defensive team like Cal.”

Quarterback Chase Garbers had a career-high 70 yards rushing on 18 attempts (including six sacks), but he was just 9-for-22 for 129 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.

North Texas had more first downs than Cal (18 to 17) and more total yards (329 to 278). The Bears’ numbers are rather ugly except for one – no turnovers, compared with two turnovers for North Texas.

For the second week in a row Cal did not commit a turnover, which is a big deal for a team that had the most turnovers in the nation a year ago. It’s the first time in the Justin Wilcox era that the Bears had zero turnovers in back-to-back games. Cal last achieved that consecutive-games feat in the final two games of the 2016 season, which ended with Sonny Dykes getting fired.

“That was the difference in the game; we were plus-two (in turnover margin),” Wilcox said. “Won by one point last week, and this was a one-score game, so that’s the difference right there.”

Cal’s first-quarter surge was aided by 68 yards of North Texas penalties and a Mean Green turnover.

The key play of the game occurred on the third play of the game. On a third-and-3 play from the Cal 32-yard line on the Bears’ first possession, Garbers scrambled for 19 yards, and a 15-yard horse-collar penalty was called on that play. That 34-yard gain led to Cal’s first touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

The North Texas fumble led to a Cal field goal, and Garbers’ one touchdown pass was a 36-yard completion to Nikko Remigio that gave the Bear a 20-0 lead late in the first quarter.

That was about it for the Cal offense, as Cal hung on for three quarters.