The lingering question following Cal’s 22-17 loss to Nevada on Saturday night was this: What happened in the intermission between the first and second quarter?
Did someone steal Cal’s playbook? Did Nevada bring in 11 new defensive players?
The transformation in Cal’s offense from being completely dominant in the first quarter to being ineffective from that point on was striking. And the reason remains a mystery.
Cal pushed Nevada’s defenders around like ragdolls on the Bears’ first two drives. The Bears marched down the field virtually unopposed, going 63 yards on 15 plays on their opening possession, then traveling 72 yards on nine plays on their second possession.
When the first quarter ended, Cal led 14-0, had outgained Nevada 135-6, and had the ball for 13:21 while the Wolf Pack had it for just 1:39.
The Bill Musgrave offense seemed to be taking off, and Cal seemed on its way to a blowout victory over a Nevada team picked to win the Mountain West Conference title. It appeared to be a perfect recipe to prevent Nevada quarterback Carson Strong, the 2020 Big West offensive player of the year, from taking over the game.
Then suddenly, without warning, the Cal offense shut down. It was like someone had surreptitiously turned off the faucet.
Cal went three-and-out on its remaining three possessions of the first half, and its first possession of the second half produced a first down only because Nevada was penalized 15 yards for a late hit on quarterback Chase Garbers.
On the Bears’ four possessions after the first quarter, they produced 24 yards of offense. They got a first down on their next possession, but it ended in a punt after gaining just 19 yards.
“There wasn’t any drastic changes,” Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said afterward. “We didn’t see any new coverages. We didn’t see new fronts.
“We really struggled to stay in rhythm after that [first quarter].”
The television cameras caught Nevada head coach Jay Norvell yelling at his players after Cal’s first two scores, but did the Wolf Pack defense play that much better beginning in the second quarter?
The only noticeable change was that Cal relied more on its passing game than it had in the first quarter.
Cal dominated the line of scrimmage on those first two drives. Eight of the 15 plays on the first scoring drive were runs, although 39 of the 63 yards on that possession came through the air.
The Bears’ first four plays on their second possession were runs that gained 37 yards, but a 28-yard completion to Jeremiah Hunter was a key play in that drive.
“We knew we had a little size up front so we planned on running the ball efficiently,” Cal quarterback Chase Garbers said.
In all the Bears ran the ball 13 times on those first two possessions. But in the next four possessions combined, Cal ran the ball just four times. By that time Cal trailed 22-14 midway through the third quarter.
Those rushing attempt are a bit deceiving because Cal ran only 12 official offensive plays in those four possessions, and those four runs gained a total of just eight yards.
“We didn’t go into the game saying, ‘Hey, in the second and third quarters we’re not going to run it,’” Wilcox said.
No matter how you look at it, the turnaround was remarkable – from being totally unstoppable to being unable to move the ball at all. After scoring 14 points on two long drives in the first quarter, the Bears managed just three points the rest of the way.
“Looking at it now, it’s upsetting because we showed we were able to move the ball efficiently,” Cal wide receiver Nikko Remigio said. “The fact that we didn’t continue on that trend is upsetting to me right now.”
The Bears’ offense picked up in the fourth quarter, but then they had problems in the red zone. They got as far as the Nevada 6-yard line on one of those drives and reached the Wolf Pack’s 9-yard line on another, but those two possessions netted just three points.
Garbers finished 25-for-38 for 177 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Damien Moore led the team in rushing with 79 yards, with 48 of those yards coming in the first quarter. All 25 of Christopher Brooks’ rushing yards came in the first quarter.
Cal converted all four of its third-down plays into first downs on their first two possessions but were just 2-for-12 on third downs after that.
It was just strange, and TCU, which always has a strong defense, is next for the Bears.
Cover photo of Chase Garbers is by Neville E. Guard, USA TODAY Sports
Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53
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