Last year, Cal’s defense was the most dominating in the Pac-10, but the offense, guided for much of the year by true freshman Kyle Boller, never got on track and held the team back from winning. This year appears to be different.
“Last year we kind of got off track offensively, and never got to where we wanted to be,” said head coach Tom Holmoe.
This year’s version of the Bear offense showed a new look in Cal’s 24-21 victory over the Utah Utes on Saturday. Using a hurry-up offense for much of the first half, Boller showed that his sophomore year will be vastly different from his rough inaugural season.
“There’s no way I could have run the no-huddle last year,” Boller said. “I felt a lot more comfortable out there today.”
With an arsenal of new receivers, Boller spread the ball around, completing passes to nine different players, including a team-high four to true freshman Geoff McArthur. Boller also made his best throw of the day at the most crucial moment, a bullet through a crowd of defenders to wideout James Smith for a 12-yard touchdown to give Cal a 14-7 lead in the third quarter.
Boller completed 18 of his 28 passes, his most accurate performance yet at the college level. After starting for just one year in high school, Boller seems finally to be reading the field and checking off to his second and third options. He also showed improved touch on his passes, completing several fade passes dropped right in over the Utah cornerbacks’ heads.
“Kyle understands the system better now, and we knew the safeties would bite on play action,” said Cal offensive coordinator Steve Hagen. “It’s more of a game to Kyle now, rather than a task.”
The defense allowed just one touchdown, holding Utah to just 158 passing yards and pressuring quarterbacks Darnell Arceneaux and T.D. Croshaw nearly every time they dropped back to pass.
Croshaw opened the game for the Utes, but was ineffective during the first two drives. Utah coach Ron McBride quickly inserted the more mobile Arceneaux, who broke several big runs by scrambling away from the pass rush.
Cal opened the scoring when Saleem Muhammad plunged over the goal line from the one-yard line to give the Bears a 7-0 lead.
Disaster hit during the next Cal drive, as Utah’s Lauvale Sape broke through on Boller, hitting his arm as he threw. The ball sailed into Dyson’s hands, and he had a clear path down the sideline to the end zone and a 7-7 tie.
When Utah drove 79 yards to inside the Cal five-yard line with less than a minute left in the first half, it looked like the Bears might be in for a halftime deficit. But the defense stiffened, as Arceneaux threw an incomplete pass, then made the mistake of lofting a pass into double coverage. Cornerback Jameel Powell skied for the ball, ending the threat and sending the teams into the locker rooms tied.
The Bears came out fired up for the second half, and Utah’s drive was ended abruptly by Asomugha, who put a big hit on running back D’Shaun Crockett, causing a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Scott Fujita in Utah territory.
Boller quickly moved the Bears down the field, throwing a fade to McArthur for 21 yards before hitting Smith for the touchdown.
“Boller reads the game a lot better now,” Smith said. “It really boosts our confidence out there.”
Carter then turned up the heat on the Ute offense, pressuring Arceneaux into two bad throws and stuffing Crockett on a run for no gain. Senior linebacker Jason Smith also made his presence felt, coming off the bench to make two big stops on Crockett in the backfield.
Cal barely dodged a bullet when Steve Smith’s apparent punt-return touchdown was wiped out by an illegal block call.
The Cal defense forced another turnover when defensive end Shaun Paga jarred the ball loose from tight end Phillippe Wells on an inside screen pass. Andre Carter corralled the ball on the Cal 48.
Boller showed his maturity on the ensuing drive, audibling to a pass to freshman Chase Lyman, who had single coverage, and finding tight end Brian Surgener for a 22-yard gain on a crossing route. Igber finally found some room on a cutback run, scoring from 15 yards out to give Cal a 14-point lead.
Utah’s Smith fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and defensive end Tully Banta-Cain returned it to the Utah 13. The Bears couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone, however, and settled for a 27-yard field goal by Jensen.
The Cal defense appeared a little complacent with the 17-point lead, and the Utes’ offense drove down the field for a touchdown. The dangerous Smith then returned a Tyler Fredrickson punt 46 yards for a touchdown to pull Utah within three points, and the Bears looked to be teetering on the brink of total disaster.
Cal put the passing game away and pounded the ball into the line three times, and Fredrickson buried the Utes deep in their own territory with just 1:16 left on the clock. Arceneaux got the Utes to the Cal 38 with seven seconds left with two passes and two scrambles, giving kicker Golden Whetman a chance to send the game into overtime. But the kick was well short, giving the Bears their fifth straight opening-day win.