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Illini put Bears away early in season opener

By Jared Green Daily Planet Staff
Monday September 03, 2001

All the talk about the Cal football team during the pre-season was focused on their new offense, which was supposed to break out of a four-year funk under new offensive coordinator Al Borges. Everyone assumed the Bears’ defense would be fine, especially the secondary with four cornerbacks who were presumed to be top caliber. 

Everyone’s presumptions were turned on their heads on Saturday as the Illinois Illini dominated the first half of both teams’ season opener at Memorial Stadium on the way to a 44-17 win. Senior quarterback Kurt Kittner threw for 237 yards and two touchdowns in the first half before Illinois head coach Ron Turner decided to take it easy on the Bears in the second half. Kittner, a Heisman candidate, ended up with 297 yards passing in the game. 

Kittner’s favorite target was wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who missed last season, including the team’s 17-15 win over Cal, with a broken leg. Lloyd set career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns on Saturday, catching eight balls for 178 yards and two scores. That total could have been even higher, but two catches for 70 yards and another touchdown were called back for holding on the Illini offensive line. 

“If you could script this game, that would be our nightmare script,” Cal head coach Tom Holmoe said after the game. “This might not have been a do-or-die game, but it’s not exactly what we had in mind.” 

The first half looked painfully easy for the visitors, as Kittner constantly had time to sit in the pocket and find easy targets in the Cal secondary to grab a 38-7 halftime lead. 

“We usually get more heat on the quarterback, that’s one of our trademarks,” Holmoe said. “They were just making wide-open catches.” 

The Cal cornerback quartet of Atari Callen, Jemeel Powell, LeShaun Ward and James Bethea were each the victim of at least one big play at some point in the first half. Powell was the defender on both of Lloyd’s touchdown catches; Callen gave up a 28-yard catch to Lloyd on the second play of the game and a 46-yarder during Illinois’ second drive; Ward was beaten by Lloyd on a simple post pattern for a 45-yard touchdown pass that was called back for holding; and Bethea lost wide receiver Walter Young over the middle on a 4th-and-two, a 17-yard play that extended an Illinois scoring drive. 

The Bears spent most of the game with eight men in the box in an attempt to stop the Illinois running game, but couldn’t adjust once it became obvious that their cornerbacks couldn’t handle Lloyd on their own. The Illini ended up with just 84 rushing yards, but their big plays in the air were what killed the Bears. 

Setencich said he expected his cornerbacks to play press no the Illinois wideouts for most of the game, but all four were playing well off the line of scrimmage for most snaps. That let the receivers get off the line clean, and without help from the safeties, Cal got burned repeatedly. 

“When you want to compete, you get up in the guy’s face,” Setencich said. “I don’t know if it was overconfidence or fear.” 

Along with the secondary failing to slow anyone in a blue-and-orange jersey, some old problems reared their heads in the first half. Cal’s special teams, which were supposed to be improved with the hiring of coach LeCharls McDaniel, were disastrous in the first half. After the Illini took a 10-0 lead following a 32-yard field goal by J.J. Tubbs, Callen fumbled the ensuing kickoff on the Cal 26, and Illinois’ Jamal Clark recovered. Illinois scored on an Antonio Harris seven-yard run, the first of three touchdowns by the junior tailback, and Cal was in a 17-0 hole. 

“I tried to cut and someone hit me from the side, I don’t know if it was one of them or one of us, and I wasn’t holding the ball tightly enough,” Callen said. “I was just too riled up, trying to make a big play.” 

After breakdowns in punt protection cost the Bears shots at two wins last year, McDaniel spent a lot of time in practice perfecting the blocking schemes. But on Tyler Fredrickson’s third attempt late in the second quarter, Illinois’ Dwayne Smith came through unblocked, smothering Fredrickson on the Cal 10. Another short drive later, Kittner went up top to Lloyd, who beat Powell to the left corner of the end zone by three yards for the score. 

“That should have been a very simple pickup, and someone just missed it,” Holmoe said. “We put in a ton of work on our punt protection, and one person just didn’t execute.” 

Cal’s offensive line, another presumed strength heading into the season, was also a disappointment, especially highly-touted tackles Langston Walker and Mark Wilson. Speedy Illinois defensive ends Terrell Washington and Brandon Moore terrorized Cal quarterback Kyle Boller, combining for three sacks as they ran around the mammoth Walker and Wilson.  

Washington forced a Boller fumble late in the first quarter with a blindside whack, and the Illini recovered at the Cal 7. Harris dove over the goal-line pile for another touchdown 22 seconds into the second quarter to give his team a 24-0 lead, effectively putting the game out of reach with nearly three quarters still to play. 

The offensive line’s ineffectiveness made it hard to evaluate Borges’ offense, as Boller rarely had time to set up and throw without dodging hurtling Illini defenders. Boller completed 17 of 29 passes for 184 yards before being pulled in the fourth quarter, with no touchdowns and one interception. There were positive signs, as Boller hooked up with fullback Marcus Fields for several long gains, and there were no clock management issues that plagued the offense last year. The Bears actually ended up outgaining Illinois in the game, 381 total yards to 373, but the count in the first half, when the game was being decided, was 280-125 in favor of the visitors. 

But Boller also missed several open receivers and didn’t have a completion longer than 25 yards. The tight end spot was non-existent in the passing game, as Boller threw just one pass for a tight end, an incompletion meant for Terrance Dotsy. 

Tailback Joe Igber had an excellent performance, running for 116 yards and both Cal touchdowns. The junior showed his usual happy feet, stutter-stepping and cutting back for good gains despite the swarming Illinois defenders. 

But with the secondary obviously not at the top of its form, the Bears could be in serious trouble when BYU comes calling this weekend. The pass-happy Cougars have scored 121 points in their first two games, and feature a more sophisticated passing attack than Illinois. 

“I’d have to be crazy as a coach to think it will continue this way,” Holmoe said. “There’s no way one game will ruin our entire season.” 

But it can come very close. 

NOTES: Four true freshman played their first games for the Bears on Saturday, and two, defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander and tailback Terrell Williams, had an immediate impact. Alexander and defensive end Tully Banta-Cain teamed up to force Kittner into an intentional grounding penalty when they put him under serious pressure. Alexander played about 22 snaps in the game. Williams gained 43 yards on five carries as Igber’s backup, including a 20-yard run. 


Sophomore wide receiver Geoff McArthur will have surgery today on a lacerated tricep muscle, the team announced. The injury occurred after the game on Saturday and was non-football related, according to Holmoe. 

McArthur will miss two to three weeks because of the injury, after starting the Illinois game and catching four balls for 32 yards.