Each week, John Mackovic has seen Arizona make steady improvements during a difficult season.
Tom Holmoe can’t say the same thing about an even tougher season at California.
Jason Johnson passed for a career-best 315 yards and four touchdowns as Arizona snapped a 10-game conference losing streak with a 38-24 victory over winless Cal on Saturday.
Cal’s nightmare season under Holmoe reached another low point with a listless loss to the Pac-10’s second-worst team. The Golden Bears (0-8, 0-6) made it reasonably close with three fourth-quarter touchdowns, but 112 yards in penalties and an untold number of dropped passes kept Cal on pace for the school’s first winless season since 1897.
“We’re not very smart,” said Holmoe, who’s almost certain to be dismissed by new athletic director Steve Gladstone in a few weeks. “We’re forcing the issue on special teams, and we’re not good enough to overcome stupid penalties. We have guys who aren’t playing up to expectations.”
In a meeting of the Pac-10’s bottom-dwellers, Bobby Wade caught TD passes of 50, 13 and 16 yards from Johnson, and Clarence Farmer ran for a career-best 165 yards and a score. With Johnson completing 19 of 28 passes, Arizona (4-5, 1-5) kept its long-shot bowl hopes alive.
“We played a full game,” Mackovic said. “I was really glad that we played 60 minutes. At halftime, the score was a little bit lopsided, and I was concerned whether our guys would continue to stay after it.”
The Wildcats had 474 yards of total offense while rolling to Mackovic’s first conference victory. Arizona scored 38 straight points after going scoreless in the first quarter.
“Our team felt like we could have won any number of the games we’ve lost recently,” Johnson said. “All week, we’ve been talking about how we can finish this season right and still have a good feeling inside about ourselves.”
Arizona was stung by last-second losses in its previous two games, but the Wildcats got a lead too big to lose against Cal, even after quarterback Kyle Boller rallied the Bears late.
Cal led 3-0 on Mark Jensen’s 43-yard field goal, but Farmer got Arizona on the scoreboard with a 65-yard TD run through the heart of the Bears’ defense early in the second quarter.
Johnson threw TD passes on the Wildcats’ next three drives, hitting Justin Levasseur for a 3-yard score and finding Wade twice. Arizona made a methodical drive in the closing moments of the half, with Johnson hitting Wade for a 13-yard TD with a second left.
“We were able to get some balls over the top, and Jason was putting up catchable balls, like he always does,” said Wade, who finished with six catches for 118 yards. “We were surprised they came at us with man-to-man coverage, and we used it to our advantage.”
In keeping with Holmoe’s plan to give playing time to more young players at the end of this lost season, freshman Reggie Robertson — a Tucson native — started at quarterback for the Bears. But Robertson completed just 5-of-14 passes and looked rattled by the Wildcats’ defense.
“That’s the way things are supposed to go,” Arizona linebacker Lance Briggs said. “It’s fun to get a taste of it. It’s been increasing the last few weeks. We’re looking forward to these final few games.”
Boller, who missed the previous two games with a back injury, took over and threw TD passes of 38 and 44 yards to LaShaun Ward in the fourth quarter. Terrell Williams also had a 2-yard TD run.
“This team is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Holmoe said. ”(In) the second quarter, we were terrible, and as a coach, given the situation, you can’t help thinking, ’They’re cashing it in.’ But the end of the third and the fourth quarter was as good as we’ve played all year.”
Not even picturesque weather and thousands of giveaway bobblehead dolls of Cal’s mascot, Oski, could attract more than a few thousand fans to Memorial Stadium. Even Arizona’s cheering section, normally filled with San Francisco Bay area alumni, had only a few hundred fans.
Cal lost its 11th straight game dating back to last season, but there’s a flicker of hope: The Bears’ three remaining games include a trip to New Jersey to face Rutgers, which lost 80-7 to West Virginia on Saturday.