With an opportunistic offense and a bend-but-don’t-break defense, the Cal Bears improved to 2-0 with a 34-13 win over New Mexico State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
The Bears were actually outgained by the Aggies, 330 yards to 300, but took advantage of some great field position thanks to the defense and special teams. Cal’s four touchdown drives covered a total of 113 yards, including efforts of 15 and seven yards.
The Cal defense, led by rush end Tully Banta-Cain’s 4 sacks and forced fumble, kept the Aggies (0-2) out of the endzone until a last-minute consolation touchdown with the game all but over. Four times the visitors drove inside the 20-yard line, but two field goals were all the Aggies could muster before the final drive in front of a crowd of 24,619.
“Our defense did a good job keeping them out of the endzone,” Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said. “They really stepped up when they had to.”
The Bears forced two turnovers, both on fumbles, that led to Cal scores, and the special teams setup two second-half touchdowns. Wideout LaShaun Ward, who caught a 15-yard pass from quarterback Kyle Boller for the Bears first score, returned a kickoff 43 yards in the third quarter, leaving just 47 yards for Boller and the offense to cover. Eight plays later, tailback Joe Igber cut back for a four-yard touchdown run and a 24-6 lead.
Cal’s final touchdown came courtesy of defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander, who blocked a New Mexico State punt to give the Bears the ball on the 7-yard line. Boller dove over the top of the line from the 1 to seal the win.
The Bears were handed a short field to start the game, as New Mexico State head coach Tony Samuel tried a little trickery with an onside kick. One of Samuel’s players touched the ball before it went the requisite 10 yards, giving Cal the ball on the New Mexico State 44. After Boller converted a 4th-and-1 with a 15-yard naked bootleg run, he hit Ward between two defenders to open the scoring.
After the teams traded field goals, Cal defensive tackle Josh Beckham wrapped up fullback Rambo Fiaseu on a plunge into the line, then ripped the ball out of his hands with Josh Gustaveson recovering on the 15-yard line. Igber picked up nine yards on a draw, then Boller found tight end Tom Swoboda on a play-action pass for a six-yard score, putting the Bears up 17-3.
With all that good field position, the Cal offense was productive without producing a lot of yardage. Boller threw for just 190 yards on 19-of-32 passing, but he also didn’t throw an interception for the second game in a row, a first in his Cal career. His long passes were either well-covered or dropped by his receivers, so Boller settled for throwing short hitches to his receivers, screens to Igber and play-action passes to Swoboda, who had a career-high six catches for 45 yards.
“You always want to make the big play, but the defense was playing off my receivers,” Boller said. “The deep balls just weren’t there.”
Tedford was impressed by his quarterback’s patience against an Aggie defense that was content to sit back and wait for a mistake that never came.
“Kyle was pretty sharp today. He made good decisions and ran the huddle and the offense very efficiently,” Tedford said. “He’s going to get better every week.”
The Bears’ defense looked shaky to start the game, as Aggie quarterback Buck Pierce ripped off some big gains on option keepers on the opening drive. But after a 33-yard keeper the Cal defense started to figure out how to defend the option, a good sign for a team that will face option-heavy Air Force in two weeks. Pierce finished the day with just 62 yards on 20 carries, although those numbers were deflated by the Bears’ four sacks, and left the game late in the third quarter with a bruised shoulder.
The Aggies didn’t help themselves with eight penalties for 85 yards, including a holding penalty that wiped out a 55-yard touchdown pass from Pierce to Chris Lumpkin. New Mexico State ended up with no points to show for that drive. Another drive that made it down to the Cal 8-yard line stalled when a personal foul on offensive lineman Shalimar Jackson and a Banta-Cain sack drove them back to the 33, forcing kicker Dario Aguiniga to launch a career-long 50-yard field goal just to salvage three points for a 17-6 deficit.
“We had too many penalties and mental mistakes,” Pierce said. “When playing a Pac-10 school like Cal, you just can’t make those kind of mistakes.”
It’s been quite a while since an opposing player gave Cal that kind of respect, but the Bears will face a much stiffer challenge this Saturday against No. 15 Michigan State. Tedford knows the Spartans will be a formidable foe, but he sees plenty of room for improvement from his own team.
“The good news is that we’re 2-0 and we haven’t played our best yet by any means,” he said. “We’ve still got a long way to go. We have a major challenge coming up to go on the road and play a great Michigan State team.”
Banta-Cain, who had recorded 9 1/2 sacks in the last three games going back to Rutgers last season, said the Michigan State game has been circled on his calendar for a long time.
“It’s going to be our first real test of the season,” he said. “Our goal was to be 2-0 going into that game, and we’ve done that. We’re pumped up and confident.”