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Golden Bears come up short against Air Force

By Jared Green
Monday September 23, 2002

For three weeks the Cal football team took advantage of just about every opportunity it had. On Saturday against Air Force Academy, missing out on those opportunities cost the Golden Bears their undefeated season. 

Cal (3-1) nearly took the game into overtime, failing on a last-gasp two-point conversion that would have tied the game, but lost 23-21 to the Falcons (3-0) at Memorial Stadium in front of a crowd of 31,816. 

The Bears wide receivers dropped 10 passes on Saturday, hurting both the team’s chances at winning and quarterback Kyle Boller’s passing numbers. After completing 63 percent of his passes in the first three games, Boller was just 13-for-37 for 216 yards against Air Force. Boller’s only interception of the day was caused by wideout LaShaun Ward’s bobble, with Air Force’s Wes Crawley taking the ball out of Ward’s hands in the first quarter. That turnover led to the Falcons’ first score, a 34-yard field goal that tied the game 3-3. 

Ward’s catching problems didn’t end there. With the Bears down 23-15 and two minutes remaining, Boller led the offense down the field for Cal’s only touchdown of the game on a 17-yard pass to Jonathon Makonnen. But the Bears could have scored several plays earlier when Ward dropped a wide-open post pattern, one of three drops by the senior on that drive alone. 

“We can’t drop the ball like that and expect to beat a good team like Air Force,” Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said. “But Kyle kept throwing darts and eventually someone made a play.” 

The ensuing two-point conversion attempt nearly tied the game, as Boller rolled out to the right and had tailback Joe Igber open for a split-second in the endzone. But Air Force safety Jeff Overstreet got a hand on the pass to clinch the Falcons’ upset victory. 

“I’ll probably have a nightmare over and over about that hand getting in there,” Boller said. “[Overstreet] couldn’t have timed it any better. That ball was going to hit Joe right in the chest.” 

But if Boller and the offense had been able to put just one more ball into the endzone earlier in the game the last-minute drive wouldn’t have been necessary. From the first play of the game, when Air Force quarterback Chance Harridge fumbled the ball away on his own 28-yard line, the Bears had plenty of chances to take the ball down the field. But six of their drives all stalled inside the Air Force 25-yard line, as penalties and dropped passes doomed them to six field-goal attempts. 

“It just came down to us kicking too many field goals and not scoring enough touchdowns,” Tedford said. “[Kicker] Mark Jensen did a great job, but we have to get touchdowns.” 

Jensen set a school record for field goals with five, with his only miss blocked by Air Force’s Wes Crawley. 

“I appreciated the fact that I’m getting the opportunity to help the team, but it’s a little bittersweet because it means the offense isn’t finishing drives,” Jensen said. 

The Cal defense did an admirable job against the Air Force option attack for most of the game, but gave up a few big plays at key moments. Fullback Steve Massie plowed through the middle of the line for a 45-yard gain in the third quarter that led to a six-yard touchdown run by Harridge that cut the Cal lead to 12-10.  

Then after the Falcons had taken a 16-15 lead on a two-yard touchdown by Harridge and forced the Bears into a three-and-out, the quarterback picked up 45 yards on four carries on his team’s final drive, including a 13-yard touchdown run. 

“We quit trying to run outside, we quit trying to run sweeps and we just started running the triple option right at them,” Harridge said of the second half. “They just couldn’t stop it. We ran right at them for the entire second half of the game.” 

Harridge seemed to get tougher to tackle as the game wore on, ending up with 124 yards on 25 carries after running for just 37 yards in the first half. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound junior repeatedly chose to keep the ball on the option rather than pitch out to a running back and took some big hits, but he just kept bouncing back up for more punishment. 

“We over-pursued at times when [Harridge] cut back against us,” Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said. “The option is about assignments on defense. You have to take away the dive, the keeper and the pitch. If you have one part that’s not covered they’ll hurt you.” 

Notes: Cal linebacker Matt Nixon suffered a knee sprain in the fourth quarter. Tedford said he would be re-evaluated today... Igber moved into fifth on the Cal career rushing list with 2823 yards... The win over Cal gave Air Force victories over a Big Ten team and a Pac-10 team in the same season for the first time. The Falcons beat Northwestern earlier in the season.