Cal wide receiver Jonathon Makonnen was a picture of triumph as the clock wound down at the end of Cal’s 17-12 win over UCLA on Saturday night: standing in the end zone, ball in hand, arms raised in victory.
So what if he was in his own end zone?
Makonnen’s catch of quarterback Kyle Boller’s 35-yard backwards heave ran off the final five seconds of the game, a game that will be remembered for Cal’s defensive prowess and UCLA’s frustration. It was fitting that the Cal offense would take a safety to protect a lead the defense had handed them on a silver platter.
The Bears (5-3 overall, 2-2 Pac-10) won their homecoming game at Memorial Stadium in front of a crowd of 46,697 despite netting just 18 offensive yards in the second half. They won despite having two punt attempts blocked in the fourth quarter, both giving the Bruins the ball inside the Cal 20-yard line. And they won despite Boller having his worst statistical game of the season.
“Our whole defense should be nominated for Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week,” Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said after the game. “They played phenomenally. We talk all the time about giving a team effort, but the defense won that game for us.”
The Bears made two huge stands in the fourth quarter, both after the Bruins blocked Tyler Fredrickson punts. The first was blocked by UCLA linebacker Marcus Reese and recovered on the 3-yard line, and a pass interference call moved it to the 2. But UCLA head coach Bob Toledo showed why many UCLA supporters have been calling for his head, calling two trick plays when most teams would have gone straight ahead.
On first down, tailback Tyler Ebell took a pitch and reversed his field, with Cal linebacker Calvin Hosey staying home to drop him for a five-yard loss. Then on second down, quarterback John Sciarra, the Bruins’ third signal-caller of the game, pitched to defensive back Matt Ware, who then pitched to Ebell for three yards. A dropped pass by wideout Craig Bragg on third down forced a chip-shot field-goal attempt, and Cal defensive end Jamal Cherry got a huge paw up far enough to block the Chris Griffith kick, sending UCLA (4-3, 1-2) away with no points at all.
“I was standing there in awe,” Fredrickson said of his defense’s effort. “I couldn’t take my hand away from my mouth. It was just amazing.”
Cal’s punt blocking broke down again with less than three minutes remaining, as Ware got through to smother Fredrickson’s kick. UCLA took over at the 20, but defensive end Tom Canada jarred the ball loose from Sciarra on fourth down to kill the threat. All the Bears had to do was run the ball three times, then pull off the play they call “Right Safety Gap Safety,” which they practice every Friday, although from just 20 yards out instead of 36. Boller, who broke the school touchdown pass record with a 24-yarder to tight end Tom Swoboda in the first half, made his best throw of the day right into Makonnen’s waiting hands.
Boller and the Bears offense had the defense to thank for the winning touchdown as well. Defensive end Tully Banta-Cain forced a Sciarra fumble that tackle Lorenzo Alexander dove on at the UCLA 25, and tailback Joe Igber converted the opportunity with a four-yard touchdown run, juking UCLA linebacker Spencer Havner out of his shoes on the way to the end zone.
The Cal offense was just horrible in the second half, failing to get a first down on six of eight drives. But unlike most of Cal’s games this season, it was the defense carrying the load instead of the offense trying to outgun the opposition.
“We always talk about giving a team effort, but our offense just wasn’t quite there today,” said Boller, who was just 13-for-30 for 133 yards. “But our defense carried us through it.”
The Bears racked up seven sacks and 13 tackles for loss in the game, knocking out two Bruin quarterbacks in the process. Senior Cory Paus’ college career likely came to an end when defensive end Josh Gustaveson landed on his ankle, breaking it and sending the starter out on a stretcher in the third quarter. Backup Drew Olson, a true freshman from Piedmont High, sprained his throwing shoulder soon after, and Sciarra was the last man standing for UCLA. He completed just one of seven passes and threw the game’s only interception, a tipped pass that floated right into Cal cornerback James Bethea’s hands between UCLA’s punt blocks.
“When you travel with a 60-man roster, you can’t have four quarterbacks,” Toledo moaned. “How do you prepare for that? You go through spring practice and get some drills, but you can’t really prepare three quarterbacks. Nobody in America does that.”
The Bruins still had tailback Tyler Ebell, however. Ebell, a redshirt freshman, ran for 102 yards and his team’s only touchdown, an 11-yard scamper that tied the score at 10-10 just after halftime. Ebell had success running up the gut for most of the game, making Toledo’s play-calling on the goal line even more bizarre. But all credit goes to the Cal defense, which simply wouldn’t give up a game that looked lost at least twice.
“We love those situations as a defense,” Banta-Cain said. “That’s when you know you have to step up and make a play to win the game.”
Notes: Saturday’s crowd was the biggest at Memorial Stadium since 53,000 fans showed up for the Cal-UCLA game in 2000... The Bears forced three turnovers and committed none, improving their turnover margin to plus-16 on the season, best in the Pac-10...Cherry’s field-goal block was the Bears’ first of the season... Both teams set season lows for offensive yards.