The California Golden Bears used to be known for their inspiring offense. But it was their defense that was the truly decisive unit on Saturday against the Fresno St. Bulldogs, and led Cal to another season opening victory with a final score of 36-21.
Cal has prided themselves on having one of the best run defenses in the Pac-12, and it was the engine that powered Cal to victory on Saturday. The Bulldogs managed 29 yards of rushing before a garbage-time drive helped them pick up an extra 42. Fresno was 2 for 14 on third down and averaged a meager 3.7 yards per play on defense, and pretty much managed no meaningful points by their own production.
The Cal defensive effort was led by linebackers Mychal Kendricks (9 tackles, 2.5 for a loss) and D.J. Holt (7 tackles, 2 TFL), who sealed up the inside and kept Fresno one-dimensional on offense. Josh hill, David Wilkerson and Ryan Davis all put up sacks, and Hill added two tackles for loss.
Don't be deceived by the 21 points Fresno put up as sign, because the Cal defense's worst enemy was their special teams unit and their offense. Two of the Fresno touchdowns were gift-wrapped, and one was tied up with a pretty bow. Cal started the game with terrible field position, and Zach Maynard's first pass was an interception right into the hands of L.J. Jones, setting up Fresno right in the red zone. The Bulldogs punched it in three plays later to give them an early 7-0 lead. Then Cal got pinned deep on a nice Fresno punt, and Isi Sofele lost the ball in the end zone when he struggled to avoid the safety, and defensive back Cristin Wilson recovered the fumble for the Bulldogs's second touchdown.
Maynard really struggled in his first outing as Cal starting quarterback after a promising start. After an interception on his first throw, Maynard did a good job finding Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones on successive first downs. An Isi Sofele 14 yard rush and Anthony Miller 8 yard completion gave Cal first and 10 inside the 12, and after Will Kapp converted a fourth and 1, Sofele punched it in to cut the Cal lead to 7-6 (the extra point was blocked on a low kick by Giorgio Tavecchio).
Fresno then went three-and-out on the next drive thanks to a huge tackle on 3rd and long by Mychal Kendricks, and Cal went back on the attack. Maynard found Jones for a huge 21 yard gain, and Sofele broke open for a 39 yard score to give the Bears a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Tavecchio's extra point attempt was blocked again, and Cal's lead stayed at 12-7. After Fresno went three and out again, Maynard found Allen twice on 19 and 31 yard catches, capping it off with a 42 yard throw on a post route to Jones to make it 19-7. The fumble recovery by Fresno made it 19-14 at halftime.
The Bears broke it open in the third quarter. Maynard showed his legs with a 48 yard rush off a zone-read, and then needled it down the sideline to Jones, who galloped it in for his second score of the game. Jones (5 catches, 118 yards, two touchdowns) and Allen (8 catches, 112 yards) were a deadly one-two combo.
Maynard struggled with his accuracy after a successful first quarter, completing 9 of 24 passes the rest of the game after starting out 7 for 11. The offensive line struggled to protect him from the speedy Fresno front seven, and he had trouble getting solid exchanges with his center Dominic Galas. But Maynard also looked far less comfortable under center and started missing throws and receivers as the game progressed. He still did manage 266 passing yards and 53 yards on the ground though, so he was able to make big plays. Sofele put up 83 yards rushing, mostly from his first quarter production.
Cal's defense was finally rewarded with two turnovers in the third quarter. First Fresno quarterback Derek Carr got pressured in the pocket on a Fresno drive and lifted a ball high and away of his receiver, and cornerback Steve Williams was in perfect position to make an interception to kill the Fresno drive. Then on one of his first snaps of the game, true freshman Cecil Whiteside came off the edge, stripped Carr of the ball, and Trevor Guyton scooped it up and strided into the end zone.
Tavecchio redeemed his two early extra point misses by nailing a 40 yard field goal (neither team had much success punting in the swirling Candlestick winds, averaging less than 40 yards a punt). Fresno State managed a successful drive late in the 4th quarter against Cal's second-unit defense, culminating in a Carr connection to Josh Harper in end zone.
Jeff Tedford improved to 73-42, and is now one win away from tying Andy Smith for the school's leader in wins.
For more on Cal football, go to the California Golden Blogs.