Cal Bears Use Defense Shuts Down Ole Miss, Improve to 3-0

BERKELEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: Cameron Goode
BERKELEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: Cameron Goode /

This wasn’t the offensive shootout that the Cal Bears are used to playing in, but rather a defensive battle that the Bears were successful in.

It’s a new era in Cal Bears’ football, and in this era, they play defense. Under head coach Justin Wilcox, the Golden Bears put together one of their most impressive defensive efforts in years on Saturday night against Ole Miss to complete an undefeated non-conference schedule.

Cal fans can be forgiven if they’ve forgotten what good defense looks like from the Bears. They didn’t play it much under their previous head coach, Sonny Dykes. In Dykes’ four seasons with the headset, the Bears held their opponents to 20 points or fewer four times in 49 games. Opposing offenses averaged over 500 yards per games, 502.4 yards to be exact, in those four seasons.

Things are a bit different under Wilcox. Cal’s defense kept their opponent to 20 points or fewer for the second straight week on Saturday, with the Rebels putting up only 16. Through three games in Wilcox’s first season, the Bears are holding opponents to 22 points per game. Last year, they allowed 43 points per game in the season’s first three weeks.

Ole Miss had their opportunities, and did manage to out-gain the Bears 416 yards to 399. They jumped out to an early lead, torching the Cal defense for two huge touchdown plays in the first half. Their first touchdown of the game came when sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson hit his receiver DaMarkus Lodge for a 72-yard catch-and-throw to give Ole Miss their first lead.

They extended their lead in the second quarter, with Patterson throwing another long scoring pass. This one went 71 yards to D.K. Metcalf, and put the Rebels ahead 16-7 after a missed extra point. Their second touchdown would be their last score of the evening.

Cal’s defense buckled down and stood strong against an opponent that entered the game having scored 92 points in their first two games of the season. They picked off three Patterson passes on the evening, and four Golden Bears combined for five sacks.

Jaylinn Hawkins came up with the first interception, coming away with a tipped pass to stop an Ole Miss drive before it really got started. DeVante Downs, the Pac-12’s defensive player of the week two weeks ago, picked off another deflected pass for his second interception of the season. Downs added to his stat sheet on the last drive of the first half, picking up his second sack of the season. Later on the drive, Alex Funches collected his first sack as a Bear.

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After the break, Cal began their comeback. They opened the second half with a 13-play drive that ate up 72 yards, which sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers  concluded with a 19-yard scoring strike to Vic Wharton. Towards the end of the third quarter, Matt Anderson‘s field goal from 19 yards out put the Bears ahead and put the pressure on the defense again.

Unlike year’s past, the defense answered the call. Though Ole Miss gained some yardage on the next drive, Cal forced a stop and made the Rebels attempt a 48-yard field goal with freshman kicker Luke Logan. The young leg missed his attempt, and the Rebels wouldn’t have another scoring chance like that again.

After Cal missed their own field goal, their defense sacked Patterson on consecutive plays, with Hamilton Anoa’i and Raymond Davison III doing the honors, to force a punt from deep in their own territory. Cal added to their lead with a field goal, and padded their lead on Patterson’s mistake.

With under four minutes to go, Patterson made an ill-advised throw in the middle of the field, which was easily nabbed by Cal linebacker Cameron Goode. The freshman made the 32-yard run to the endzone, scoring Cal’s third touchdown and making it 27-16. Ole Miss had one more chance, but Downs had his fingerprints all over this as well. His second sack of the night came on fourth down, ending a Rebel drive and effectively putting the nail in the coffin.

The senior linebacker was again the star for the defense, racking up a pair of sacks and an interception. On offense, the running backs did the heavy lifting. Patrick Laird, last week’s breakout star, gained 78 yards on 22 carries and scored his fourth touchdown of the season. Vic Enwere, Laird’s bruiser counterpart, gained 75 yards on 13 carries.

Enwere’s night also included one of the game’s biggest plays. On a fourth-and-one from the Ole Miss 46, the Bears handed off to the running back. With help from a huge block by fullback Malik McMorris, Enwere scampered 25 yards to convert and keep the drive alive.

Next: Goff and Tavecchio Shine Week 1

Cal’s defense has looked miles better than it did under Dykes, and the new coaching staff is surely to be given the credit. That defense will have their work cut out for them next week. The Bears will play host to the USC Trojans, their first Pac-12 opponent of the season, a team that just so happens to be the fourth-ranked team in the nation with a 3-0 record. That improved defense has to figure out a way to slow down Heisman Trophy hopeful Sam Darnold. Good luck.