Right Place, Right Time

Mike Mohamed made the interception of a lifetime to seal last year's Big Game. It was simply the latest moment in a career full of timely plays.

Lara Brucker/Staff

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Asked what it's like to play alongside Mike Mohamed, fellow Cal linebacker D.J. Holt responded quickly.

"You're just relaxed," Holt says. "I'm relaxed, everybody's relaxed."

Yet, even his heart "stopped for a second" last November at Stanford Stadium.

Clinging to a slim 34-28 advantage, the Bears had just let the Cardinal to reel off 49 yards with incredible ease. In five plays, Stanford's offense was perched inside the Bears' red zone, and only a minute and a half remained.

Mohamed was last seen clinging to - and falling off of - eventual Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart, who had just rumbled down the left sideline for a 29-yard catch and run.

The final 13 yards looked to be but a formality. Until Mohamed reappeared.

Andrew Luck threw over the middle - unaware of the lurking linebacker, who extended himself and snatched the ball out of the air. Mohamed single-handedly set off a sigh of relief heard across Cal faithful everywhere.

"I just knew if someone didn't make a play, they would have scored," Mohamed says. "I would have never forgiven myself if we ended up losing ... My guy stayed in, so that left really me as a free dropper. He threw it right to me and I just snagged it."

That interception, along with the ensuing kneel-down, sealed a Big Game thriller for the ages. It also epitomized Mohamed's role as the intelligent, instinctive leader of Cal's defense.

"You see him on the street, you think he's just a regular guy," Holt says. "Any given day, you never know. (He) is always there in position to make a play ... at the right spot at the right time."

Mohamed's self-proclaimed "arrival" as a Cal football player involved another dynamic interception - the very first of his career.

As a redshirt sophomore two years ago, the Brawley, Calif., native stared down and pounced on a tipped pass from UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft. With the football secured, Mohamed sprinted the remaining 19 yards before lunging towards the right pylon.

For Cal, his highlight play blew open what had been two-touchdown contest in the fourth quarter.

For Mohamed, it capped off a then-career high nine-tackle performance - and set off a lightbulb in his head.

"I just realized that 'Hey, I can do this, I can be a major contributor to the team,'" Mohamed says. "After that game, everything really just started to click ... I'm here to be one of the regulars, one of the playmakers on the team."

And contribute he would.

Playing alongside senior stalwarts in Zack Follett, Anthony Felder and Worrell Williams, he finished tied for second on the team in tackles in 2008. Mohamed racked up 87 despite often coming off the bench as a fourth linebacker in Cal's 3-4 scheme.

All the while, he continued showing off his ability to drop back and read opposing signal-callers. It was a craft that earned him extra playing time as a redshirt freshman, and a place in program lore just two years later.

Though fans may not remember it, Mohamed got his hands on a pass in the 2008 Big Game, as well - stepping in front of an ill-timed throw by Tavita Pritchard.

Two games later, in the Emerald Bowl, Miami quarterback Jacory Harris was his victim.

"(Mohamed is) pretty methodical in his preparation, kind of like he approaches school," Bears' linebackers coach Kenwick Thompson says. "He studies, spends a lot of time studying the film, and then when its game time he does what he needs to do.

"He can be on the spot when the receiver's gonna be there, and that's why sometimes quarterbacks don't see him, because when they look he isn't there."

The following fall, he had no choice but to become more visible. Cal's vaunted linebacking triumvirate had left.

It was Mohamed's turn to step into the spotlight.

That segue into a full-time starting role would take some time, as coaches moved Mohamed to the outside in 2009 in hopes of molding him into a pass-rusher. But he eventually settled back to his original position on the inside.

"I knew with the other guys going, that I would have to step my game up a little bit more, be a little bit more of a producer of the defense," Mohamed says. "It was also a lot of fun, just being in there every play, really being a staple of the defense.

"Just being on the inside allowed me to kind of be more of a leader, more of a voice, more on the inside of everything."

That switch back allowed Mohamed to fully utilize his knowledge of the game and his trademark instincts. In quarterbacking Cal's defense with Holt, Mohamed would be in charge of everything from receiving sideline calls, to anticipating opponents' formations and making requisite adjustments at the line of scrimmage.

After making a living out of being in the right place, he is now in charge of making sure others do the same. For a player not known to be extremely vocal, his knowledge, experience and responsibility are what speak loudest.

"(He's) expressing the importance of guys doing their job," Thompson says. "It shouldn't matter the time of the game, every game is just as important. Understanding that doing your job will put you into the position of making a play.

"I think he understood that and that's what allowed him to make that play (at Stanford) ... knowing his job and doing his job."

When Mohamed wasn't fielding questions, he was biting down furiously.

As he sat for his interview at Memorial Stadium, Mohamed took time between answers to gnaw and loosen the sizable layers of white bandages on his left hand.

He has carried that protective club since breaking his thumb against Oregon State three weeks ago. It was just one of the injuries he has battled (and decorations he has adorned) during his final campaign in Berkeley.

Early this fall, a sprained big toe forced Mohamed out of the Nevada game, and the defensive outing in Reno certainly resembled an orchestra that was missing its conductor.

Fast forward to last Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Against Oregon's deadly efficient spread attack, the unit was humming flawlessly under the direction of its leader. Mohamed flew all over the field, recording a career-high 16 tackles, including a sack.

If the defense delivers a similar performance against the Cardinal this afternoon, expect to see Mohamed in the middle of the action.

In the right place, at the right time once again.


Ed Yevelev covers football. Contact him at [email protected]

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