Cal Offense Drops the Ball as Last-Second Comeback Falls Short

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The 2002 season so far has been defined by some startling numbers for the Cal football team-a record 35 points in the first quarter against Baylor, an eye-popping plus-11 turnover ratio and a No. 23 national ranking.

Saturday's game against Air Force can best be summed up by another entry to the record books-Mark Jensen's school-record five field goals, accounting for the team's entire offensive output for the first 59-plus minutes of a 23-21 loss.

Players called the game a learning experience, and the lesson seems clear-when you don't catch the ball and don't score touchdowns, the Tedford magic only goes so far.

On the day they unveiled the shiny new replay screen next to the scoreboard, the Bears (3-1) had too many moments that they would probably not like to see again and paid for it with their first loss.

The Bears flashed some of the charmed touch they've enjoyed this year, especially with Kyle Boller doing his best Joe Montana impression in a valiant final drive that came within inches of sending the game to overtime.

Cal also got the big defensive and special teams plays that have been a trademark this season, but was doomed by sloppiness and mental mistakes, as well as a Falcons offense that seemed unstoppable in the fourth quarter.

Staff/Soummya Datta
Joe Igber couldn't get near this two-point conversion attempt from Kyle Boller with 31 seconds to play, costing Cal its fourth straight win of the season.

The Bears looked in full control for more than half the game, but failed to translate that dominance into a truly commanding lead and fell prey to a late offensive outburst led by Air Force quarterback Chance Harridge, who scored three second-half touchdowns.

"We just didn't play a solid game in all three phases today," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "We didn't get it done on the offensive end."

Air Force lived up to its billing on both sides of the ball, rushing 65 times for 295 yards behind its triple-option offense while employing a variety of blitzes to disrupt the rhythm of a Cal offense that came into Saturday averaging 50 points per game.

"They're less talented than we are, but today they were more disciplined, and whoever is more disciplined will always win," Bears wide receiver Jonathan Makonnen said.

Cal began the game with a bang, forcing a turnover on the Falcons' first play from scrimmage when James Bethea recovered a fumble lost by Harridge on Air Force's 28-yard line.

In what would become a trend, the Bears' offense could not move the ball much further, and Jensen put Cal up 3-0 with a 42-yard field goal.

The Bears' kicker had a banner day, going 5-for-6 on field goals and sending several kickoffs deep in the endzone, but even he admitted it was a bittersweet achievement.

"I'd rather be out there kicking extra points than field goals any day," Jensen said, summing up the frustrations of an offense that faltered in critical situations.

After scoring a combined 59 points in the first quarters of their first three games, the Bears managed eight yards on 10 plays for no first downs in the period, looking mostly sluggish and out of sync.

"I'll take a lot of what happened with the offense on my shoulders," Tedford said. "I probably didn't call a very good game. It's my responsibility to put the players in a position to succeed and I didn't always do that."

A long drive coming out of halftime led to another Jensen field goal to make it 12-3.

The Bears' biggest lead of the day would also prove to be the start of their undoing, as the Falcons' offense came alive on the very next possession.

Fullback Steve Massie broke through the Cal defensive front for a 45-yard run to the Cal 6-yard line, a play that instantly changed the complexion of the game.

Harridge, who rushed for 125 yards on 23 carries, ran into the endzone untouched on the next play to make it 12-10, and the Bears never looked safe again.

"It always makes it hard when the game is so close that one score puts them right there with you," Cal safety Nnamdi Asomugha said.

After holding Air Force to 140 yards and seven first downs in the first half, the defense seemed to finally give out in the fourth quarter, allowing touchdowns on three consecutive possessions.

"There comes a point in the game when guys have to rally to the ball and do their assignment," linebacker Marcus Daniels said. "What happened in the second half was on account of not wrapping up the ball carrier."

Tedford said he didn't believe his players were worn down toward the end of the game.

"The defense played their ass off, they weren't the problem," he said. "We just have to take advantage of the opportunities they give us and get in the endzone, and we didn't do that."

Statistically, Kyle Boller had his worst outing of the year, finishing 13-for-38 for 216 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

"I made some bad throws, and I made some wrong play calls," Boller said. "That really shouldn't happen."

Boller did not get much help from his receivers, who dropped at least 10 catchable balls, including potential touchdowns to Makonnen and Geoff McArthur on Boller's first two throws of the game.

"It was just us trying to make big plays without catching the ball," Makonnen said. "We really shot ourselves in the foot."

Boller got a classic chance to redeem himself when the Bears got the ball back down 23-15 on their 30-yard line with 1:59 to go, a situation that he called a "quarterback's dream".

Boller put together one of the more improbable two-minute drills Cal fans are likely to see, overcoming some shaky play from his receivers to lead the team toward a potentially game-tying touchdown.

Lashaun Ward lost his defender on consecutive post patterns down the left sideline, but could not hold on to either of a pair of perfectly thrown spirals, bringing a chorus of boos from the crowd.

However, Makonnen, who finished with five catches for 92 yards, managed to atone for his earlier miscues, gathering in a 22-yarder on the sideline on fourth and 10 despite a ferocious hit from two defensive backs.

Six plays and two more incomplete passes to Ward later, Makonnen caught a 17-yard scoring strike to bring Cal within two with 31 seconds to play.

The Bears missed the two-point conversion when Boller's pass to Igber was batted down by a defender.

"It was pretty much the way we drew it up, but the guy reached in at the very last second and got his hand on it," Boller said. "I couldn't believe it. I don't think he even knew where the ball was."

Once Air Force recovered the ensuing onside kick, there was nothing left to do but run out the clock and celebrate the upset, while Cal searched for answers and hoped for a quick turnaround.

"This game's history," Boller said. "From now on, every game will be at least this hard."


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