BERKELEY – Cal features one of the most inexperienced rosters in the country and has a defense decimated by injuries, but head coach Sonny Dykes isn’t about to throw a party because his team scored 34 points against the No. 4 team in the country and battled back from an early 21-point deficit to be competitive.
“I’m not a believer in moral victories, but I thought our team played hard,” Dykes said following the Bears’ 52-34 loss to the Buckeyes in front of a sellout crowd of 62,467 at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. “I hate the whole moral victory thing. That’s one of the things we have to get out of our program. You play the game to win. That’s something we have to learn how to do.”
Still, the fact that the Bears (1-2) jogged into the locker room at halftime only trailing 31-20 was a sight to behold. Ohio State led 21-0 six minutes into the game. The Buckeyes (3-0) scored touchdowns on two of their first four offensive plays. They then capitalized on a fumble by quarterback Jared Goff after getting sacked and took six plays to get into the end zone once again.
Saturday marked the second straight week the Bears fell into an early hole. Last week against Portland State, Cal was able to overcome the early deficit for a 37-30 victory. Still, Dykes said the slow starts are something the team is going to have to correct.
“We’ll look at everything in our program to figure out why we’re getting off to slow starts,” he said. “We’ll talk to all the coaches and players and find out a way to get them ready to play earlier. It’s something we need to address.”
In fairness, Ohio State is ranked No. 4 in the nation for a reason. Even without starting quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Braxton Miller, who sat out with a knee injury, the Buckeyes are loaded with talent all over the field. Backup signal-caller Kenny Guiton controlled Ohio State’s offense efficiently, completing 21 of 32 passes for 276 yards and four touchdowns.
On the Buckeyes’ second offensive play, Guiton connected with wide receiver Devin Smith for a 90-yard touchdown pass. The Bears notched one first down on their next possession but then were forced to punt. It took Ohio State two more plays to score again, with Guiton this time finding Smith for a 47-yard score.
The Bears played without a handful of key defensive players, including linebacker Nick Forbes, defensive end Brennan Scarlett and safety Avery Sebastian. Starting safety Michael Lowe also left the game early with an injury and did not return.
Cal has been hit especially hit hard by injuries in the secondary. Converted wide receiver Joel Willis started at cornerback Saturday and true freshman Cameron Walker played safety.
“We’re kind of grabbing guys. We have to go with who we have,” Dykes said. “We’ve made some wholesale changes back there from really where we started the season and what we thought the depth chart would be and where it is now. It’s not an excuse. It is what it is. Our job is to win football games and put guys in position to win. We have enough good players to win. We’re going to have some growing pains. When someone goes down, the next guy has to step up and you keep on rolling.”
The Bears cut it to 21-7 on junior James Grisom’s first career touchdown, a 61-yard touchdown catch from Goff. After an Ohio State field goal made it 24-7, the Bears put together a 9-play, 82-yard drive that culminated with a 42-yard scoring pass from Goff to wide receiver Chris Harper. The Buckeyes got into the end zone again but Cal kicker Vincenzo D’Amato booted field goals of 27 and 43 yards to make it 31-20 at the intermission.
“I credit our players. We got down 21-0 and our guys battled,” Dykes said. “That’s going to be a trademark of our program. Hopefully we are going to play hard regardless of what’s going on. That’s a process you have to teach and you have to learn.”
The Buckeyes set the tone to begin the second half with a 9-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by running back Jordan Hall. The Bears went three-and-out on their first possession of the second half and Ohio State then forged a 15-play touchdown drive that gave the Buckeyes a 45-20 lead midway through the third quarter.
Cal continued to move the ball in the second half but couldn’t get closer than 18 points the rest of the way.
Goff, who entered the week leading the nation in passing yards per game and total offense, was 31-for-53 for 371 yards and three more touchdown passes.
“They are a great team, all they were chalked up to be,” Goff said. “I felt like we had our chances to score two or three more. A few plays could have changed everything. We get a slip here or a break there, we could have stayed in the game a little longer.”
Harper ended with six catches for a career-high 115 yards. Bryce Treggs added seven catches for 51 yards.
The Bears have a bye next week before opening Pac-12 play on Sept. 28 at No. 2 Oregon.