Sept. 17, 2005
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) - Tim Mixon was tired of reacting and adjusting to Illinois' quirks and tricks. He decided to put the game away for California with one daredevil punt return.
And 79 yards later, he showed what the Golden Bears can do when properly adjusted.
Justin Forsett ran for a career-high 187 yards and two touchdowns, and Mixon returned a fourth-quarter punt for an exciting score during 15th-ranked Cal's second-half rally for a 35-20 victory Saturday.
After trailing by 10 points at halftime, Cal won its ninth straight home game with four touchdowns in 17 minutes spanning the final two quarters. Forsett did much of the work, seemingly getting stronger and quicker in the first significant playing time of his career, but Mixon provided the flair.
Shortly after Forsett put Cal ahead 21-17 with a 2-yard scoring run early in the fourth quarter, Mixon caught a punt in traffic and broke three tackles before roommate Marcus O'Keith's crushing block sprung him down the Cal sideline.
"I had already made up my mind I wasn't going to fair-catch the ball," Mixon said. "I was going to return it right up the middle. I knew once I got past the first two guys, I had the opportunity to score. ... We had to get used to them. They run a very unusual offense, but as time went on, we adjusted. We adapted."
O'Keith rushed for a late score and caught a 26-yard TD pass from Joe Ayoob for the Golden Bears (3-0), whose injury-plagued offense needed nearly three quarters to warm up. Cal played without star tailback Marshawn Lynch, who sat out with a broken finger, and starting offensive linemen Aaron Merz and Andrew Cameron, who had concussions.
Cal already lost starting quarterback Nate Longshore to a broken leg in the season opener, but the injured players' replacements have been uniformly impressive. That's gratifying to Tedford, who has spent four years building a roster with depth comparable to rival USC and the nation's best teams.
"We don't even really think about whether we're without Marshawn or Nate or whatever," Tedford said. "For our kids to bounce back like that in the second half doesn't surprise me. That's who they are."
Forsett, an unheralded sophomore from Texas, escaped Lynch's shadow with his relentless speed, which eventually wore down Illinois' defense. He rushed for 130 of Cal's 291 yards after halftime.
"With the conditioning we have, we were better conditioned than they were," said Forsett, who chose Cal after Notre Dame backed out of a scholarship commitment two years ago. "We kind of wore them out in the second half."
Tim Brasic passed for 228 yards and ran for a score, but the Illini (2-1) wilted in the second half of their first loss under new coach Ron Zook. Pierre Thomas was limited to 57 yards rushing as Zook's inventive offense seemed to run out of ideas and energy after halftime, when Tedford and defensive coordinator Bob Gregory made their adjustments.
"We felt like we had them on the ropes, but we made too many mistakes in the second half," Zook said. "They changed a lot of things in the second half, some things they hadn't shown before. ... We started to play not to lose, and when you play not to lose, you're not as aggressive."
Cal went 80 yards for a score in just 1:59 to open the game, capped by Forsett's 5-yard TD run. But Illinois replied with an 80-yard drive capped by Thomas' 1-yard plunge, then went ahead with a 16-play drive ending in Brasic's dive early in the second quarter.
Cal was embarrassed by Texas Tech's spread offense in last season's Holiday Bowl, and Illinois' wide-open attack was nearly as unstoppable in the first half.
Illinois held the ball for 21 1/2 minutes before halftime, including nearly 13 of the first 16. They converted six of seven third downs during their two long touchdown drives.
When Jason Reda hit a 36-yard field goal at the halftime gun to cap another lengthy drive, the Illini headed to the locker room with a 17-7 lead. The players shouted and raised their helmets while their vocal cheering section went crazy at Memorial Stadium.
The second half was much different.
"They were bringing different looks and pressuring us more," Brasic said. "Sometimes I'd look downfield, and no one was open. These guys can hit, too."
Ayoob, who went 0-for-10 in his Cal debut two weeks ago, was 1-for-9 in the first half, again missing open receivers and making poor decisions. Cal fans thought Ayoob, a junior college transfer, had shaken off his jitters with a four-touchdown performance last week against Washington.
Ayoob was better after halftime, finishing 8-of-17 for 121 yards.