Between the gruesome first-half defensive performance and another prolific passing game by freshman quarterback Jared Goff, Cal coach Sonny Dykes helped set the table for a 37-30 win over Portland State on Saturday afternoon with some gentle halftime cajoling.
“A bunch of four-letter words and screaming and hollering and spit,” Dykes said after the Bears twice rallied from behind to beat the visitors from the Football Championship Subdivision for his first victory as coach in Berkeley.
The defense got better after allowing 434 yards in the first half and Goff finished with 485 yards and two touchdowns as Cal squared its record at 1-1 entering next Saturday’s severe test against No. 3 Ohio State.
“We’re not going to be able to come out flat against Ohio State,” Dykes said. “If we do, they’ll run us off the field.”
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The Vikings of the Big Sky Conference, winless in 12 previous tries against current members of the Pac-12, came out in an offensive formation the Bears hadn’t seen and scored on an 81-yard pass from Kieran McDonagh to Kasey Closs on the game’s second play.
The Memorial Stadium crowd of 43,594 — so encouraged a week earlier by a 44-30 loss to No. 22 Northwestern — was stunned. The Bears, too.
“That jarred us and we kind of slept-walked through the first half,” Dykes said.
Certainly the Bears did on defense, where poor tackling in the open field allowed the Vikings (1-1) to do what they wanted early. When a 75-yard touchdown pass on their first play of their second series was called back by a penalty, the Vikings merely charged 80 yards in five plays to score, anyway.
They led 20-10 early in the second quarter and 30-27 four minutes into the third. The margin might have been 10 points except that a bizarre pass, fumble and run play for an apparent 65-yard touchdown was reviewed and ruled an incomplete pass.
Cal, which had beaten six previous FCS foes by an average margin of 40 points and was a 27-point favorite Saturday, responded with a big play of its own to take the lead for good.
On first down from the Cal 25, Goff rolled right and passed back to Richard Rodgers, who ran down the left sideline for a 75-yard scoring play and a 34-30 lead with 7:58 left in the third quarter.
Vincenzo D’Amato’s 23-yard field goal made it 37-30 with 3:34 left in the third quarter. D’Amato missed wide to the right on a 46-yarder with 6:41 left in the game — his first miss in seven tries this season.
Neither team scored in the fourth quarter of a game that generated 24 points in the first 7 1/2 minutes of action.
The Cal defense, with five would-be starters sidelined by injury, finally tightened the screws in the second half. Portland State had just 119 yards and seven points in the second half, just 28 yards on three fourth-quarter possessions.
“I was really disappointed that it took as (so long) as a defensive staff and as a defense to settle in there,” Cal defensive coordinator Andy Buh said. “It’s took us two or three series to get it improved. That’s coaching.”
It’s also inexperience, and the Cal defense is relying on players all over the field who haven’t been in these situations before. “We did not tackle well,” Dykes said.
“Once we got the adjustments,” sophomore linebacker Jalen Jefferson said, “we settled down and stopped ’em mainly.”
The Cal offense sputtered in the fourth quarter, but turned the ball over just once all day and piled up 616 total yards.
Goff followed his 450-yard effort against Northwestern with 485 on 33 for 51 passing. He threw a 10-yard TD pass to Maurice Harris — who made a spectacular one-handed grab in the end zone — and scored on a 1-yard keeper.
Since Cal began playing football in 1882, only four times had a quarterback thrown for more than 400 yards in a game. Now Goff, an 18-year-old from Novato, has done it twice in his first two games.
“Every week we come out and whatever works, works,” Goff said when asked to explain the prolific passing numbers.
Dykes offered modest praise, adding, “He’s going to continue to get better.”
There is room everywhere for that. This was not a victory suitable for framing, and the Bears understood that.
“It was not very good,” Goff said. “We can get a lot better as a team. They came in and surprised us — I’m not saying we were not ready for an FCS team.
“We’ll need to get better next week.”
Safety Michael Lowe left the game in the second quarter with an ankle injury after recovering a fumble that led to a two-play Cal scoring drive on a 50-yard Goff-to-Bryce Treggs pass, then a 1-yard run by Goff.
Freshman running back Khalfani Muhammad, moved to second string because Daniel Lasco was out with a sore hamstring, had 68 yards rushing and four catches for 85 yards. “He’s a big-time player,” Goff said.