No amount of game planning can make up for the inability to tackle.
Arizona’s defense resembled a swinging door on Saturday, allowing 599 yards in a 49-31 loss at Cal to open Pac-12 play. It was the Wildcats’ first loss since 2009 to the Golden Bears, who scored 21 consecutive points to turn a 3-point halftime deficit into an 18-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
Defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen had warned earlier in the week that Cal, watching how North Dakota State was able to run all over Arizona, would adjust its gameplan based on flaws it saw on film. Apparently that involved running right at Wildcat defenders and hoping they wouldn’t be able to tackle, and they obliged.
Cal freshman Jaydn Ott took huge advantage of Arizona’s shoddy tackling, rushing 19 times for 274 yards and three touchdowns including a 73-yarder on the second play of the afternoon and a 72-yarder to put the game away.
The Golden Bears (3-1) ran for 354 yards, its 9.3 yards per carry a UA opponent single-game record, which opened things up for quarterback Jack Plummer—the older brother of Wildcat passer Will Plummer—to throw for 245 yards and three TDs after having minus-2 passing yards in the first quarter.
Arizona (2-2) gained a season-high 536 yards, its most since gaining 720 against NAU in 2019, with Jayden de Laura throwing for a career-best 401 yards and two TDs and both Jacob Cowing and Dorian Singer topping the 100-yard receiving mark. But after gaining 329 yards in the first half, the UA offense opened the second half with three consecutive empty possessions while Cal kept on scoring.
De Laura also turned it over three times in the second half, with Cal turning the first two takeaways into TDs.
Arizona also committed a season-high eight penalties for 76 yards, doing so a week after having only one flag in the 31-28 win over NDSU.
Up 24-21 at the half, Arizona couldn’t benefit from the “middle eight” of scoring late in the first half and then getting the ball to start the second half and punted away. That allowed Cal to take its first lead on a 3-yard TD catch by tight end Keleki Latu on a 4th and 1 with 9:40 left in the third.
A 3-and-out for the Wildcats opened the door for Cal to build a 2-score lead, and Arizona’s inept tackling held it open. Ott scored his second TD, an 18-yard run to make it 35-24 with 4:59 left in the third, on a play in which at least four UA defenders had their hands on him near the 15 before he squirted free.
That was after he eluded multiple defenders in the backfield on 3rd and 3 earlier in the drive and got the first down.
Arizona quickly got into Cal territory on its next drive before stalling, and on 3rd and 21 de Laura was stripped from behind as he was trying to throw downfield. The Bears recovered and turned the takeaway into points via a 37-yard Jeremiah Hunter TD catch on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Cowing caught a 14-yard TD pass, his sixth of the season, to get Arizona within 42-31 with 12:36 left. The UA forced 3-and-outs on Cal’s next two possessions but got nothing out of it, punting on the first drive and then de Laura overthrew Tetaiora McMillan in the red zone for an interception.
Like with the previous giveaway, Cal converted into points on a big play when Ott broke off a 72-yard TD run.
Cal led 7-0 after only two plays after Ott broke off a 73-yard TD run in the game’s opening minute. It was nearly double the longest gain Arizona had allowed all season.
The Wildcats responded quickly, tying it at 7 on a 1-yard Jonah Coleman run with 11:16 left in the first quarter. Arizona went for it on 4th and 6 from the 33, with de Laura hitting Cowing on a slant for 7 yards before hitting tight end Tanner McLachlan for a 25-yard catch down to the Cal 1.
Michael Wiley put Arizona up 14-7 on a 1-yard run on the next drive, which started at its own 8-yard line and featured seven gains of nine or more yards. That included an 11-yard run by Coleman on 3rd and 1 in which he was aided by de Laura’s crackback block.
Arizona got into Cal territory again on its third drive but ended up having to punt from near midfield, with de Laura pooching it and almost getting it pinned at the 1 before it resulted in a touchback. That was a harbinger of the upcoming drive.
It looked like the UA had gotten the ball back when Jalen Harris tipped a pass and Jerry Roberts made a diving one-handed grab for the interception, but the takeaway was overturned on replay. Cal then got a 46-yard reception from J. Michael Sturdevant on 3rd and 10 on the next play, and a few snaps later tied it at 14 on Sturdevant’s 16-yard TD catch with 11:56 left in the first half.
The Wildcats went heavy on the pass on the next drive, with great results. Cowing had a pair of long receptions, including one where he dragged his toes just before hitting the sideline, setting up de Laura’s 24-yard TD pass to McMillan who high-pointed it over a Cal defender to put Arizona up 21-14 with 10 minutes left before halftime.
A 3-yard TD run by Cal’s DeCarlos Brooks tied it at 21 with 3:40 left in the second, then Arizona got a 37-yard field goal from Tyler Loop with 40 seconds to go to take a 3-point lead into the half.
Arizona is back home next week to take on winless Colorado. The Buffaloes, who are 0-4 after losing 45-17 at home to UCLA on Saturday, beat the Wildcats 34-0 in Boulder last season.