Cal and Miami were tied 17-17. The clock was down to 3:45 and counting in the fourth quarter. My money was on the Emerald Bowl going to overtime Saturday night at AT&T Park.
Then Cal senior linebacker Zack Follett stepped up and did what he had done so often before in his career. He made a huge, explosive, game-changing play that paved the way for Cal’s 24-17 win before an Emerald Bowl record, sellout crowd of 42,268.
Great players make big plays in big games at critical moments.
This was a made-for-Follett moment, and he didn’t disappoint. When I saw a Cal defender at the far end of the field running 100 mph and knocking the ball out of Miami quarterback Jacory Harris’ hands, I had no doubt that speeding bullet was Follett.
Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan grabbed the loose ball at the 9 and returned 7 yards to the 2. Two plays later, Nate Longshore hit freshman Anthony Miller with a 2-yard game-winner.
“We all know Zack is the sack master,” Jordan said. “If you need a big play, Zack’s going to come up with it.”
Let’s set the stage for Follett’s heroics. The Hurricanes had roared back from a 14-0 first-quarter deficit. They had tied the game on Matt Bosher’s 22-yard field goal with 9:13 left and had held Cal to just three second-half points.
Now, Miami faced third-and-8 from its 22. Harris, a true freshman, took the snap and rolled to his left, looking for an open receiver. But as Harris rolled, Follett shot past right offensive tackle Chris Rutledge then hit another gear.
“I was battling against those tackles all game,” Follett said. “They’re big and athletic. I kind of said something at the pep rally that made them mad.
“Once (Harris) put the ball down and started to roll out, I knew I had him.”
Follett said that as he closed in, a message from defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi came into his head at high volume: Bring the “hammer” down.
Before Harris had a chance to throw, Follett launched himself through the air and jackhammered the ball out of his hands.
“He’s a tenacious player,” Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said. “He goes hard all the time.”
Not surprisingly, it was Follett who gathered the defense on the sidelines just minutes before that series and implored his teammates to make a big play.
“He’s the guy all the guys look to,” Gregory said. “Those are the kind of guys who win games for you.”
Follett had nine tackles, two sacks, four tackles for loss, one forced fumble and one pass defensed. And yes, he earned Defensive Player of the Game honors in what had to be landslide vote by media members.
Cal running back Jahvid Best, Follett’s big-play counterpart, earned Offensive Player of the Game honors in what surely was another landslide decision.
Best rushed for an Emerald Bowl record 194 yards and two touchdowns on just 20 carries. He averaged 9.3 yards per carry. Best’s 1-yard run gave Cal a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter, then he added a 42-yard scoring burst with 4:55 left in the opening quarter.
Going into the game, Best vs. Miami’s leaky run defense was clearly the most critical matchup. He had rushed for a combined 512 yards against Stanford and Washington in his two previous games. Miami had allowed 691 yards rushing to Georgia Tech and North Carolina State in its final two regular-season games.
“We had him in the backfield a couple times and guys couldn’t wrap up,” Miami coach Randy Shannon said. “Which is amazing, because we’ve been working on it the last two weeks.”
“We came out and we made a few mistakes,” Miami linebacker Glenn Cook said. “The last couple weeks at the end of the season we made the same mistakes. He’s a great player. He took advantage of them.”
The fact that he had set an Emerald Bowl rushing record was news to Best. He had more important matters on his mind.
“This game just meant so much to me, playing for these seniors,” Best said. “I was playing a lot for (fullback) Will Ta’ufo’ou.”
Ta’ufo’ou helped open running lanes for Best. Then Best did the rest with his blazing speed that seemed to catch the speedy Hurricanes off guard.
“I don’t think anybody’s really ready for Jahvid,” Ta’ufo’ou said. “I think people know he’s good, but maybe they don’t really know how good. He’s explosive.”
Follett and Best saved Cal coach Jeff Tedford from what would have been tons of second-guessing from fans and the media for his decision to start Longshore over Kevin Riley.
Longshore did throw the game-winning touchdown pass, a beautiful strike to Miller, who made his first career catch. And he avoided the killer turnovers that have plagued him. Longshore, though, completed just 10 of 21 passes for 121 yards, pedestrian numbers..
Riley, a redshirt-sophomore, started the final three regular-season games and was 6-3 as a starter. His numbers weren’t great this season, but benching him for the bowl game still seemed like a strange move. Maybe there’s more to this story than what Tedford said was Longshore’s great two weeks of practice.
Tedford said he never considered switching to Riley during the game, not even in the second half when Longshore was struggling and Cal’s offense had ground to a halt.
“I thought he managed the game well,” Tedford said of Longshore.
Whatever. Hopefully next season Tedford can pick a starting quarterback and stick with him, whether it’s Riley, Brock Mansion or some other candidate. This quarterback shuffle wasn’t good for Riley, Longshore or the Bears’ offense.
Yeah, right. That’s a story for another time. This is a time for Cal fans to savor an Emerald Bowl victory and the big plays they got from Follett and Best.