RENO -- In the end, Cal simply couldn't stop Nevada's offense. The Bears may have forced an occasional three-and-out or capitalized on a turnover, but the final analysis will show that Cal never figured out how to contain the Wolf Pack's explosive attack.
Nevada easily won the battle of the nation's top-ranked offense against the top-ranked defense, piling up 497 yards of offense and also returning a pivotal interception for a touchdown in a 52-31 thrashing of the Bears on Friday night in front of a sellout crowd of 28,809 at Mackay Stadium.
Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick was all he was cracked up to be. He amassed 329 yards of total offense, rushed for three touchdowns and threw for another as Cal never found a way to slow him down.
The Bears' scout team tried to emulate Nevada's pistol offense all week, even using third-string quarterback Brock Mansion to play the role of Kaepernick because he has similar skills. But it was apparent immediately that simulating the offense and facing it in person are two very different things.
"The guys tried all week to simulate it, but it's so different,"
Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "They run it with such precision. The quarterback has been playing in it for a long time and is excellent at what he does. He played as about as good a game as you can play, so give them a lot of credit."
After trailing 24-14 at halftime, the Bears cut it to 24-21 on Shane Vereen's 50-yard touchdown run on the first possession of the second half. And after a rare hold by Cal's defense, it appeared the momentum was tilting in the Bears' favor.
But quarterback Kevin Riley threw a backbreaking interception on Cal's next possession, telegraphing a pass intended for wide receiver Alex Lagemann that was picked off by Marlon Johnson and returned 65 yards for a touchdown. That made it 31-21 and erased any momentum Cal might have mustered after getting dominated in the first half.
"That was really a game-changer. That's why they call it those," said Riley, who was 23 for 37 for 277 yards and a touchdown but missed a handful of other throws. "I just rushed the play. I saw the clock going down and I tried to quick hitch it, and the guy just completely jumped it. It was a good play by him and a bad play by me. That should never happen. I tried to force it in there, and he made a play."
The Bears, who won their first two games by a combined score of 104-10, never got closer to a touchdown as their offense couldn't match scores with the Wolf Pack.
"We didn't hold serve," Tedford said. "Against that team right there, you have to match them because they are so hard to stop offensively. You just really need to take them out of their game plan, and you can't give them anything. You have to give them a lot of credit. It's a tough thing to stop. You have to keep up with them, and we didn't do that."
Vereen rushed for a career-high 198 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries.
Cal's defense was hurt by the loss of All-American linebacker Mike Mohamed, who sat out the game with a sprained left big toe. But it's hard to imagine that one player could have prevented the absolute destruction Nevada imposed on Cal.
Mohamed, arguably Cal's best player at any position, didn't even suit up after sitting out practice all week. Tedford had said that it was purely precautionary and that he would play against Nevada, but a doctor's visit Wednesday revealed Mohamed could do further damage if he played.
Tedford was hopeful Mohamed would play in next week's Pac-10 opener at Arizona.
Surely, the Bears could have used Mohamed, Cal's most experienced and accomplished. Mohamed's speed would have been an asset against Nevada's explosive offense, and his smarts might have helped the Bears decipher the Wolf Pack's schemes.
Still, the ease with which Nevada marched down field time after time makes it hard to imagine Mohamed's presence making enough of a difference to change the complexion of the game. The Bears struggled to figure out the Wolf Pack's deception on offense, as Kaepernick and tailback Vai Taua took turns chewing up big yardage on the ground. And when forced into passing downs, Kaepernick consistently received excellent pass protection and rarely missed any throws.
"There was a lot of open area out there for Kaepernick to run," Tedford said. "Mike is a good player and all, but they did a nice job. I'm not sure Mike would have made a difference."
On the second play of the game, Kaepernick ran for 17 yards. On a pivotal third down, he completed a 14-yard pass to wide receiver Tray Session. Two plays later, he rushed for 21 yards. Ultimately, the Wolf Pack culminated a 12-play, 80-yard drive with Kaepernick's 15-yard touchdown pass to Session.
The Bears' offensive players said during the week they knew they would have to put up some points to keep up with Nevada's offense, and it appeared early on they would be able to move the ball. They notched two first downs on their opening drive to reach Nevada's 39. But wide receiver Keenan Allen couldn't come down with a slightly overthrown pass by Riley, and it turned into an interception by Nevada defensive back Doyle Miller.
Cal's defense made a big stop on the next possession, forcing the Wolf Pack into a three-and-out, and Vereen scored on a 59-yard touchdown run on the Bears' next offensive play. It was the third-longest run of Vereen's career.
But the Wolf Pack went back to work on offense on its next possession, eating up big gains on the ground and through the air. It put together another 12-play scoring drive, earning double-digit yards on five of them. Kaepernick scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to make it 14-7, and Nevada's defense sacked Riley on back-to-back plays on Cal's next possession to help for a three-and-out.
It became serious panic time for the Bears when Nevada scored again its next possession. A rare shanked punt by Cal's Bryan Anger gave the Wolf Pack the ball at its 46, and Kaepernick scrambled for 28 yards on the first play of the drive. Long runs by Kaepernick and Taua brought the ball into the red zone, and Kaepernick easily scored on an 8-yard scoring run to make it 21-7.
Notes: Sophomore Robert Mullins made his first career start in place of Mohamed. "... Derrick Hill made his first start of the season at nose tackle, in place of Kendrick Payne. "... Kaepernick moved into a tie for seventh place all-time in NCAA history for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 45. "... Tedford called three straight timeouts with six seconds left in the first half in an attempt to ice Nevada kicker Anthony Martinez. But Martinez still easily drilled a 30-yard field goal.
Cal (2-1) at Arizona (2-0), 7 p.m., CSN+