There may have been some who questioned why No. 8 Cal was wasting its time with a Football Championship Subdivision opponent Saturday. Don't include the Bears defensive players among that group.
Cal's defense was forced to make some dramatic early adjustments before the Bears rolled to a 59-7 victory over Eastern Washington in front of 58,083 at Memorial Stadium. The Eagles hung around for most of the first half, putting together sustained drives with a short passing game that gave the Old Blues in attendance some nervous moments.
But the Bears tinkered with their defensive scheme, dropping more players into coverage and silencing the Eagles the rest of the way.
"I feel like we learned a lot," said Cal linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who led the Bears in tackles for the second straight game to open the season with 14. "Eastern Washington is not a team to be taken lightly. We might have come out a little slow in the first quarter. We had to make those adjustments."
Eastern Washington (1-1) forged an 11-play, 83-yard drive midway through the first quarter that culminated in a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mike Nichols to fullback Grant Williams, tying the game at 7-7. The Bears (2-0) were forced to punt on their ensuing possession, and when the Eagles registered a couple of first downs on their next drive, the thought of them making the game competitive started becoming less and less absurd.
But Cal forced Eastern Washington to punt and created an Eagles turnover on their next possession. The Bears sandwiched a pair of touchdowns around a 19-yard field goal by Vince D'Amato to lead 24-7 at halftime.
Still, it didn't seem like the Eagles were out of it as the teams retreated to their respective locker rooms.
"We were up but we really weren't satisfied," Cal safety Brett Johnson said. "We realized we had made a lot of mistakes. They felt like they were still in the game. At that point, you have to put them away or else they feel like they have a chance to come back."
Coach Jeff Tedford expressed his displeasure to the team at halftime, and the Bears responded. They scored touchdowns on each of their first two possessions of the second half while preventing the Eagles to gain a first down on their first two drives. Cal led 38-7 and the rout was on.
"We made some adjustments in the second half and kind of shut it all down," Cal linebacker D.J. Holt said. "We just had to stay calm. It's really difficult because you start to panic a little bit. If you let any team stick around, it gives them hope."
Cal running back Jahvid Best rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries and also had a 22-yard touchdown catch. Backup tailback Shane Vereen rushed for three touchdowns.
The game couldn't have started better for the Bears. Eastern Washington's J.T. Leggin slipped out of his shoe while receiving the opening kick and was ruled down at the 6-yard line. Eddie Young sacked Nichols on the first play from scrimmage, putting the Eagles inside their own 1. They were able to get it out to the 3 before punting, and Cal started its first possession on Eastern Washington's 35. It took four plays for the Bears to score, with Kevin Riley punching it in on a quarterback sneak.
With the Bears leading 14-7 early in the second quarter, linebacker Mike Mohamed sacked Nichols and forced a fumble. Kendricks recovered and returned it 45 yards to the Eagles 5-yard line. He was run down by Eastern Washington running back Taiwan Jones, a former sprint star at Deer Valley High School.
"I caught myself looking at the big screen as I was running," Kendricks said. "That could have messed me up. I should have had that touchdown."
The Bears were only able to get the D'Amato field goal out of the turnover, but forced the Eagles into a three-and-out on their ensuing possession. Cal scored shortly thereafter on Riley's 22-yard strike to Best. The Bears faked a screen pass on the play and sent Best toward the corner of the end zone out of the backfield. He ran right past Eagles linebacker J.C. Sherritt and was wide open for an easy score.
The Eagles, who played Colorado tough last season on the road before losing by a touchdown, are now 7-18 all-time against Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
"I felt going into the game that they were the most complete team I had ever seen on film," Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said. "They do everything right, and on top of that they have great athletes with skill and speed everywhere. This was the most complete team I have seen."