Cal finally found the right formula for beating a good team Saturday night.
First, have your quarterback throw two unsightly interceptions. Next, watch the opposing quarterback attempt to throw two passes on the same play. Finally, score a touchdown that potentially does more harm than good.
An efficient, tidy victory? Forget it. But the Bears leaned on their previously maligned defense then benefited from some good fortune down the stretch and closed out their home schedule with a 24-16 win over No. 18 Arizona in front of 53,347 at Memorial Stadium. It was Cal's first win over a ranked team this season.
"That win wasn't easy. That win was hard-fought," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said.
It certainly wasn't easy for Cal quarterback Kevin Riley and the offense, which before Shane Vereen's 61-yard touchdown run with 1:21 remaining had gained only 296 yards. Riley threw two potentially crucial interceptions in the third quarter, both coming in Arizona territory.
But the Bears defense finally played like many expected them to this season — like it did in 2008. Cal held Arizona's conference-leading offense to just 274 yards — the Wildcats entered the night averaging 448.6 yards per game.
"I'm as proud as I've ever been as a group," Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said. "It's all about the players executing the game plan. They executed the plan fast and with confidence."
As well as Cal's defense played, the Wildcats (6-3, 4-2 Pac-10) were in position to take the lead with under two minutes left. After Giorgio Tavecchio gave the Bears an 18-16 lead with a 22-yard field goal with 4:46 remaining — one of four field goals for the sophomore on the night — Arizona took over and moved the ball to the Cal 25. On third down, quarterback Nick Foles' pass was tipped up into the air by Cal defensive end Tyson Alualu. Foles caught it and rolled right, then attempted another pass. The illegal forward pass penalty moved the Wildcats out of field goal range, and Foles' pass attempt on 4th-and-17 fell incomplete.
"It was just a big mistake by me," Foles said. "Everything happens so fast."
The Bears (7-3, 4-3) took over on downs and Vereen ran 61 yards for the score on the very next play. But holder Brock Mansion mishandled the snap on the point-after attempt, and the Wildcats were still within eight with 1:21 to play.
"It just goes to show you all the details ... an extra point is very important," Tedford said. "My blood pressure went way up."
Needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie, the Wildcats began the ensuing drive at their own 35. Foles completed one pass for 12 yards to get to the 47, but Alualu got in on two sacks, the last of which forcing Arizona to turn it over on downs with 27 seconds left.
"We just had to do what we were doing all game," Cal safety Sean Cattouse said. "We were up so that took a little bit of the pressure off. There's always a chance. They had a long way to go. We were just confident and fired up. We were ready for whatever and got it done."
Cal needed a strong performance from its defense because yards were hard to come by for the offense. Before Vereen's final run, he had gained just 98 on 29 carries. Vereen got his first start of the season after Jahvid Best's scary fall last week against Oregon State. Best was on the sideline for the game and was an honorary captain for the coin flip.
Riley, meanwhile, was 13-for-22 for 181 yards and two interceptions. He also threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to tight end Skylar Curran.
Riley, who entered the game with just three interceptions all season, was easily intercepted by Arizona safety Cam Nelson in the third quarter when he underthrew a deep ball to wide receiver Nyan Boateng. Later in the quarter, the Bears had a first down at the Arizona 16 when Riley tried to throw the ball away before getting sacked, lofting well over the head of wide receiver Alex Lagemann down the middle of the field. But it hung in the air too long and safety Joe Perkins intercepted it in the end zone for a touchback.
The Wildcats followed Riley's second interception with an 80-yard drive that culminated in a go-ahead touchdown.
"We had opportunities and I just took us out of them," Riley said. "It's just something I can't do, take your team out of a scoring situation. I have to be smarter when I'm throwing the ball away. That's uncharacteristic of me. When it happens, you just have to forget about it and move on."
But Tedford apparently didn't forget about it because the Bears went the safe route on their next possession, pounding the ball with Vereen to march deep into Arizona territory. After a false start on left tackle Mike Tepper made it first-and-15 from the Wildcats 16, Cal went with three straight running plays to set up Tavecchio's final field goal.
"We were going to stay safe," Tedford said. "We were going to run the football. We hadn't played very smart. We threw two balls down by the end zone for interceptions. We weren't going to take a chance."