MINNEAPOLIS — Just when it appeared it might be 2008 all over again, No. 8 Cal demonstrated Saturday why this season could be different.
Reeling against a hyped-up Minnesota defense and a hostile crowd, the Bears passing game saved the day. Quarterback Kevin Riley connected with wide receiver Jeremy Ross twice in the clutch, and Cal (3-0) left sparkling new TCF Bank Stadium with a 35-21 victory over Minnesota (2-1) and its sellout crowd of 50,805.
Riley's connections with Ross came during a game-changing fourth quarter drive, and the second one set up Jahvid Best's 2-yard touchdown run that broke a 21-21 tie with 7:14 remaining.
Best scored all five touchdowns for the Bears, setting the modern-day record by a Cal player. Dick Dunn had six scores against Nevada in 1922.
"I thought it was great for Kevin and the Bears that the passing game could be the catalyst," Cal offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "We've run the ball very well and thrown the ball when we wanted to, but here there were a couple of situations where we felt like we had to throw the ball. It was huge for the Bears offense and Kevin Riley."
The Bears (3-0) won by doing two things they failed to do last season: They made clutch plays on the road down the stretch, and they had production from the passing game. Cal went just 1-4 on the road last year and had lost eight of its previous nine away from Memorial Stadium. Cal's passing attack, meanwhile, ranked just 83rd nationally last year.
"Last year, people know we struggled with our passing game at times," Riley said. "In games like these, where we'd run the ball well, when we got into passing situations we wouldn't be able to make plays. I think that's something we've got a lot better at, and it's made the team a lot better."
Ross, in the game as Cal's third receiver only after Nyan Boateng suffered a fractured right foot, made the play of the game by hauling in a 35-yard pass from Riley on third-and-16 from the Bears' 22-yard line. Three plays later, Ross got wide open down field for a 31-yard catch, setting up Best's game-winning score.
"I think everybody on our team knows that J-Ross has the potential to be a great receiver," Riley said. "He's shown it at times. It was good to see him make some plays. The opportunity came up, and it's going to build confidence for him to continue to work and get better."
Ross was Cal's No. 3 receiver last year but had fallen down the depth chart with the emergence of sophomore Marvin Jones. He had just one catch through the first two games, but he had three receptions for 73 yards against the Gophers.
"It's been a rough season for me, opportunities-wise," Ross said. "Coming here and catching balls when it counts is really big for me. I get stronger as the game goes on. If I'm constantly out there, feeling it out, getting the adrenaline pumping, I can make better plays."
The Bears got off to a fast start, scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions to take a 14-0 lead with 7:08 left in the first quarter. Best's first score came on a 33-yard run and his second was from the 2 after a 59-yard pass from Riley to wide receiver Verran Tucker.
Cal made it 21-7 on Best's 27-yard run late in the second quarter, and it appeared the Bears would go into halftime with a comfortable lead. But after a personal foul on true freshman Isi Sofele during a punt return gave the Gophers the ball at Cal's 29 with 1:11 left, Minnesota cut it to 21-14 with 40 seconds to go on Eric Decker's 12-yard touchdown catch. Decker finished with eight catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns, and he threw for another score.
"At halftime, we were kind of down a little bit even though we were winning," said Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed, who had two late interceptions to help seal the outcome. "We all had to assure ourselves that we were still winning this game."
Cal's offense stagnated in the third quarter, and the Gophers tied the game 21-21 with 29 seconds left in the third quarter on Decker's 7-yard throw to wide receiver MarQueis Gray. The Bears didn't notch a first down in the second half until Ross' 35-yard catch, which came directly after a false start penalty on left tackle Mike Tepper.
Mohamed picked off Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber on the first play after Best's game-deciding touchdown, and the Bears drove down for the final touchdown to seal the victory.
"It is great to play a tough game and make plays when you need to make plays in all phases of the game," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "It will give us a bit of confidence. Today was a great test, a great challenge for us against a really good Minnesota football team to bounce back and make plays and make them at the right time."