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It Seems Like Old Times for Cal in Loss

Nonconference: Triple option helps Air Force rush for 295 yards and hand Golden Bears first loss of season, 23-21.

September 22, 2002|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERKELEY — California lost, so what's the big deal?

Cal lost its first 10 games of the season last year and hasn't had a winning season since 1993, so how come it hurt so much Saturday when Air Force slugged out a 23-21 victory before a half-filled Memorial Stadium crowd of 31,816?

Why?

Because first-year Cal Coach Jeff Tedford, in three weeks, had white-washed a decade of negative thoughts and pushed the Golden Bears to a 3-0 start and a top-25 ranking.

"Shocking," Cal receiver Jonathan Makonnen said of the defeat. "Everything had gone our way. I guess reality kicked in."

The reality is that California is so head-and-shoulders better than it was a year ago it's not even funny, but it's also true that the Bears can't defeat No. 15 Michigan State on the road one week and think home victories against Air Force are somehow automatic.

No. 23 Cal (3-1) found out the hard way, frittering away chances, settling for five field goals that could have been touchdowns, dropping at least 10 Kyle Boller passes and taking the brunt of an anachronistic Air Force triple-option run offense that continues to flourish in the face of 21st century thinking.

The good news for Cal is that it never will again this season meet up with the likes of Air Force, a team that on Saturday could rush for 295 yards, pass for 22 and call it perfect execution on offense.

Air Force is 3-0 this season and always an astonishment, led most recently by quarterback Chance Harridge's courageous and clutch runs.

Harridge rushed for 124 yards in 25 carries and all but provided the dagger with his 13-yard scamper for a score with 1:59 left to put the Falcons up, 23-15.

After the score, Harridge promptly ran to the bench and collapsed from exhaustion.

How do you prepare for the option? Cal found out that you don't. It is so unique and foreign to the college game that stopping it is like trying to use gum to plug holes in a dam break.

"I can't wait to play a normal offense again," defensive end Tully Banta-Cain said.

With his team trailing, 9-3, at the half, Harridge scored on three second-half runs, capping drives of 65, 57 and 45 yards.

"We just started running the triple option right at them, and they just couldn't stop it," Harridge said. "We ran right at them for the entire second half of the game."

Any arguments?

Harridge's last touchdown appeared to seal the victory for Air Force, but a late California rally proved these Golden Bears may actually have fortitude.

Boller overcame four drops on the team's last drive, all by receiver LaShaun Ward, to give his team a chance to send the game to overtime, cutting the Air Force lead to two with 31 seconds left on a 17-yard scoring pass to Makonnen.

Cal need a two-point conversion to tie but was denied when defensive back Jeff Overstreet deflected away Boller's potential game-tying pass, intended for Joe Igber.

"I'll probably have nightmares about it, that guy's hand," Boller said of Overstreet's play. "He couldn't have timed it more perfectly. He just knocked it down. It was close, really close."

Overstreet said Boller tipped the play off.

"The quarterback's eyes were looking straight at No. 20," Overstreet said. "He threw the ball to him and I just put my hand in front of it."

Cal's last-gasp chance to win was extinguished when Air Force's Tom Heier recovered the ensuing on-side kick.

On that subject, Cal left the game kicking itself for accepting three points instead of six.

Mark Jensen set a school record with his five field goals, yet admitted that it was "at the expense of the offense."

Against a resilient and variant Air Force defense, California sputtered until the very end.

Most of it was not Boller's fault, and his numbers suffered: He finished having completed only 13 of 37 passes for 216 yards.

With all the drops, you couldn't have blamed Boller for organizing a sit-in at midfield.

Yet, it is perhaps a sign of his maturity that he maintained his composure.

Boller kept throwing at Ward on the last drive, even as the crowd moaned and the receiver's confidence waned.

"We've got the Pac-10 coming up," Boller said. "The last think I want is for guys' heads to drop. Every game in the Pac-10 is going to be like today."

With conference play opening next week, Cal remains the Pac-10's most befuddling team. Barred from going to a bowl this year because of NCAA probation--no one is expecting the sanctions to be overturned on appeal--the Golden Bears are now out to wreck the Rose Bowl dreams of several remaining contenders.

You don't think Cal has a dog in this hunt?

Next week, the school plays host to pre-season favorite Washington State at Memorial Stadium, then plays at Washington, at USC, plays host to UCLA and then goes to Oregon State.

The Golden Bears' goal is simple:

"Get respect," Makonnen, the receiver, said. "We want to get respect in the Pac-10 and we're going to do that, regardless of going to a bowl or not. You've got to get respect."

Funny, Air Force was looking for the same thing Saturday.

And got it.

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