The Phoenix were the talk of the college football world two weeks ago, when they came within two yards of knocking off No. 9 Clemson. But with the bye week that followed, nobody was quite sure what to make of their performance – seven days off only allowed the storm of speculation to swirl.
On Saturday evening in Morgantown, the college football world got its answer – the first game was no fluke.
California took their high flying assault on the road to West Virginia and knocked off the No. 15 Mountaineers in a wild 38-35 finish, avenging their heartbreak against Clemson and causing some of their own.
The scoring started early for California, thanks largely to the Fabtastic Four – newly converted receiver Ethan Novak grabbed several passes, an option pitch to running back Josh Toyofuku netted 16 yards, and wide receiver Isaac Williams converted a key 4th and 2, all of which helped the Phoenix find their way to the end zone. Nam Le closed the drive with a dart to Drew Jefferson from three yards out.
Unfazed, Mountaineer quarterback Clint Trickett responded with an efficient drive of his own, completing 5 of 6 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown pass.
The Phoenix would take control of the game soon after that, as Le connected with Novak for his first career touchdown, and Trickett’s only interception of the afternoon set up another Le touchdown early in the second quarter – this one coming on a scamper from 22 yards out.
West Virginia’s Charles Sims would find his way into the end zone to cut the lead to 21-14, but the Mountaineers left too much time on the clock for California, which was able to send out Nguyen Le for a 30 yard field goal to close the half.
Le had accumulated 138 yards passing and three TDs at that point, as the Mountaineers proved unable to slow the Phoenix whatsoever, allowing 7 of 8 third down conversions in the first two quarters. Despite California’s struggles against Trickett, his one interception was responsible for most of the difference.
With Dana Holgorsen ripping into his team at halftime, West Virginia roared out with a vengeance, as Trickett opened things off with a toss to Jordan Thompson for 32 yards, and then later found six points with 36 rushing yards of his own. The junior from Tallahassee got fantastic blocking on his touchdown run, as no Phoenix defender got within 10 yards of him.
California’s next drive traveled all the way down to the West Virginia four yard line, but the Phoenix would come up empty-handed when a pass from Le to Novak was intercepted in the end zone.
Three plays later, West Virginia cashed in on the gift, as Charles Sims found 42 yards of open real estate – the senior hit a vicious cutback on the Phoenix defense to get to the second level, and though California safety Johnny Stovall had a shot at corralling the 6’0, 213 pound back, Sims burst right by him with ease, giving West Virginia a 28-24 lead late in the third quarter.
Head coach Walter White – who had expressed confidence in his defense all week – didn’t show any on the next drive, as he dialed back the tempo to a slow burn, hoping to score with as little time remaining as possible. Their offense now firmly grounded, California proceeded to run the ball on 13 of their next 14 plays, rolling up six first downs and taking the clock down to under two minutes.
A large majority of that success was due to Toyofuku – a pulled hamstring had the Long Beach Poly product unavailable for a large majority of the third quarter, but he returned with a vengeance in the fourth, and it was his scoring plunge from six yards out that gave the Phoenix a 31-28 lead with 1:50 to play.
“I’m a little sore but I should be good,” Toyofuku said after the game. “I was able to help the team in the 4th and that’s what matters most.”
Down by four, Trickett produced some last minute magic, moving West Virginia to the Cal 47 after just three plays. Though the Phoenix stiffened up enough to force a do-or-die 4th and 5, Trickett managed to convert anyway, lofting a pass down to Mario Alford on the right sideline to set up first and goal. Two plays later, he handed West Virginia a 35-31 lead, hitting junior receiver Kevin White in the end zone.
All in all, it was a masterful drive from Trickett, who was entirely at home in the moment.
The only problem was that the game was still not over – 24 ticks of game clock remained. The Phoenix would need all but one.
On a drive that some are already referring to as “The Flight”, Le dropped back from his own 25, calmly surveyed the field and tossed a 32 yard lob to Isaac Williams, who had somehow managed to get behind the defense.\
On the next play, Le would connect with Williams again, as the New Zealander took advantage of some soft coverage for 11 yards and immediately got out of bounds.
Yet, even after all that, California still found itself 33 yards from the end zone, and with only 14 seconds to make up the distance. A Le pass to Jermaine Gallagher changed all that, as the two connected for 22 yards on the right sideline, bringing the Phoenix down to the West Virginia 11 with eight seconds to go.
White opted to call his second timeout here, in order to talk things over with his freshman quarterback.
“I actually don’t think I had to tell him anything,” White said. “When I looked in his eyes during that timeout, I knew he was going to get it done. We sent out two calls for him to pick between, and he did the rest.”
The Phoenix would spread the field with five wide out of that timeout, trying to generate a mismatch or two. Le found one he liked, completing a pass to Novak, but the big wideout from Imperial, California couldn’t wriggle free and was tackled in bounds.
That forced White to call his third and final timeout. With just four seconds left, the Phoenix had only one more shot at the end zone.
White decided to dial up a play they had inserted during the bye week – “Flex Zero, Z-Motion Vortex”, which called for Williams to come from the far side of the field to the left slot and run a slant, crossing the face of any defenders. He was the primary option on the play, and Le never looked anywhere else, rifling the ball in right as Williams reached the goal line.
Touchdown, Phoenix. 37-35, 0:01 to play.
Despite racking up three catches for 56 yards on the final drive, Williams downplayed his performance afterwards: “I’m just trying to go out there and improve everyday. Not for myself, but for my team, so that when I get the chance to make a play and help win a game, I’m prepared to succeed. After that it’s easy.”
“Great team win today, and I think we’ve got big things in store if we can maintain our focus. It’s just one game at a time.”
Toyofuku, who set a career high with 107 yards on 15 carries, joked about wanting the game-winner for himself, but added: “If there’s one thing that we know about this team after two weeks, it’s that we never give up.”
“After last week, we knew that it would take everything we’ve got to come away with a win. Having [the FF] around me for so long helps a lot. We’ve been through a lot together and to see familiar faces out there during stressful situations, that goes a long way.”
“Once we got the ball back, I knew we could pull it off,” Toyofuku said. “It’s all about making the plays and we’ve been doing that for years. Big win for us today but now it’s time to focus on Week 3. We’re headed in the right direction, that’s for sure.”
Novak had 36 yards and a touchdown in his first week at his new position, but wasn’t particularly surprised at how the team played: “We had a solid week of practice and we really felt this was the time to make a statement.”
“Just a great, great team win today,” Le said, after his 22 of 30, 255 yard afternoon. “I got some great playcalls, my boys made plays. Shoot, if you think about it, I had the easy job.”
“We’re looking forward to starting conference play and to getting better next week. We’re still a long way from where we want to be.”
“But this isn’t a bad start,” the freshman grinned.