The Story of the 2013 California Phoenix: Chapters Three, Four and Five – A Trio of FCS Schools

Three weeks have passed since we last checked in on the California Phoenix, and against all odds, they have somehow made it halfway to bowl qualification – in their first year of FBS competition.

The Phoenix began their run of FCS opponents with a visit from Charleston Southern [no, this isn’t their name in the game, but I took some creative liberties. Sue me.] They would emerge victorious by the score of 20-17 – again, on the final play of the game – courtesy of a 30 yard field goal from Nguyen Le as time ran out. Despite being bottled up for three quarters, Phoenix running back Josh Toyofuku emerged in full clutchness, helping California drain all but one second off the clock before the field goa l– he had totaled 8 yards on 7 carries, but ended up finishing with 13 for 56 on the day, thanks to runs of 21, 8, 2, 3, 4 and 6 yards on that final possession.

“It was a tough game for me,” Toyofuku said afterwards. “I could still feel last week’s injury but as the game went on and I loosened up, I felt better. I’m just happy that I could help the team out and that we got the win. Phoenix up!”

At the end of the Charleston Southern game, Toyofuku wouldn’t be the only one with a strong effort — quarterback Nam Le completed over 70% of his passes, going 15 of 20 for 254 yards and two touchdowns, with 139 of those going directly to his favorite targets, Isaac Williams (4-39) and Ethan Novak (4-90). It could have been an even better day, had the Phoenix not failed twice in the red zone.

Novak set a career high with his 90 receiving yards, including a 61 yarder on the game’s opening drive, where he snatched a ball up the seam but was eventually chased down from behind.

“We watched the tape and we knew these guys would be tough,” he said of his efforts. “I’m just glad I was able to help us get the W. Feels good.”

Week four’s matchup against North Dakota State didn’t prove nearly as successful, though, as the Phoenix were surprisingly walloped at home, 45-21. The beating was so thorough that the Bird Cage was entirely empty by the third quarter.

California’s afternoon was disastrous from the start, and only got worse — on the second play from scrimmage, Bison linebacker Aaron Johnson snagged an errant option pitch from Le and took it back to the house, putting NDSU up 7-0 just 12 seconds into the game.

They would double that lead when Le threw an interception on the next drive and Terrell Johnson hooked up with Derrell Thompson for a 16 yard scoring strike with 2:53 to go in the first. Another interception by Le and a 4th and goal pass batted down in the end zone helped give the Bison a 24-6 halftime lead.

Coming out of the half, the story got no better, as Jeremy Porter caught Johnson’s third scoring pass of the day, shaking off three different Phoenix defenders on his way to the end zone. Still lacking athletes on the defensive side of the ball, they proved unable to slow Johnson even slightly.

“Give them credit, their quarterback played well, and ours didn’t,” Coach White said afterwards. Rubbing his hand on his forehead again, he continued: “I’m proud that the boys rallied back at the end, but this type of effort won’t cut it in the Sun Belt, Orion’s belt, or your mother’s belt.”

Le’s three touchdowns and 316 passing yards would make the final margin look a bit more palatable, but it was never really that close. Indeed, it was anything but, as the Phoenix, went 1-7 on third down, committed three crippling turnovers and allowed a season high 183 yards rushing on 24 carries.

“We’ve got to get better on both sides of the ball,” White said, pounding his fist on the podium for emphasis.

Perhaps understandably, California players were not made available for comment after the NDSU loss. Williams was spotted in tears on his way out of the locker room.

But improve they did, as they rolled out and eventually demolished their third FCS opponent, in-state rival Cal Poly by a 35-14 final. Helped by some Cal Poly miscues — the Mustangs missed two field goals that led to 14 California points — the Phoenix were able to cruise relatively easily. Before a last drive touchdown, they held quarterback Bryan Henry to just 139 yards on 16 of 22 passing, and outside of some occasional trouble with the option, did a fantastic job on that side of the ball. Le passed for a season low 175 yards, but he wasn’t needed, really – California received excellent field position courtesy of their defense and Toyofuku’s 98 yards and two touchdowns would be enough to seal the win. His 29 yard score on the final play of the game was simply icing on the cake.

“We felt like Josh had earned the last carry, and our philosophy is to play til the final whistle. We don’t believe in kneeldowns,” Coach White explained.

With five games now in the books, we have a much better sense of the Phoenix (3-2) than we first did against the likes of Clemson and West Virginia – this is a team with a serious future on the offensive side of the ball, but still regularly deals with the inconsistency of youth. Red zone inefficiency and ill-timed turnovers are familiar bugaboos for the Phoenix, as Le has rarely gone without an interception this season.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a problem,” Le said after week five. “I’m in charge of the offense, so that falls on me. We can’t run the offense without the ball, and when I turn it over, I’m not giving us a chance to win.”

These last few weeks have given rise to some other speculation about the Phoenix, who could be on their way out of the Sun Belt, according to sources within the program. California’s rapid rise has made them the darling of college football, and the school is hoping to parlay that into a bigger payday next season..

When asked about the team’s potential move to a larger conference in 2014, Coach White played coy, choosing to redirect all questions to California AD Robert Quicksand instead. 

“I don’t know anything about that.”

Needless to say, we’ll have more on that situation as it develops – the current rumors have them switching places with Mississippi State in the SEC.

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