In the last chapter of this story, we left the upstart Phoenix with a 3-2 record, halfway to bowl qualification in their first season.
They would resume that quest in their sixth game, a matchup against the Trojans of Troy that would mark their Sun Belt debut. It did not go well, as the Phoenix fell at home 35-21, an inauspicious first game in conference play, to say the least.
Troy quarterback Corey Robertson dominated a shaky California pass defense to the tune of 10 of 10 passing for 192 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, and finished with 295 when it was all over. His competition on the other side of the field, true freshman Nam Le committed three turnovers — two interceptions and a fumble — that ultimately doomed the Phoenix in their win attempt, one of which occurred down at the goal line.
In fact, goal line struggles were the story for this one, as the Phoenix reached the Troy 20 six times, but came away with only two touchdowns, two field goals, and two failed drives. They could have used the points, to say the least, dropping to 3-3 because they could not find more scores.
“That falls on me,” Le said after the game. “The coaches have trusted me with the offense, and for me to be so inconsistent and so unsuccessful means that I failed us. It’ll be better next week. I’m not giving up.”
Le kept his promise the following week, as the Phoenix offense finally soared once again, dropping 39 points in a victory over a hapless Western Kentucky squad. The freshman from San Francisco, California was a large part of that, completing 26 of 37 for 327 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions.
Josh Toyofuku chipped in 77 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, but he wasn’t the only productive member of the Fabtastic Four, as Isaac Williams and Ethan Novak combined for 224 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 17 catches of their own.
The Phoenix actually trailed 25-18 late in the third quarter until Toyofuku punched it in from 24 yards out to tie things up. That would jumpstart things, though, as Phoenix cornerback Slade Leonard would intercept a pass, resulting in California’s first forced turnover in five games. A Nam Le connection to Al Coe would then make it 32-25, and though Western Kentucky had one more shot with two minutes to play, back to back sacks by Jamezon Cutler and Devron Pressley would force a do or die 4th and 11, and then end it.
Staying true to their philosophy to never quit a game early, Williams would score a touchdown on the final play of the game for the 39-25 margin.
Afterwards, the Phoenix all attributed their sudden rise in productivity to a new package installed during the week of practice, which the Fabtastic Four dubbed: “Terio.” The formation, which consists of Toyofuku in the right slot, flanked by both Williams and Novak to his right, puts all three Fabtastic skill players right next to each other and forcing defenses to compensate for the overload.
“We want them to choose wrong. They can’t cover all three guys effectively,” Le explained.
As for the name?
“We call it that because we switch to it when we’re tryna kill opponents,” Le said, doing the famous dance at the press conference to underscore his point. “Ooh. Killed em.” The other three, seated just down the row, began guffawing loudly at Le’s imitation.
That 39-25 win would restore some good vibes and push the Phoenix to 4-3 on the year, with a visit from Texas State to follow.
It was there that California took their offense to new heights, rattling the Bird Cage with touchdown after touchdown, on their way to eight in total — six of which came on the ground. Toyofuku, Le and backup running back Jovon Bain each saw the end zone twice, with Le throwing for two more scores through the air.
Unveiled during the later stages of the Western Kentucky game, the Terio package was fully unleashed throughout the game against the Bobcats, and it helped Williams roll up eight catches for a career high 186 yards by the third quarter, leaving him just shy of a school record.
Unfortunately, he never got a chance to go for it, as Williams was hit badly going across the middle for his final catch of the afternoon. Clutching his right arm, the freshman wideout was unable to get up for several minutes and was tended to by the training staff, while the other members of the Fabtastic Four waited around him worriedly. Finally, as he was able to walk off with some help, Williams flashed a smile on his way to the locker room, but grimaced with each step.
Shortly after that, he returned from to the field with his pads off and a team warmup jacket on his shoulders instead, looking slightly despondent.
The locker room diagnosis: a torn bicep muscle that would keep him out ten weeks, giving him an outside shot to return for a bowl game, if that.
“It was a tough play, but I knew it was bad right away,” Williams said hoarsely afterwards, his arm in a black sling. “And clearly it is as bad as it could have been.”
“I’m glad I was able to help out my team and make some plays before the injury. I know those guys will persevere,” he continued, visibly choked up. “and guys will step up. They have throughout this season and will continue to do so. I have the utmost faith in this program.”
With Williams out of action, tight end Ethan Novak would step up in his place, snagging six passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns of his own.
“The offense was really starting to hit it’s stride, so losing I-Dub definitely hurts,” Novak said. “But we have a lot of guys that can make plays. We’ll be able to hold down the fort for a few weeks. Great win today. Phoenix up, baby!”
Texas State would end up scoring 35 points in total, but it was never really that close, as they could not slow the 5-3 Phoenix at all. California would pick up 622 yards of total offense, with Le setting a new career high by throwing for 393 of those yards.
There were two more interceptions for the freshman, but that didn’t seem to bother head coach Walter White.
“Nam is a risk taker. Sometimes that means he’s going to make mistakes. I don’t mind it always, as long as he’s still making enough plays to put us in a position to win.”
“I think he did that today,” White said.