Somehow, they managed to do it – powered by youth and potential, held back by those same qualities the Phoenix met the six win requirement for bowl qualification in their first year, and even exceeded it by finishing 7-5.
Not bad for a squad expected to flounder in the bottom of the Sun Belt.
“We’re proud of our accomplishments this season,” California head coach Walter White said to the 58 reporters attending the pre-bowl media session. “Not satisfied, but proud. Extremely proud. Missing a guy like Williams for five games, being as young as we are? No question. We are damned proud.”
“But let me make this clear – we’re not ‘ahead of schedule’,” White said sharply, responding to a suggestion that the Phoenix had beaten the timetable for improvement. “The schedule says win now. Not win later. Never has.”
Their record earned them a trip to Texas for the Heart of Dallas Bowl, where they would be matched up with a slumping but immensely dangerous Michigan team. Despite finishing a disappointing 6-6 after Big Ten play, the Wolverines remained huge favorites in the weeks before the game.
Though some of it was simply posturing and intimidation toward the first time bowl-goers, many UM players seemed to express a genuine displeasure for facing the Phoenix, as it meant playing yet another overmatched opponent and a trip to Dallas, rather than vastly preferred locations like Glendale or Pasadena.
“What conference they play in again?” Jeremy Gallon’s personal Twitter account read. “#PHOENIXDOWN”
“Yo, @JeremyG, their fastest corner runs a 4.6…you thinking what I’m thinking? #bombsallday #goblue”, tight end Jake Butt added.
Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was among the more vocal ones, wondering aloud if California had simply lucked in: “West Virginia ain’t that good anyway… the other six wins? Two against FCS, middle of nowhere schools? Pft. Who have these guys even played?”
“Fabtastic Four,” he scoffed disdainfully. “That shit is disrespectful to us. Chris Webber. Jalen Rose. Those guys were Fab.”
“Le? Novak? Who do they think they are?”
Those words only stoked the fires of the Phoenix, who were ordered by Coach White not to respond publically to petty taunting.
Instead, they seethed silently, counting down the moments to kickoff, when they could prove their worthiness to the blue and winged Goliaths.
Though the odds remained long, California had a secret weapon to sic on the Wolverines – one that stood 6’2, 218 pounds, to be exact.
Star wide receiver Isaac Williams, rehabbing maniacally since he suffered a torn bicep against Texas State, had secretly been cleared to return for the Michigan game, news made public only to a select few. Williams’ availability had been a hot topic of speculation by all, but the team was able to keep his status under wraps until kickoff, even having him warmup indoors, instead of on the field with the rest of the team.
“Oh, no question, Dub coming back was a big deal. That’s my dude, right there. I’ve been throwing to him since I was ten. Of course it made a difference,” Le said. “You saw him out there.”
“When I saw the 14 coming out the tunnel, I was caught off guard, man. I live with him and he didn’t tell me he was going to play. But he looked me in the eye right at kickoff and said he was ready to ball, so we did.”
Williams played “awesome“, Le said. “He coulda had 250 today, if I had played better.”
But the school record was once again not to be, as Williams finished with 8 catches for a game high 116 yards. Of his performance, the wideout said that it felt “good to come out and have success on the field again.”
The game started well enough for California – after an opening drive where the Wolverines gashed their way into the red zone, they managed to hold and force three consecutive losses. The resulting Michigan field goal left them behind only 3-0, rather than 7-0.
When the Phoenix received their first possession of the game, the lanky New Zealand native announced his presence in a hurry, receiving an 18 yard hook-up from Le, although it would be Novak who actually touched paydirt, scoring the game’s first touchdown on a 37 yard reception.
The two teams would trade interceptions after that – Bellomy to Slade Leonard, Le right back to Michigan safety Thomas Gordon. Michigan would convert that latter pick into points, as Bellomy marched down the field and threw a two yard pass to Gallon for six, giving Maize and Blue a 10-7 lead.
California got the ball back with 2:16 to go in the half and made their way down to the Michigan 14 yard line with two seconds to play, but rather than take a field goal and the points, Coach White elected to go for it on fourth down.
“We were getting the ball to start the third. I thought we could get a lead and knock them out,” White said of his decision.
It turned out to be the wrong one – Le rolled out right and tried to find an open receiver, only to see Gordon swat his pass down incomplete. The score would stay 10-7, and remained the same after California’s next drive went nowhere.
With 3:40 to go in the third, Michigan’s Amara Darboh would haul in a lob from Bellomy at the back of the endzone for a 17-7 lead, and though Phoenix running back Tre Brunner would answer with a touchdown run from three yards out, the Wolverines would keep it at 24-14 after Derrick Green burst off left tackle for a score of his own.
That made it desperation time for the Phoenix, who trailed by two scores with less than a quarter to play. The comeback started with a furious 10 play, 76 yard drive, which ended with Jovon Bain diving across the plane of the goal line. Le completed passes of 5, 11 and 22 yards to Williams, and another 16 yard one to Novak to help California close within four.
Then, Coach White made his second ridiculously gutsy decision of the game, opting to go for two. “I didn’t want to go to overtime,” he said of his choice. “Really, I didn’t have a doubt we would win in regulation.”
This time, the dice roll paid off, with Le finding Novak safely in the right flat for the two point conversion and cutting the Michigan lead to 24-22.
The game now rested in the hands of the Phoenix defense, much maligned all season and one of the worst in the country. For California to pull it off, they would have to figure out how to stop Bellomy, who had thrown only one incompletion all game – the interception to Slade Leonard.
They never really did, but it didn’t matter. Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges did a fine enough job of that on his own, handicapping the Wolverines by calling only 14 passes on the afternoon, despite Bellomy continuing to shred the Phoenix wing from wing.
When Bellomy’s pass to Gallon left Michigan two yards short of a game-clinching first down, the Phoenix had the opening they needed, getting the ball back with 1:47 to play, down 24-22.
Before the Phoenix took the field for what would be the final drive of the game, Le gathered his teammates in the huddle, uttering a few words of motivation.
“I told the guys that [Michigan] shouldn’t have given us back the ball,” he recalled later. “Told em that we were going to saddle up and trot on home with the W. Texas style.”
And just as it had against West Virginia, so it began again – the Phoenix, down to their last lives, soared down the field without a hitch, behind Le’s precision passing and several Jovon Bain zone reads. They would reach the Michigan 18 yard line before sending kicker Nguyen Le on the field to take the biggest field goal of his young career.
With Michigan now out of options, head coach Brady Hoke attempted to ice the younger Le, calling three timeouts in a row to stall the kick.
When the Phoenix took the field after the final timeout, four minutes had elapsed – four more minutes to think through the kick itself. Four more minutes to succumb to the pressure of the moment and the hopes of victory that now rested on Nguyen’s right toe.
Four minutes wasted.
The try was true, the uprights split, and the upset, secured – the Phoenix had emerged 25-24 winners, as bedlam broke out around them.
Le – the quarterback, not the kicker – made a mad dash for his brother and tackled him at the Wolverine 40, with the other Fabtastic Four members right behind. They would celebrate with their teammates in a frenzy for several minutes – delirious, tired, but jubilant – before finally returning to the locker room.
“We don’t pay much attention to what the other team is saying. We do our thing, stay focused, and the results are there. The scoreboard can talk for us,” Williams said after toppling the favored Blue.
Free safety Zach Church, who was named the game’s defensive MVP with nine tackles and a sack, had this to say afterwards: “We heard all the talk about the defense struggling. We hear all of that, we know what people think. But when our backs are against the wall, we step up and get the job done. Michigan found that out.”
“We really wanted to come out and win this one for Josh, man.” said Le, wearing a Heart of Dallas Winner hat. “For him to carry us all year and not be able to play in the bowl just sucks, so at least we were able to do that last part.”
“We’re going to celebrate a bit, but we’ll be back to work before long. This isn’t the final goal. We want to be having this press conference after a win in January in a year or two.”
“This is just the beginning,” Novak chimed in response.
With all four returning next season, and another highly coveted recruiting class just two years down the road, who could doubt him?
Le: 22 of 37, 321 yards, one touchdown, one interception
Williams: 8 catches, 116 yards
Novak: 5 catches, 107 yards, touchdown