A 7-6 record and a Las Vegas Bowl win would qualify as a solid season in most places, especially when the team behind that record was in their first year of Pac-12 play.
California is not one of those places.
Indeed, despite some initial success in their new conference, the buzz around the team has been one of dissatisfaction all off-season.
Just ask quarterback Nam Le.
“We think we’re capable of more. A lot more. Coach White tells us that we’re building toward a winner, that winning is a process, but we think we’re ready to take the next step now,” the junior said, just weeks after breaking the school records for single season passing yardage and touchdowns.
“Look at how close we’ve played ranked teams last year — the last two years, really. Beat USC. Beat Oregon. Beat ASU. Beat WVU. Two points away from taking down No. 1 Ohio State, on the road,” Le ticked off in a pre-season interview. “We honestly don’t think we’re that far away from being an elite team. But the excuses for why we aren’t are over. If we’re going take that next step, it has to start this year, and it has to start with me.”
“We’re more mature and the tools are here, we just have to execute,” wide receiver Isaac Williams added.
Part of that dissatisfaction stems from a confidence that they are ready to take the next step, but another part of it comes from an underlying sense of urgency, as eligibility ticks down on the careers of the Fabtastic Four.
Williams and tight end Ethan Novak flirted with the NFL after their redshirt sophomore seasons, but both ultimately decided to return to California, despite fantastic 2015 statistics that boosted their draft stock — Williams finished with a school single-season record 86 receptions and over 1200 yards, while Novak finished 8th in the Mackey Award voting.
“When it came down to it, coming back was the right decision. Talking with my guys on the team, and our coaches made this clear,” Williams said after the game against Miami. “Right now, I’m not thinking about next year. It’s all about the here and now. And right now we’ve got visions of unprecedented success for this program.”
Still, with juniors Le and running back Josh Toyofuku now draft eligible themselves, 2015 could very well be the last season of the Fabtastic Four era Phoenix, and in turn, their last chance at their BCS Championship dreams.
Although none of them will admit it, there is likely why a sense of urgency that permeates the locker room and has underscored every offseason practice, why Le, Williams, Novak and Toyofuku have led the team more vocally and more intensely than we have seen in previous years.
It couldn’t have come at a better time, as the Phoenix are now starved for veteran presence, hit hard by graduations.
The new look California defense is headed by five new freshman starters at CB, LB and SS, and perhaps symbolically, not unlike the the one they recruited on offense two seasons ago.
Youth isn’t a dooming factor for any team, but for new Phoenix faces Jaemie Paraon, Kelsey Moty, Artem Romanov, Ben Yee and Ethan Yip, the transition from high school ball would be made much more difficult with the season opening No. 9 Miami, and an offense headed by 2014 Heisman finalist Duke Johnson.
To their credit, they came out and dominated, showing no signs of unease whatsoever — after Nam Le was picked off by a diving Hurricane defender to end the team’s opening drive, the young Phoenix defense immediately held Miami to a three and out.
With a second possession firmly in hand, the junior quarterback would play a near flawless game the rest of the way, and proceeded to open the scoring with a 41 yard touchdown strike to freshman wide receiver Isaac Wolf for a 7-0 lead.
“I was very nervous when I stepped out on the field for the first time because I’ve wanted to be a member of the Phoenix since I was 4,” Wolf said of his college debut and first touchdown, “but when kickoff came, I was like, time to play ball.”
Miami’s next drive would be another unsuccessful one, as freshman linebacker Artem Romanov sacked Preston Dewey — his first of two on the afternoon — for a six yard loss on first down, and free safety Donkerell Tillman came up with tight coverage twice, forcing a pass deflection, an incompletion, and a subsequent punt, all in that order.
Outside linebacker Romanov — who was converted from punter upon arriving on campus — was asked afterward on his 6 tackle, 2 sack performance, but responded: “Are those good numbers? I don’t know, I’m a punter. I was recruited as a punter, after all, and that’s really where my passion lies. So the transition to rush backer is a little jarring. It’s all really new to me, so mostly I just reacted.”
“Some things to work on, but [Ethan Yip] really kept us together out there,” he continued, giving the credit for his success to his fellow freshman linebacker. “All game he was pointing at the QB and saying “hit him” or pointing at my assignment and saying “cover him” after the playcall came in.”
The Hurricanes caught a break, though, when Le fumbled on a scramble for the goal line. That would give them the ball back down just 7-0, rather than 21-0 — the fumble would be California’s second red zone turnover of the game. They would proceed to move the chains several times away from their own end zone, but on 2nd down and 9 from the Miami 41, Dewey slipped trying to plant his feet and the subsequent floater was picked off by sophomore cornerback Willie Maddox.
That would begin to open the proverbial floodgates, so to speak — not more than two minutes later, Ethan Novak would be the prime beneficiary, as he would find the end zone for a touchdown, leaping up and snagging a pass from Le, despite being covered by two Miami defenders. A key 42 yard catch by Wolf helped make that touchdown possible — earlier in the drive, Le found himself scrambling out left and managed to hit the freshman from Oakland, California for a big gain anyway.
California would tack on a third touchdown when Le — who had completed 18 of 23 passes for 288 yards at that point — found Toyofuku for a 15 yard touchdown of his own, operating out of the famed Terio package for the 21-0 halftime lead and triggering a nation-wide Upset Alert.
Miami would come out of the half inspired a bit, making their way down to the Phoenix two yard line before throwing three straight incompletions. They would finally break through on fourth and goal, with Preston Dewey taking in a short touchdown run after Ethan Yip was unable to make the tackle.
That would be their only score of the game, though, as the new Phoenix defense proved too athletic, holding Dewey to 17 of 28 passing and 183 yards. The Hurricanes would have only 218 yards the entire game, with an abysmal 2 of 8 on third down to boot. Duke Johnson was held to less than 25 yards rushing himself.
A four quarter touchdown pass to backup running back Adam Monroe would finish the scoring, but it was never as close as the 28-7 final indicated. Three California turnovers from inside the red zone made it look much more competitive than it actually was.
“We’ve got to work on that,” Coach Walter White admitted in his postgame press conference. “Miami’s a good team, and we played well, but there’s a long way to go for this bunch.”
Romanov was less impressed with the Hurricanes, muttering afterwards: “All this hooplah about them being #9, too, like that means something. Nine ain’t one. This ain’t The Wire.”
Still, it was a happy, albeit focused, mood in the Phoenix locker room following the season opening victory.
“Winning against Miami was a big win for everyone involved in our program. Miami is a high profile team so any time you can take them down in front of your own fans is a special moment, especially for a program as young as ours. But to us here in the locker room, it’s just another game that we’re glad we won,” Toyofuku said.
For their efforts, they were rewarded with the first AP poll appearance in school history, cracking the ranks of the ranked at No. 19.
“Getting into the polls is a good start,” Toyofuku continued. “The goal is a championship. That’s what we want and that’s what we’re working for.”
Williams was even more professional about it, dismissing the number entirely.
“The only ranking that matters is the one that we see in January. Talk to us about ranking then.”
Le – 26-35, 367 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT, 15 carries, 87 yards, fumble
Toyofuku – 16 carries, 107 yards, 3 rec, 31 yards, TD
Williams – 8 catches, 111 yards
Wolf – 6 catches, 125 yards, TD
Novak – 5 catches, 72 yards, TD
Romanov – 6 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks
Paraon – 6 tackles, 1 TFL
Moty – 3 tackles
Yee – 2 tackles, 2 PD.