The Story of the 2015 California Phoenix: Chapters Two and Three – A Ranked Rivalry Game

I apparently lost the data for game two, which was a big, blowout win over Eastern Michigan. My apologies. The Phoenix won. Get over it.

Life at California is decidedly different, now that the Phoenix (2-0, No. 16 AP) have risen into the top 25 for the first time.

Don’t expect them to admit that, though.

“Other teams might pay attention to us a little more as we get more respect in the polls, but we keep doing our thing either way. It’s the only way we know how to do things,” wide receiver Isaac Williams insisted.

Running back Josh Toyofuku agreed, adding that if teams think more highly of the Phoenix, “that’s on them.”

“It doesn’t change our game plan and neither does being ranked. We know there might be a bigger target on our backs but it’s up to us to keep executing.”

Still, there is a clear contrast to the way things were just two years ago, before the arrival of the Fabtastic Four. The students now pack the Emmanuel Lawson Swaggerdome eagerly, never leaving games early and filling the stadiums long before kickoff, when they once rarely even decided to show up — and for their first home date with hated rival Stanford in 28 years, the denizens of the Bird Cage were clearly ready and prepared.

They would have plenty to cheer about just two minutes into the game, as Nam Le commanded a 7 play scoring drive, completing all five of his passes before capping it off with a 3 yard handoff to Toyofuku for a 7-0 lead. Such a sequence has become routine to the Phoenix faithful in recent seasons — California almost always opts to receive first, trusting their offense to get things in gear.

More often than not, they do.

Stanford would have some success moving the ball on the subsequent drive, but was forced to punt when freshman linebacker Kelsey Moty nailed Devin Cajuste short of the first down.

With the ball back in their possession, the Phoenix would proceed to pick up a second score, courtesy of a new schematic wrinkle. Heavily utilizing a three running back backfield on their next drive, the newly minted “Fawkes” formation allowed California to pick up 68 yards on three carries, with gains of 24 and 8 by Toyofuku, and a 36 yard option keeper by Le.

“We put in the Fawkes package this week because we thought it would be a good way to keep the ball in Josh and [backup running back Adam Monroe’s] hands. Whatever guy they choose to stop, the other one will have the ball in space,” head coach Walter White explained. “Will we keep at it? Probably. If run right, we don’t think a lot of teams have the personnel to stop it, and then if they bring a safety down, Nam will just chuck it over the top.”

Le would finish the drive on a connection with Williams from 13 yards out to put the Phoenix up two scores.

With the Red and White already on the verge of being knock out by their northern neighbors, Cardinal running back Remound Wright answered the bell, somehow finding 64 yards of real estate on a carry off left tackle, the longest allowed by California all season. That would close the deficit to a much more manageable 14-7, in favor of the Phoenix.

The two teams would trade touchdowns after that — Kevin Hogan would connect with Kodi Whitfield, and Le again with Williams — to keep the seven point margin intact, and although California had a chance to score again before halftime, Toyofuku was unable to crack the end zone on two tries.

It was 21-14 entering the second half, but it did not remain that way for long, as the Cardinal ate up 76 yards in 8 plays, tying things up behind a short Barry Sanders Jr. touchdown run. Sanders Jr., who only entered the game after Wright was knocked out on a vicious hit by Jaemie Paraon, would finish the game with 24 yards on 9 carries.

Apparently undaunted by the Cardinal comeback, the Phoenix would come right back with another touchdown, courtesy of a short touchdown run by Adam Monroe, giving them the lead again at 28-21 with :23 seconds to play in the 3rd quarter.

Stanford receiver Kelsey Young would take the ensuing kickoff 65 yards to set up great field position for the Cardinal, who were looking to tie it up again at 28. Phoenix linebacker Ethan Yip had other plans, flying into the backfield for a 3rd down sack of Hogan and ending the drive prematurely.The 6’2 freshman from San Francisco, California would punctuate that loss with some exaggerated, pelvic thrusting theatrics, earning himself an earful later on the sideline.

“I was ecstatic about it,” Yip said of his first sack, grinning sheeplishly afterwards. “I’m really looking forward to being a bigger part of the squad.”

With a chance to effectively lock up the game, though, Le would commit a cardinal sin of quarterbacking, throwing an interception to Stanford cornerback Ronnie Harris on a very ill advised pass — his intended target slipped and fell on the route, but the pass itself was also severely underthrown, giving the Cardinal a chance to tie it back up, which they eventually did, thanks to a second touchdown by Barry Sanders Jr.

The Phoenix would take over again on their next drive with 3:58 to go, which was more than enough time for a march downfield with the Fawkes formation. Rashaud Heard, Toyofuku and Monroe all touched the ball on California’s final scoring drive, which Monroe finished with a four yard trot off right tackle.

Stanford would have one last chance after that, but a key stop by Kelsey Moty and a sack of Hogan on 4th down would end it at 35-28.

Much virtual press has been written of the Fabtastic Four — and they were indeed Fabtastic again in this one — but California’s five freshmen on defense were at the heart of this victory, combining for 17 tackles (4 for loss) and a sack, providing just enough production to secure the win.

“We knew that we would impact the program immediately, no doubt,” Yip said. “We also know that we can’t take this start for granted and have to keep working.”

Linebacker Kelsey Moty had this to say about the defense, after her team leading seven tackles: “I am really impressed with how cohesive this unit has become. We knew coming into this year with so many young faces that if we wanted to do well, we would have to put in a lot hours at practice.”

“I am excited to see what the rest of this season brings us.”

Beating Stanford holds a special place in the hearts of Phoenix, despite it being only their second game against the Cardinal in nearly three decades. The team spent nearly 15 minutes on the field afterwards, celebrating in front of the student section to raucous cheering.

Tight end Ethan Novak, who has largely declined media appearances this season, called it “one of [his] favorite games of [his] career.”
“We played together so well and really came together as a team. I’m proud as hell to be a Phoenix right now.”

“It’s only week 3, but whenever you play a longtime rival like Stanford, it’s a big game, for sure. Everyone tries a little harder,” Paraon said, adding that “I think there are a lot of people who still doubt that the we belong in the Pac-12 Conference, but going forward, I think wins like this one will go a long way in proving that we, the California Phoenix, are here to stay.”

Toyofuku, on the 35-28 win, the second consecutive for the Phoenix: “Nam and Isaac [Williams] had a really great day out there and the rest of us were able to rally off of their energy. It was a good team win and they led the way.”
Statistics:

Le – 22-of-27, 278, 2 TD, 1 INT, 10 carries, 59 yards, 1 TD

Toyofuku – 19 carries, 83 yards, 1 TD

Williams – 9 catches, 93 yards, 2 TDs

Novak – 6 catches, 85 yards

Wolf – 6 catches, 95 yards

Moty – 7 tackles (2 TFL)

Paraon – 6 tackles (2 TFL)

Yip – 1 tackle, 1 sack

Romanov, Yee – 3 combined tackles

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