BERKELEY, Calif. (AP)—It took a career day by a backup running back, a fluke tackle by a kicker and an odd penalty that thwarted a potential go-ahead drive for California to pull out a victory without star tailback Jahvid Best.
Shane Vereen scored on a 61-yard run immediately after an illegal forward pass knocked Arizona out of position for a potential game-winning field goal, and the Golden Bears went on to a 24-16 victory over the 18th-ranked Wildcats on Saturday.
“Everyone had No. 4 in their heads all game,” Vereen said of Best. “He was riding with us and we needed to pick him up.”
Best gave the Bears (7-3, 4-3) an emotional boost with his presence on the sideline and participation in the coin toss as an honorary captain just a week after being carried off this same field on a stretcher following a scary concussion.
But it took much more than that to beat the Wildcats (6-3, 4-2). Giorgio Tavecchio kicked four field goals, giving Cal (7-3, 4-3) an 18-16 lead with a 22-yarder with 4:46 remaining.
That’s when things really got interesting.
Travis Cobb took the ensuing kickoff and looked like he was going to take it back a long way before Tavecchio somehow managed to trip him up at the 38. Coach Jeff Tedford said Tavecchio might be the team’s worst tackler, making the play even more improbable.
“I just remember him cutting inside and I don’t why, I kind of stuck my foot out,” said Tavecchio, who needed stitches in his right leg after the tackle. “It must have been a reflex from my soccer days. I felt contact and looked behind me and the guy was on the ground. I got up and was like, ‘Was that me?’ It’s a dream. I’ve never tackled anyone before. It was a quirky play that resulted in something decent.”
Cal needed another quirky play soon after. Arizona drove the ball down to the Cal 25 and was in position to kick a go-ahead field goal with less than 2 minutes left. Then on third-and-3, Nick Foles’ pass was batted by defensive lineman Tyson Alualu. The ball went right back to Foles, who instead of letting it drop, caught it at the 34 and tried to throw again.
“It was just a bad mistake by me,” Foles said. “Everything happened so fast.”
So instead of fourth down at the 25, Arizona was backed all the way up to the 39 with the 5-yard penalty from the spot of the foul and the loss of down. With no chance at a field goal, Foles threw an incomplete pass on fourth down, giving Cal the ball.
“It’s one of the rules from Day 1 for quarterbacks—never catch a batted pass,” offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes said. “He knows he can’t throw two forward passes on the same play. He just saw the ball and was trying to make a play. He made a mistake.”
The Wildcats can still clinch a Rose Bowl berth by winning their final three games against Oregon, Arizona State and USC, but they now have no margin for error.
“We have to win next week,” coach Mike Stoops said. “That’ll put us back in a good position. That’s all we can really look forward to, getting on the field next weekend.”
After Arizona turned it over on downs, Vereen ran it in on the next play, giving him a career-high 159 yards on 30 carries on a day where he had to shoulder all of the running load while his close friend Best could only watch.
Vereen, who had “JB” under his right eye and “4” under his left, said Best gave him advice each time he came to the sideline.
“Shane was a workhorse today,” Tedford said. “I’ve said numerous times how fortunate we are to have two quality running backs and two great kids who support one another and are equally capable of big plays at any time. He really rose to the occasion today.”
Foles, who completed 25 of 41 passes for 201 yards, gave Arizona a 16-15 lead on an 8-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Simmons with 12:26 to go.
Tedford stuck to the ground after watching Kevin Riley throw two interceptions earlier in the half. Cal ran on 10 of 12 plays to move the ball from its 23 to the 5, setting up Tavecchio’s short field goal.
Riley was 13 for 22 for 181 yards, throwing a 27-yard touchdown pass to Verran Tucker in the third quarter after a 14-yard punt by Keenyn Crier.
Arizona was also without its starting running back as Nic Grigsby has been slowed by a shoulder injury. Keola Antolin ran for 78 yards on 19 carries, scoring a touchdown and losing a fumble that helped set up a field goal for Cal.