RENO, Nev.-Conventional wisdom says that you don't bring a knife to a gunfight.
On Friday, under the spotlight of national television and against Nevada's pistol, the Cal football team showed up with a letter-opener, falling 52-31 in front of 28,809 at Mackay Stadium.
"No, no, altitude has got nothing to do with it; they get all the credit," said Bears head coach Jeff Tedford. "We didn't coach and play well enough. Period. It's got nothing to do with travel or short week or altitude or rankings or any of that other stuff. I'll just answer all those questions right off the get-go. It's got nothing to do with any of that. They outplayed us. Period."
Without emotional leader Mike Mohamed on defense, Cal (2-1) quickly fell behind to a relentless Nevada offense, giving up a 12-play, 80-yard drive ending in a TD strike from Colin Kaepernick to Tray Session on the first series of the game.
"We didn't get them out," said defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "We didn't get them out on third down as much as we would have liked, the quarterback made some very good throws when he stood in the pocket and was able to keep some drives alive, not only on third-and-short, where they converted in the running game, but on a third-and-long that they got that was critical in that first half."
It only got worse from there, as the Wolf Pack manhandled the No. 24 Bears on offense while Cal floundered against what wide receiver Marvin Jones termed a "vanilla" defense.
"They definitely didn't do anything to surprise us," Jones said. "They're very vanilla with their defense, and they did all the rotations and coverages that we expected. We shot ourselves in the foot on a couple of drives."
The offense moved the ball consistently through the night, gaining 502 total yards to Nevada's 497, but when it counted, the Bears couldn't capitalize. Even with Jones having a career-high 12 catches and 161 yards, and Shane Vereen setting a career-high with 198 yards on 19 carries and three scores, the offense couldn't convert.
"If I could take back the catches for a win, I'd do that, but obviously, things happen for a reason," Jones said. "We lost in all three phases of the game. I'm glad that I got a career-high, but I wish we could have had a win."
The dagger was a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown by Marlon Johnson early in the second half, a momentum-killing play that was the perfect encapsulation of senior quarterback Kevin Riley's night, right after he directed a six-play, 80-yard scoring drive for the Bears followed by a three-and-out defensive stand against Nevada.
"We moved the ball in the first half, and the times we didn't move the ball, it was on us," Riley said. "A missed block, a missed play by me. At the start of the second half, that first drive when we went down and scored easy, that second drive was that pick-six. That was really just the game-changer. It was a complete momentum-shift.
On second-and-10 at the Nevada 37, Riley made a bad read on a pass to Alex Lagemann, and the ball landed right in the hands of Johnson.
"I rushed the play," Riley said. "I was changing the play at the line and saw the clock going down and tried to make a quick hitch, and the guy just completely jumped it and it was a good play by him, a bad play by me. He got a good jump on it and I tried to force it in there. It should never happen.
"Even after that, we went down the field, got in the red zone and we've just got to put some points on the board when we get in the red zone," Riley said. "We still would have been in that game if we had those next two drives, which got in the red zone and didn't score."
Riley was on the run most of the night, but that wasn't his only problem. He regularly missed wide-open receivers downfield by five yards or more, seeing his passes sail in the thin air.
"There was some unfortunate stuff, there were definitely some points in the game where we should have capitalized on our opportunities and we'd shoot ourselves in the foot," Jones said. "It's just a team loss. We lost as a family. We came in the game as a family and we lost as a family."
Riley was sacked twice on two consecutive plays and threw a total of three picks to just one touchdown.
"It was definitely not their defense capitalizing," Jones said. "The only thing that beat us, was ourselves. I don't think it was their defense. They showed no new formations that we would have to adjust to. They were very vanilla, and it was definitely not their defense."
Looking at Riley's stat line, he otherwise would seem to have had a good game. He went 23-for-37 for 277 yards. But his decision-making was far from what one would expect out of a senior quarterback. After the third pick, Riley and Tedford had a little heart-to-heart on the sideline.
"He asked me what I was doing, and I said 'I obviously forced the damned ball,'" Riley said. "We were down three tugs and the backer was there and I was still trying to put it on there and force it. We're down 21. Obviously you don't do that in a game. You're down 21 with a minute thirty left and I just forced it."
It didn't take long-with 5:24 left in the first half-for the Wolf Pack faithful to start the "over-rated" chant. After the pick six in the third quarter, those chants only got louder. Each time Cal would build momentum, they would commit a foolish penalty or make a key mistake. The Bears caused three fumbles, but only recovered one.
In the middle of the fourth quarter, the Bears got a 22-yard kickoff return from Jeremy Ross and marched down the field to the Nevada eight-yard line. On third-and-6, Riley sailed a ball over wide receiver Keenan Allen, then, on the next play, was called for a delay of game penalty while trying to change the call at the line.
"I tried to rush up and I was going up under center, about to throw a fade, tried to get the snap off real quick, thought I had plenty of time, and I just clicked it and you saw," Riley said. "When you're throwing a fade at the six-yard line, it's a lot easier to just take a step drop from under center than being in gun."
The defense suffered early from the offense's inability to sustain drives, as the Wolf Pack owned the time of possession by an eight-minute margin in the first half.
"Offensively, we beat ourselves," said Vereen. "We're going to go back and look at the tape and probably beat ourselves in the face, because there were a lot of plays to be made out there."
During a media timeout in the second quarter, shortly following that drive, ESPN's cameras focused in on a despondent Cameron Jordan, Ernest Owusu and Trevor Guyton sat on the Cal bench and looked blankly at each other. Down 14-7 at that point, the Bears already looked flat and tired.
"I thought the guys tried all week to simulate (the pistol), but it's just so different, so unconventional, so different and they run it with such precision," Tedford said. "The quarterback has been playing in it for a long time, and he's excellent at what he does, and when he's on throwing the ball, as well, I don't think he was off-target very much throwing the ball tonight, either. He played about as good a game as you can play. We give them a lot of credit for that."
Nevada tailback Vai Taua rushed for 152 yards on 25 carries, while Kaepernick ran for 149 on 17, and even defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast had no answer to the zone-read option of the pistol offense.
"We had a pretty good feel of what they were going to do coming in to the football game, and they ran their offense; they did the things they like to do and were successful doing that," said Pendergast."
Cal tacklers were regularly in the Nevada backfield, but tackling the wrong player. Several times Kaepernick was able to completely befuddle the defense and pop out into the open field, gaining 86 yards on the ground in the first half alone.
"I knew, with the speed of the game, it would take a series or two for the guys to settle down, to get a feel for the speed of the game because it is hard to simulate in practice, but our offense gave us a good look during the course of the week, so we just didn't get it done early in the ballgame," Pendergast said. "We had some situations during the course of the game where we created some negative plays on first down, but couldn't continue that, successfully enough, on second down."
When Kaepernick did settle in to pass, he was incredibly precise, going 10-for-15 for 181 yards and two touchdowns-most of that in the first half.
"We're just going to forget this," Jones said. "Obviously, it's going to be in the back of our minds, but, in order for us to be successful we have to move on to the next one. On a more serious note, we have Pac-10 play. I think we're going to respond well and we have a great defense and they had a whacky offense, so I'm not too worried about Pac-10 play."