Berkeley, Calif. — It was another one of “those games.”
A game where several “What if?” plays could have made the difference.
A game where the MSU football team had a chance to tie the game with less than a minute to go.
And, of course, it was a game where the Spartans came “this close,” only to come up short once again, as they fell 38-31 to California in the 2008 season opener.
“Even with all the mental mistakes, we still only lost — again — by a touchdown,” said senior running back Javon Ringer, who rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns. “I’m hoping we don’t go through that whole thing we did last year.”
At the mention of last year, and the eighth consecutive MSU loss of seven points or less dating back to 2006, Ringer let his emotions go on the state of his team’s close, but no cigar style.
“I’m tired of that,” Ringer said. “I’m not going through the same old as last year where every game was a close game and when we lost we were like, ‘OK guys, we were right in it,’ — I’m tired of that, we need to win.”
Regardless of the mounting frustration, the Spartans were once again in the game the entire way, but had to play catch-up from the opening quarter after a mistake on special teams.
With MSU backed down to its own 10-yard line, the Spartans were forced to punt as sophomore Aaron Bates lined up near the end zone. Cal’s Brett Johnson streaked through the right side to block the punt as Bryant Nnabuife picked up the ball and ran it in for the early lead.
“We cannot beat ourselves,” MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said. “It was a bad snap on the punt — it wasn’t something they did — it was a bad snap. Sometimes early in the season those things happen. We missed a field goal too, that’s 10 points … when those things happen, it’s tough to rebound.”
After holding Cal to a field goal two series later, the Spartans finally got on the board when senior safety Otis Wiley picked off Cal backup quarterback Nate Longshore for the second time in the game and raced 31 yards into the end zone to make the score 10-7.
The Bears continued to make MSU play catch-up as running back Jahvid Best capped a 69-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run to extend Cal’s lead to 17-7.
After ending its final series of the first half with an interception inside Cal’s 10-yard line, MSU sophomore safety Jesse Johnson blocked a punt on Cal’s first series of the second half. Junior linebacker Brandon Denson recovered the loose ball and the Spartans handed the ball off to Ringer four straight times before the senior back scored on a 1-yard run to make the score 17-14.
Once again, the Bears got a big play to put themselves deep into MSU territory, when a 42-yard hookup between Cal quarterback Kevin Riley and Sean Young put Cal on MSU’s 6-yard line. Two plays later, Riley found Cameron Morrah in the front of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown to put Cal back up 24-14.
“I feel like we played tough,” senior quarterback Brian Hoyer said of constently playing from behind. “I get sick of this losing by seven stuff, but we just have to keep coming back and keeping fighting and that’s what we did.”
The high-scoring affair continued as Ringer finished off a 97-yard drive with a 10-yard run to bring the score within three after the PAT, with MSU down 24-21 with 10:45 remaining.
Another Cal touchdown and a field goal by MSU junior kicker Brett Swenson made the score 31-24 with 4:38 minutes remaining, but Cal running back Shane Vereen streaked down the field for an 81-yard touchdown run on the first play of the series to put the Bears up 38-24.
Hoyer followed with a 29-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Mark Dell, who had nine catches for 202 yards, to cut the Bears’ lead to 38-31 with 3:09 remaining.
“For him to go through those two guys and make that catch was huge,” said Hoyer, who completed 20-of-48 passes for 326 yards with one touchdown and one interception. “That really kept us going and if he doesn’t catch that who knows if we get in the end zone and get a chance to win it at the end.”
Cal kept to the ground game and picked up a first down with less than three minutes remaining, but MSU finally forced the Bears to punt with 48 seconds remaining. Hoyer and Dell hooked up for a 21-yard completion to bring MSU to the 50-yard line with 40 seconds to go, but four consecutive incompletions ended MSU’s hopes to send the game into overtime.
The Bears ran out the clock as they moved their home record to 23-4 in their last 27 games at Memorial Stadium.
“It’s definitely a big disappointment starting the season 0-1 — that is not the way we really to start the season and not the expectation that we had coming in,” Ringer said. “It didn’t end up that way, there’s nothing we can do, we just have to learn from it and see the mistakes we did and go over it tomorrow.”