TUCSON, Ariz. -- Some people see beauty in the desert. Others consider it a bleak, barely livable heatscape. It hasn't been a preferred destination of the Cal football team -- at least not Tucson, and not during the Jeff Tedford era.
The Bears have suffered growing pains (a 52-41 loss in 2002). They've been deflowered of their Rose Bowl aspirations (a 24-20 loss in 2006). They left here two years ago reeling from a quarterback quandary (both Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley played poorly in a 42-27 bushwhacking).
Saturday night came a spirit-crusher beyond anything they had experienced before, at least in terms of a single game, a deflating final 2:37 and a from-the-heart effort gone unrewarded.
For until that final 2:37, Cal had done to Arizona what Arizona has typically done to Cal in those confounding, often redefining games here. The Bears changed the discussion. They carried the fight. They performed unspeakable acts upon the conventional wisdom.
In the end, the conventional wisdom would not be denied. Cal kicker Giorgio Tavecchio misfired on what would have been a clinching 40-yard field goal. Incidental, it seemed.
The heretofore inert Arizona offense took over with 2:37 to play and 77 yards away from the game-winning touchdown. A pipe dream, it seemed.
Then came a 51-yard pass from quarterback Nick Foles to Juron Criner over Cal's Darian Hagan, who had defended everything thrown his way all night long. Three plays later the Wildcats were in the end zone. The obligatory extra point gave them a 10-9 win that was not about to wash off in the postgame shower.
It spoiled a perfectly good story -- a coming-of-age effort by the Cal defense.
You had money on that, right? That Cal's defense, shredded in its previous game for 497 yards by Nevada's bearded-lady pistol offense, would frustrate a real offense in a real conference game?
The Wildcats came into Saturday's game averaging 42 points and 457 yards with a no-huddle attack that rarely gives bystanders -- which often include members of the opposing defense -- a chance to breathe. They hit Cal with the full arsenal -- weakside pitches, inside screens, deep throws, liberal doses of Keola Antolin.
Nothing worked, at least more than once. Foles even tried an improvised left-handed pass under duress from a helmetless Cameron Jordan. The pass fell incomplete, which was about the best outcome he could have hoped for. But the Wildcats were penalized for a personal foul on tackle Phillip Garcia, whose hands to the face rendered Jordan a hatless horseman.
Brainless penalties were a game-long problem for Arizona, causing head coach Mike Stoops to fly into his patented vein-popping rages, directed at officials, his own players or both. But they weren't the only problem.
Turnovers hurt, and here Cal had a hand in the dysfunction. Foles was strip-sacked by Jordan, which set up the first of three Tavecchio field goals. That left the 'Cats, who hadn't trailed at any point in their first three games (hard to believe with an early-season schedule that included powerhouses Toledo and The Citadel), found themselves looking up at a 3-0 deficit early in the second quarter.
Foles was intercepted by Chris Conte in the end zone, snuffing the Wildcats' lone legitimate scoring chance in the first half.
Jordan and Conte were difference-makers for Cal. So was Hagan. Defensive back Bryant Nnabuife, who was conspicuously and repeatedly flummoxed by Nevada, broke up a pass and blew up a pitch to Antolin that resulted in a loss of 7 yards.
It wasn't elegant stuff. But it was highly effective.
It was bottom-line, play-it-safe football (and Tedford did indeed play it safe on his team's final two drives), doing what you had to do no matter how it looked in high definition. It came within 71 seconds of working like a charm.
Riley completed just enough passes. Running back Shane Vereen finished off just enough tough runs, especially during what looked for all the world like a game-clinching drive that ended with the second of two Tavecchio misses.
The Bears had the ghosts of Tucson on notice. They just couldn't finish the exorcism.
Oh, some day what happened here Saturday night may pay off for Cal. If the Bears can play gritty, determined, disciplined defense once, they can do it again, right?
Then again, maybe there's nothing to be learned from their visits to this arid slice of misery, other than every out-of-towner winds up feeling the heat, one way or another.
Contact Gary Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.