BOULDER, Colo. -- Cal ventured into the thin air of the Rockies and would not leave until it had created a distinction between the team it has been and the one it longs to be.
Consider that goal achieved in a manner as if scripted.
Cal's 36-33 overtime win over Colorado on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon at Folsom Field offered just about everything the Golden Bears could possibly need to remain humble while becoming capable.
They led most of the game, fell behind late, pulled ahead again, surrendered a tying field goal in the final minute and put themselves in an awful predicament in OT -- only to summon enough pluck and composure to earn the victory.
The Bears allowed 582 total yards, giving quarterback Tyler Hansen enough time to pass for a Colorado-record 474, with wide receiver Paul Richardson snagging 11 balls for 284 yards.
Cal not only trailed in time of possession but also finished with fewer passing yards, fewer rushing yards, fewer first downs, fewer sacks, more dropped passes and more turnovers than Colorado.
There were so many flirtations with disaster, so many signs of impending defeat. With all the moments of anxiety or discomfort, this was precisely the kind of game in which the Bears of recent vintage have tended to collapse.
"We actually had a couple games like this last year that we didn't find ways to win," defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast conceded.
Yet these Bears never folded and, really, never looked as if they were inclined to give up. They stole a victory, flat-out, and mostly by sheer force and will.
"It wasn't pretty," said tight end Anthony Miller, who caught two touchdowns passes from quarterback Zach Maynard, "but we got it."
And they got it on the road, where they had lost 16 of their last 24.
Coming off a 5-7 season, where most lessons were accompanied with defeat, the Bears (2-0) on this day learned a hard lesson without leaving flesh on the turf.
They are good enough to win, if they stay focused on that. They are quite vulnerable and very much a work in progress.
They also are in position to benefit from this potential team-building exercise.
"To go up and then have them go back up and in a seesaw game like that, I still believe our guys are going to make plays," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "Our guys continued to fight and (do) all things we talked about. It validates everything that we've been working for and believe in."
If that sounds like a coach in rebuilding mode, it is. Maynard is a junior but new to Cal. Tedford continues to experiment while seeking the right combination at running back; junior Isi Sofele is a change-of-pace back masquerading as a full-timer.
What rescues this offense, above all, is the chemistry between Maynard and his half-brother, sophomore wideout Keenan Allen.
Their numbers Saturday were solid. Maynard completed 18 of 35 for 243 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Allen caught five passes for 97 yards. But it's during moments of offensive inertia that their seemingly telepathic connection, honed from playing catch as young boys, injects life into the unit.
Facing a first-and-30 situation from the Colorado 35, trailing 33-30, Maynard zipped a 32-yard pass to Allen. Two plays later, Allen beat cornerback Parker Orms on a 5-yard fade route for the game winner.
"We've been playing together for so long, it's kind of natural," Maynard said. "But we needed to get this kind of experience, especially on the road. We needed to win a game like this."
And it was, to be sure, an offense-engineered win. Cal's defense came into the game focused on Hansen, Richardson and running back Rodney Stewart. They contained Stewart's rushing but surrendered 86 yards on seven passes.
As for Hansen and Richardson, the Bears simply failed in their mission. While Hansen, never sacked, had enough time to take photos of the mountains in the background, several defensive backs took turns being abused by Richardson.
"We couldn't stop him," cornerback Marc Anthony said of the wideout.
Contact Monte Poole at email@example.com.