Unfortunately for the Golden Bears, it all went downhill after the opening kickoff.
Stefphon Jefferson ran for 145 yards and scored his third touchdown with 36 seconds remaining as Nevada spoiled the reopening of Memorial Stadium by beating California 31-24 on Saturday.
“These guys played hard the whole game,” Nevada coach Chris Ault said. “To be real blunt with you, we kept them in the game with our own mistakes. I’m just real proud of these guys. You never know if you can fight adversity until you see it, and they did.”
Cody Fajardo completed 25 of 32 passes for 230 yards and added 97 yards rushing and a touchdown for the Wolf Pack (1-0), who put a damper on what was supposed to be a joyous day for the Bears in their first on-campus game in 21 months.
The Bears looked as though they may escape with merely just a scare as they came back to tie the game at 24-24, but with just over three minutes remaining in the game, the Wolf Pack found itself right where it wanted to be.
“We practice last drives every day,” Ault said. “We said ‘This is it. Three minutes. We have to hold on to the ball. We have to score. We have to make it happen. I thought Cody Fajardo was just outstanding.”
Fajardo engineered the winning drive by throwing a 14-yard pass to Zach Sudfeld on third-and-4 from the Cal 38 and a 19-yarder to Brandon Wimberly that set up Jefferson's winning score.
"It was dreamlike," Fajardo said. "You can only think about having the ball with two minutes left and driving down and scoring. You can only dream of that, and it became a reality for us."
Cal QB Zach Maynard returned after being benched for the first three series, a punishment for missing a tutoring session earlier this summer, to throw for 247 yards and two touchdowns for Cal (0-1). But he also lost a fumble deep in Nevada territory in the fourth quarter as the Bears lost at home to Nevada for the second time in 25 tries and first since 1903.
"I told everybody to keep their heads up," Maynard said. "Everybody is pretty down. We worked so hard to get this far. To come home and get a loss is pretty tough."
The Wolf Pack had beaten Cal just once before winning 52-31 two years ago at home behind star quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Fajardo was nearly as effective in this game. Fajardo helped Nevada break out to a 14-0 lead after the first quarter and then led three second-half scoring drives to give the Wolf Pack the win.
Cal appeared to seize the momentum in the third quarter when Keenan Allen answered Jefferson's second touchdown run with an elusive 39-yard score on a reverse.
Khalid Wooten fumbled the ensuing kickoff, but Cal had to settle for a field goal by Vincenzo D'Amato that cut the lead to 21-17. Maynard then fumbled at the Nevada 21 at the end of a scramble early in the fourth quarter.
The Bears did tie the game later in the fourth on a 13-yard TD pass to Chris Harper but could never take the lead.
"He threw some good balls but then there are some open guys we have to hit," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "It was an average day for Zach. I think he' sbetter than the way he played today."
The day got off to a festive start as Cal held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to reopen Memorial Stadium, which underwent a $321 million seismic retrofit and renovation. The Bears returned home after playing last season's games across the bay at the San Francisco Giants home of AT&T Park.
Highlights of the facility include a new outdoor plaza, luxury suites and press box and a refurbished Romanesque facade from the original 1923 structure. Everything but the outer facade and the seating bowl on the east side of the stadium was rebuilt from the ground up to make the stadium, which rests on an earthquake fault running almost directly between the goal posts, safer and more modern.
There wasn't much to celebrate early for the sellout crowd of 63,186 as the offense sputtered behind backup Allan Bridgford, who completed one of his seven passes and the defense once again struggled against Nevada's pistol offense.
Fajardo converted on fourth-and-inches on Nevada's second drive to set up Jefferson's2-yard TD run and then went 49 yards on a keeper on the final play of the first quarter to make it 14-0.
Maynard led the Bears to a score on his third drive in the game, connecting on a37-yard TD pass to freshman Bryce Treggs but D'Amato missed a 31-yard field goal wide left in final minute of half as Cal went to the half down 14-7.
Nevada broke a stretch of bad luck in season openers on the road. Going into Saturday’s opener at Cal, Nevada was 0-for-13 in season openers on the road. The Pack’s last season-opening win on the road was 1987 when the Pack won at Eastern Washington, 40-26. The win marked the Pack’s fifth victory over a BCS school and third since the start of the 2010 season. The Wolf Pack beat Washington in 2003, Northwestern in 2006, Cal in 2010 and Boston College in 2010. Nevada will have another opportunity next week when South Florida of the Big East comes to Mackay Stadium.