California had been snubbed for a BCS berth, as Mack Brown successfully plead his case that the Longhorns belonged in the Rose Bowl. The Golden Bears had every right to be upset, having only lost to a #1 USC team on the year. The Texas Tech season had featured some very real highs and lows, twice posting 70 points in blowout wins over TCU and Nebraska, but also suffering close losses to A&M and New Mexico that left a sour taste in the mouths of Red Raider fans. It was anyone’s guess which team would show up in the Holiday Bowl, but few gave Tech a chance to compete in the game either way.
This California roster was wildly talented, led by Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Arrington, and Marshawn Lynch. Two of those names need no introduction given their storied NFL careers, but Arrington was an absolute monster in college. He would finish the 2004 season with over 2,000 rushing yards, rushing for 100-plus yards in every single game. Arrington also led the country in yards per carrying and outrushed Adrian Peterson on the season. Eye-popping statistics aside, it says enough that he kept Marshawn Lynch on the sidelines as the team’s primary back.
Texas Tech had a pair of talented backs of its own in Taurean Henderson and Johnnie Mack, who combined for 1640 all-purpose yards and 26 touchdowns in 2004. The passing game was led by current Tech offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie, and the receiving corps was a balanced group of Jarrett Hicks, Trey Haverty, Nehemiah Glover, and Cody Fuller. The offensive line was one of the best units to ever suit up for the Red Raiders, and this Tech defense that finished the year ranked 46th in total defense was among the better groups of the 2000s.
California would receive the opening kickoff and tried a reverse that didn’t fool the Red Raider coverage unit. The Golden Bears started at their own 11 and would muster only one first down before punting. Tech’s opening possession began with a good field position at the 41, and Sonny Cumbie and the Red Raider offense would capitalize. Jarrett Hicks was heavily featured on the opening drive and made a contested catch in the end zone for the game’s opening score. Tech found itself up 7-0 early.
California began to put together a nice drive with the two-headed monster of Arrington and Lynch at running back, but Tech’s defense held at midfield to force a punt. The punt and a penalty pinned Tech deep near its own end zone, and Glover couldn’t quite get to the sticks on 3rd and long. After a punt, the Golden Bears found themselves with a short field and took advantage of it just as the Red Raiders did earlier. The scoring drive to tie it up at 7-all was entirely J.J. Arrington, who extended on a very close play at the goal line, but did score just before Tech stripped the ball away.
Tech’s ensuing drive came down to a 3rd and 1, and Brandone Mebane, who would go on to an 18-year NFL career, busted through the line to stuff Johnnie Mack in the backfield on 3rd and 1 and force a punt. A few nice runs by Arrington put California in the red zone, and Marshawn Lynch punched in the TD to give the Golden Bears their first lead at 14-7. California would light up Mack on the following kickoff, and momentum was theirs. Trey Haverty made a great catch over his shoulder during the drive, but Leach perhaps got a bit too cute in the red zone with fade passes near the goal line and Tech settled for the FG.
Things looked as if they might turn into the runaway Cal victory most predicted as they held a 14-10 lead and began to drive down the field. However, a California receiver would have a pass bounce off of his hands directly into the grip of a waiting Vincent Meeks, who caught in on the run and took it 50 yards the other way. Cumbie trotted onto the field very nearly in the red zone already and found Jarrett Hicks on a short slant for Hicks’ second TD of the game. Tech retook the lead at 17-14 and recaptured the momentum in a big way.
J.J. Arrington carried the Golden Bears to midfield, and Aaron Rodgers went for the big play on a rollout bomb. It was slightly underthrown, and Meeks made a good recovery to deflect the pass in the end zone and force a punt. Cumbie ended up with the ball on his own 10 and decided to take a shot of his own to speedy young Joel Filani. The pass was on the money and Filani brought it in, but a heads-up play by a California defensive back tuned Tech cheers into groans as the Golden Bears punched out the football from behind and recovered to spoil Tech’s big play.
The Red Raider defense would rise to the occasion as Keyunta Dawson tackled Rodgers on third down for a three-and-out and a punt. Trey Haverty ran a wheel route along the right sideline and a beautiful touch throw from Cumbie hit him in stride. Haverty very nearly took it the distance, but barely stepped out of bounds on the California side of midfield. Cody Fuller found a seam over the middle for a first down, and it was the Taurean Henderson show from there. Henderson put his versatility on display as he ran for a first down, caught a pass, and then slipped in for the touchdown to put Tech ahead 24-14.
The Red Raider defense really started to assert itself and appeared to strip Rodgers for a fumble, but it was called incomplete. Still, Dawson would come up big again on a tackle for loss in the open field on J.J. Arrington, which was no small feat. The Golden Bears punted again, and with time running out in the first half, Cumbie barely overthrew Fuller on a deep post that would have gone the distance. Tech got into position to heave one towards the end zone as time expired, but it fell harmlessly out of bounds and Tech led 24-14 at halftime.
Cumbie and Leach had spotted a tendency by the California safeties to creep up to try and take away Tech’s short passing game. Haverty, Fuller, and Filani had all managed to get behind the Golden Bears defense in the first half, but none of the plays went for the big-play touchdown. Tech worked the short field for a few first downs and then found Filani again deep over the middle and there would be no catching him this time. The Red Raider sideline exploded along with the 60-yard touchdown, and Tech began tasting victory with a 31-14 lead.
California was intent on answering the score. Arrington, Lynch, and Rodgers marched down the field in a hurry, but the Tech secondary came through in the red zone with a few nice defensive plays to hold them to a Field Goal. Tech saw its lead shrink to ten points, and it appeared that California had gotten a stop on the next drive. However, a roughing the passer penalty extended Tech’s drive, and Johnnie Mack ripped off a pair of nice runs to put Tech’s lead to 38-17.
Both offenses would stall on their next possessions. California was getting near to desperation mode. Aaron Rodgers started slinging it and posted a quick scoring drive to close the gap to 38-24 as the fourth quarter began. Tech had a two-score lead and started trying to burn clock, and the Golden Bears got a stop, but again made a critical error on a roughing the punter penalty that put Tech’s offense back on the field. The Red Raiders would miss a long FG on the drive but burned another two minutes-plus off the clock.
Time was running out on California with under nine minutes and counting, and Keyunta Dawson came up big again with a sack on third down to force the punt. Tech got the football back with 6:36 on the clock. The announcers were aghast that Leach continued to throw the ball instead of the “conventional wisdom” of the day, but Tech moved the ball steadily down the field. The Red Raiders did find themselves in no man’s land on a 4th and 6 and tossed a fade to Haverty, who stepped out at the 1-yard line.
Taurean Henderson effectively ended the game with a rushing touchdown to put Tech up 45-24 with only 2:36 left in the game. The Golden Bears would tack on a meaningless score at the end, and the clock ran out. The Red Raiders pulled the huge upset in a decisive fashion for a 45-31 win. It was a breakout game for Joel Filani. Sonny Cumbie’s Tech playing career ended on a very high note with a 520-yard, three-touchdown day. The 2005 Tech team would take the momentum and post an impressive season.
Aaron Rodgers’ draft stock took a massive hit as he nearly fell out of the first round, but he would obviously find plenty of success in the NFL, as would several California players from this team. The Red Raiders were unquestionably the better team than a quality Golden Bears squad on this day and made a statement that Tech and the Air Raid were a force to be reckoned with. Cumbie and Filani continue to make an impact at Tech as coaches to this day, but they and all of Red Raider nation had quite the holiday in 2004.