Ross Bowers had his first-start nerves knocked right out of him.
In the closing minutes of Saturday’s second quarter, junior defensive tackle Jalen Dalton caught Bowers with a late helmet-to-helmet hit.
Dalton was ejected. Bowers was just getting started.
“I’m really glad he hit me high, because that gave us a lot of momentum,” Bowers said. “… After that targeting hit, there were no more butterflies.”
Cal’s sophomore quarterback dusted himself off, threw a 67-yard touchdown pass on the next play and went on to lead the Bears to a surprising 35-30 victory over North Carolina in the teams’ season-opener at Kenan Stadium.
Bowers, who won a four-man competition to be Cal’s starting quarterback, finished 24-of-38 for 363 yards and four touchdowns, engineering an impressive victory to kick off the Justin Wilcox era and to start what is expected to be a grueling trek through the toughest schedule in college football.
Four of Cal’s opponents were ranked in the preseason top 25 and six played in bowl games last season, including North Carolina. The Tar Heels won 19 games in the previous two seasons, were nearly two-touchdown favorites Saturday and had a 17-7 lead in the final two minutes of the second quarter.
That’s when Bowers sparked a well-rounded offense that got touchdowns from five players — none of whom is named Tre Watson or Demetris Robertson. In what could become a staple of the culture instilled by Wilcox in his first head-coaching job, Cal made its biggest plays when momentum was headed in the wrong direction.
“When you look at the big picture of the game, the battling back just constantly showed up in different ways, shapes and forms,” Wilcox said. “… I’m just so proud of our sideline, because never at one moment of the game did the offense, the defense, a player, a coach or anybody stand up and look for somebody to blame.
“They just battled the whole time.”
They battled back from down 10 points to take a 21-17 lead. They picked up huge fourth-down conversions when North Carolina was trying to regain momentum, and they never flinched when mistakes were made.
Bowers’ second interception was returned 73 yards by Andre Smith to set up a 4-yard touchdown that gave North Carolina a 24-21 lead with two minutes left in the third quarter.
Cal came right back with its most impressive sequence of the day, converting two fourth downs during an 11-play, 75-yard drive. Bowers capped his redemption series with a 20-yard touchdown strike to Jordan Duncan that put the Bears on top 28-24.
“I’m a person that thrives off of adversity, so when that happened, and especially when it’s your fault, you better make up for it,” Bowers said. “I just stuck to what I know, my training and my coaching. I didn’t get ahead of that or try to do anything different. …
“After that second pick, I knew I had to play mistake-free football. That was the last bad throw I could have all game.”
Bowers spread the ball around in his first start, completing passes to 10 teammates. Vic Wharton III had five catches for 156 yards, including the 67-yarder, and Watson tallied 84 yards from scrimmage (52 rushing and 32 receiving).
Dealing with a cross-country flight and game that started at 9:20 a.m. (Pacific), the defense seemed undaunted in limiting North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora’s up-tempo, spread offense to 221 passing yards. The Bears had two interceptions and recovered a fumble.
Senior inside linebacker Devante Downs led the way with 13 tackles, an interception and the fumble recovery, and Quentin Tartabull, Camryn Bynum and Cameron Goode combined for 22 tackles.
It was a dramatic change under the defensive-minded Wilcox, who helped teams to a 150-58 record and 14 bowl appearances in 16 seasons as a college assistant. Last year’s Bears finished among the nation’s bottom five in a handful of defensive stats.
The coaches “have established a new culture at Cal, and it’s the players’ jobs to keep upholding it, take it as far as we can and police ourselves,” Bowers said. “They brought us together closer as brothers. I feel so much more connected to my teammates and just a deeper love for my guys, the grind and the process.
“If you buy in, it’s a fun process.”
Rusty Simmons is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron
Trailing 24-21 early in the fourth quarter and facing a 4th-and-1 on the North Carolina 38, Cal eschewed both a field-goal attempt and the ground game and instead had Ross Bowers throw a pass to 285-pound junior fullback Malik McMorris in the flat. McMorris broke a couple tackles before being brought down on the 20; on the next play Bowers found Jordan Duncan in the end zone to give the Bears a lead they would never relinquish.
#1 Alabama 24 #3 Florida St. 7
#11 Michigan 33, #17 Florida 17
#4 USC 49, W. Michigan 31
Maryland 51, #23 Texas 41
College football roundup, B8