By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY — If you’re a California Golden Bear, only one word applies: agonizing.
After eight consecutive Big Game losses to Stanford, the Cal Bears envisioned a new day, a portal in which they could charge through and disconnect the dominance the hated Cardinal had come to possess.
Just one problem: Cal’s offense needed to provide a touchdown (or two) to wrap the whole bundle in a tidy, holiday bow. Instead, they filled Memorial Stadium with missed opportunities.
Three possessions ending in a punt to start the game, two more of those to start the second half, a pair of passes picked off in spectacular fashion by Stanford’s Paulson Adebo, a fumble and a missed field goal. Throughout, the Cal offense teased, but didn’t produce.
A lot of action between the 20’s but no finishes, which added up to six points in a 23-13 loss that felt more lopsided before and after a cosmetic Cal touchdown in the game’s final 30 seconds.
“We had a lot of missed opportunities,” said quarterback Chase Garbers. “It hurts, but we have one more game to play, so we can’t keep ourselves down on this loss. We have to focus on the next game.”
The Bears had to feel confident coming in as the gap between the teams has narrowed. The Cardinal uncharacteristically lost four of five mid-season, while the Bears entered with a stretch of four wins in five games. The Butte County fires provided an extra week of preparation, and the game was now nicely positioned as a regular season-ending home game.
But underlying the whole, comfy setup was the fact that everyone in the Bay Area with a television and access to a local newspaper knew the Cal offense is lacking, beset by defections at the receiver spots, injuries along the offensive line, and inexperience at quarterback. On Saturday, Stanford knew best and proceeded accordingly.
“We needed our defense to pick us up, which they did,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “We got two red zone stops and forced them to kick two field goals early on. The second half was all about the defense. We got a lot of stops and really stifled their running game. Paulson Adebo made two unbelievable interceptions.”
The 10-0 Stanford lead earned in the game’s first 11 minutes may have been Shaw’s most significant get. Capped by Cameron Scarlett’s 46-yard touchdown dash, the early lead put the pressure squarely on the Bears while allowing the Cardinal to settle into their preferred, conservative offense approach.
For the remaining three quarters, Stanford’s offense played to its strengths, running Bryce Love and throwing the ball to leaping marvel, JJ Arcega-Whiteside. They avoided for the most part running plays in the middle of the field where Cal’s duo of Evan Weaver and Jordan Kunaszyk awaited.
Still, Cal’s defense made plays, and once again single-handedly kept the entire team within striking distance.
But that fell apart, on three consecutive Cal possessions in which Garbers’ deep ball was misthrown and picked in the end zone, Greg Thomas missed a 36-yard that would have cut Stanford’s lead to 13-9, and Adebo picked Garbers again.
That stretch left Cal trailing 23-6 with 2:27 remaining, and their seemingly game-long quest to produce one touchdown, was now a quest to produce two touchdowns and a field goal.
“We know that Stanford is a heck of a program,” Wilcox summarized. “They’ve been winning for a long time and we have a lot of respect for their coaches and the way they play. Each and every week we are trying to improve, and that means winning. At the end of the day, it means winning. That’s what it’s all about.”