By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY, CA– Turnovers, and a porous run defense spelled doom in Cal’s season finale against UCLA.
And in there, engaged to the end, trying to navigate the hosts through a portal to overcome a late deficit was Joe Starkey, on his final call as the voice of Golden Bears football.
All for naught, and on this rare Friday afternoon of football, not a bonanza.
The Bears embraced their opportunity to soften a rough season with consecutive wins at its conclusion but couldn’t seal the deal. Cal led 21-10 before halftime and regained a 28-27 lead with 11:16 remaining. But UCLA’s 352 yards rushing on a relentless 64 attempts simply wore Cal down.
“It was a heartbreaking loss. We had plenty of opportunities,” coach Justin Wilcox said.
After both aforementioned leads, UCLA simply looked to senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson along with their run game to get back into the game and got quick results.
With just 58 seconds to work with before halftime, Thompson-Robinson led the Bruins on a five-play touchdown drive to get within 21-17. The fifth-year senior handled the final 19 yards on an aborted pass play that ended with him motoring to the end zone.
Trailing by one in the fourth quarter, the Bruins needed ten plays to take the lead for good, with half of the plays either a Thompson-Robinson run or completed pass. The ensuing two-point conversion–a Thompson-Robinson pass to Jake Bobo–gave the Bruins a 35-28 lead with 7:53 remaining.
“We were a little frustrated, a little teed off. We’re a lot better football team than that,” Thompson-Robinson said of the two deficits the visitors faced. “But again, the resiliency and ability to fix those things. We’ve got a bunch of smart football players out on that field.”
The Bears saw success throwing on the Bruins along the boundaries to their productive receivers, Jeremiah Hunter and J. Michael Sturdivant. Hunter had a big afternoon with eight catches, 153 yards, and two scores. Conversely, Cal couldn’t sustain its success passing with a subpar 3 of 10 on third down conversions.
“We knew it was a game of third downs, then taking some shots,” Wilcox said in commending his interim play calling team that directed the offense to a 361-yard output.
The Bruins dwarfed that with their 541-yard total and a significant edge in time of possession. If nothing else, that differential paved the way for a very, tired final seven minutes for the Bears in which they failed to threaten UCLA’s lead. When Cal regained possession with two minutes left, they ran just four plays and saw freshman Jaydn Ott fumble after gaining enough yardage for a first down.
The Bruins recovered and ran out the clock, forcing the Bears to exhaust their remaining two timeouts.
Cal finished 4-8 with just two Pac-12 victories in nine opportunities. That means changes are inevitable beyond those made during the season as Wilcox tried everything to pump up his lackluster offense without success.
“You’ve got to look at the positives,” senior safety Daniel Scott said. “We played a lot of close games. It’s just the small details that cost us some games.”
Jack Plummer’s decision to return or not will likely be the first of numerous ones that will hopefully result in the program getting back on track. If Plummer does return, he’ll be challenged by sophomore quarterback Kai Millner.
Starkey concluded a stellar, 48-year run as the radio voice of Cal football that began in 1975. For years, Starkey assumed the arduous task of broadcasting Cal and 49ers football each weekend, which finally took its toll. Still, the versatile broadcaster kept both teams going, as he was at the mike for all five 49ers’ Super Bowl victories.
“Very emotional. I’ve been there for a very long time,” Starkey, 81, said after leaving the microphone for the last time. “We’ve gone to some wonderful places. I’ve done college games, for God’s sake, for Cal in Tokyo and Australia. What a way to spend a life.”