By Morris Phillips
The 116th Big Game needed to be Cal’s last stand, their final opportunity—win or lose–to show that their football program was headed in the right direction with major improvement coming in 2014.
Instead, the Bears suffered the worst loss in Big Game history, allowing a Stanford-record 42 points in the first half alone. Combined with Oregon’s loss to Arizona, Cal found itself trapped in the Cardinal’s big moment with nowhere to go until the final horn sounded.
Talk about a violent manner in which to swing an Axe. According to Coach Sonny Dykes, his program is currently under reconstruction, in large part due to what transpired on Saturday at Stanford Stadium.
“Actually, we’re going to learn how to pick up our locker room. We’re… going to learn how to go class. We’re going to fix our graduation rates, graduate. We are going to appreciate being a Cal student, be supportive of other Cal students. We’re going to get faster, stronger in the weight room. We’re going to get bigger and improve our diet. We’re going to be more committed to getting sleep, rest, recovery. We’re going to learn how to play on offense and defense,” Dykes said.
Less than a year after accepting the job at Berkeley, Dykes admitted that he’s starting over. And typically, that means there’s nowhere to go but up. But when you hit rock bottom this hard, typical doesn’t apply. When asked who among his staff would return next season, Dykes was brutally honest.
“I’ll take a look at it all,” Dykes said. “I can’t guarantee I’ll be back next season.”
Given the millions of dollars invested in Dykes, former coach Jeff Tedford and the rebuilt Memorial Stadium, don’t expect Dykes to go anywhere but back to work. Cal can’t afford to start over like they did in 2001 when Tom Holmoe was shown the door after a one-win season. In fact, Dykes said that process would begin soon after the bus ride back to Berkeley, saying that it couldn’t wait until Sunday afternoon or Monday to commence.
The Bears came into Saturday’s game knowing that Stanford’s physical attack could embarrass them as it had other opponents. So Dykes and the Cal defense loaded up to stop to run only to see Stanford take to the air and take advantage of the Bears’ young secondary. The transition for the Cardinal was seamless as star receiver Ty Montgomery racked up five touchdowns and the Stanford offense over 600 yards.
The highlights—seen by far more than the 50,000 in the stadium and those that sat through the broadcast buried deep in the recesses of expanded cable—were noticeable for the lengthy plays produced by Stanford with Cal players trailing in their wake. Not only has Cal sunk this low, but at the same time, hated rival Stanford has reached its zenith, possibly on its way to back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances, and all of that was neatly summed up in a brief video package of Cal quarterback Jared Goff taking hits and Montgomery running into the end zone.
When you take into account that 17 and 18-year olds have short attention spans, watch television and are impressionable, you start to get a sense of what a win-win the whole afternoon was for Stanford, and just the opposite for Cal.
First, Dykes and the Bears have to learn from their mistakes and improve. The Cal depth chart this season was littered with inexperienced first-and-second year players even before numerous injuries robbed the team of its veteran players. In a Pac-12 conference that’s bigger than it’s ever been and likely more talent-heavy than it’s ever been, the combination proved to be pure disaster for Cal.
In addition, Dykes’ Bear Raid system is a high-risk operation with its spread sets and frequent passing. But it’s not anything new to opposing coaches and defenses. Repeatedly, those defenses bent but didn’t break against Cal, by dialing up pressure that Cal’s offensive line, labeled as lacking physicality by even its’ own coaches, couldn’t withstand. On Saturday, the Bears were awful on third-down, failing to convert on 11 of 13 opportunities. If the Bear Raid can’t gain rhythm, can’t stay on the field and wear on opposing defenses, little if anything is realized.
In summary, Cal’s got a long way to go. Dykes appears forthright and committed, but he needs help from his players and coaching staff. Even with all the pluses afforded Cal through the university and athletic department, it won’t be easy, and it won’t be any less lengthy a process given that the competition in the Pac-12 is as steep as it’s ever been.