Big Game Bounce: Sirmon’s scoop and score propels Cal past Stanford, 27-20

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–Midway through the fourth quarter of the 125th Big Game, Jackson Sirmon was just another guy on either team eager to change the narrative of a dismal season, willing to do anything possible to avoid another loss.

One play later, Sirmon was a hero, forever immortalized in the rich history of the series between Stanford and Cal.

When the football inexplicably starts exchanging hands at Memorial Stadium, grab it. Just like “The Play” 40 years ago, the intertwined memories last forever.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Sirmon said. “All I did that play is I didn’t mess it up. The ball came right to me and I ran with it.”

Sirmon’s scoop and score–after Stanford backup quarterback Ashton Daniels then Cal’s Jeremiah Earby both fumbled on the play–gave Cal its first lead of the evening, 20-17. Prior to Sirmon’s miracle play, the Bears’ defense was confounded, trailing 17-12 and likely facing some tough questions regarding Stanford’s fast start that saw them lead 10-3 after the game’s initial possessions in the first quarter.

Both Bay Area rivals came into Saturday’s showdown saddled with a second straight losing season dragged down by a bunch of injuries, and the inability to muster much offense at all.

Stanford hadn’t scored more than 16 points in any of its previous, five games, and Cal hadn’t won a game since September 24. In front of sellout crowd, and on the 40th anniversary of Cal’s miracle, 25-20 win in 1982, something had to give.

Cal trailed 17-6 to start the fourth quarter, and they didn’t exactly jump into the driver’s seat when Jack Plummer connected with Monroe Young for Cal’s first touchdown (on their 10th offensive possession) with 11:18 remaining in the game. The ensuing two-point conversion failed, and the Bears–trailing by five–were needing the unlikely combination of a second, go-ahead touchdown along with shutting down the Cardinal for the remainder of the game.

But Stanford resorted to trickery, bringing in Daniels for a designed run that saw him stripped of the football by Daniel Scott when he approached the line and tried to bounce outside.

Earby recovered Daniels fumble, but was stripped by Daniels when the pair crossed paths. That’s when Sirmon rushed up, grabbed the ball seamlessly on a bounce and raced in from 38 yards out.

“As a defensive player, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to score touchdowns and you have to enjoy them when you get them,” Sirmon said. “It was very neat especially considering the timing of it all.”

Five plays later, and after a pair of incompletions intensified the pressure on starting quarterback Tanner McKee, he was picked off by Scott, who returned the ball 18 yards, setting up Cal, first and goal at the nine.

The third, consecutive running play for freshman Jaydn Ott finished in the end zone, and Cal was in command, up 27-17 with 58 seconds remaining.

“We know how important this game is to us as a team, our administration and our support staff,” coach Justin Wilcox said. “Our fans and students were just incredible tonight. What an awesome environment.”

The game featured several, strategical twists as both teams desperate to change their fortunes, saw their coaching staffs pull out all the stops. The Bears, with an undisclosed, chain of command calling their plays after offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave was dismissed earlier in the week, completely abandoned their run game in the first half.

Not surprising given the Bears’ desultory offensive line play, but eye-catching because Stanford came in allowing nearly six yards per rushing attempt, ranking them dead last among 131 FBS teams.

The result? Cal unleashed a short passing game that utilized Ott as a pass catcher with success, but several drops, and a critical end zone interception thrown by Plummer saw Cal go into the half trailing 10-6. The Bears failed to convert any of their first, five third down conversion attempts, and they suffered Plummer’s pick immediately after they finally converted on a fourth down attempt.

Stanford started Mitch Leigber at running back, a converted safety with no one to back him up because of a rash of injuries decimated the Cardinal’s depth chart. Leigber was terrific with 83 yards rushing on 22 carries, but when he needed a blow, coach David Shaw elected to lift McKee and bring on Daniels as a quarterback whose sole intent was to run the ball. But on Daniels seventh rush attempt the game switched as he was stripped and fumbled.

Cal (4-7, 2-6) finishes its season on Friday afternoon with a home game against UCLA.

DWIGHT GARNER PASSES, MOEN STATUE REVEALED: A 1,500 pound Statue of Cal hero Kevin Moen was debuted in a ceremony outside the stadium on Friday with the likeness of the rugby, football star holding the football high above his head as he did after crossing the goal line, concluding “The Play” in 1982.

At the ceremony, it was announced that Dwight Garner, an Oakland native and a freshman in ’82, passed away this week after battling prostate cancer in Florida. Garner, 58, handled the third lateral on “The Play” and was nearly tackled before shuttling the ball, and prolonging the play. It was his portion of the sequence that embittered Stanford players who felt Garner’s knee was down before he released the ball.

Bears Blues: Cal bows out quietly in 28-9 loss at Washington State

By Morris Phillips

The question “Can the Cal Bears win one on the road?” became more burdensome as the afternoon in Pullman, Washington progressed.

As in “Can the Bears win on the road if they don’t score first, don’t get a big afternoon from Jaydn Ott, or if they score a measly fraction of the 49 points they put up on Arizona last week?”

The answer: No, no, no and no.

In losing 28-9 to Washington State, the Bears wasted a first half of solid play defensively by failing to gain any consistency on offense in either half. The Bears brief moment of competitiveness–Ott’s 2-yard touchdown run at the outset of the fourth quarter–failed to resonate when two Bears tripped over each other on a failed, two-point conversion attempt that would have trimmed their deficit to 14-11.

“We got nothing going in the run game,” coach Justin Wilcox admitted. “Pass protection wasn’t where it needed to be. We’re all gonna share in that, but we didn’t expect to be as poor as we were in those areas today, especially coming off of last week.”

The Bears have lost nine of their last 10 road games dating back to 2020.

Cal scored 49 points in racing past Arizona at home last week, but the host Cougars kept Cal from converting 11 third down opportunities resulting in nine Cal punts. Once seven Cal plays that loss yardage and four sacks of quarterback Jake Plummer were factored in Cal’s offense numbers shrank dramatically.

Ott, the freshman who gained 274 yards rushing against Arizona, was productive again, but nowhere near spectacular. On 23 touches, run and pass, Ott gained 110 yards and had double-digit gainers on the ground and through the air. Jeremiah Hunter (109 yards receiving) and J. Michael Sturdivant (six catches, 71 yards) were factors as well. But the trio’s numbers didn’t amount to much on the scoreboard.

“A couple of big plays in the air, and that was nice to see, but we gotta score more than that, everybody knows that,” Wilcox said.

FCS-transfer quarterback Cameron Ward threw for 343 yards and two scores to lead WSU despite throwing two interceptions. Ward connected with Robert Ferrel for a beautifully-timed and placed TD pass to open the third quarter that increased WSU’s lead to 14-3. In the fourth quarter Ward hit Renard Bell for a 37-yard score and a 21-9 lead.

Ward also extended plays with his feet, and that was more influential than the turnovers as the Cougars converted six, third down opportunities and two more on fourth down.

“We had three or four chances for some negative plays on them, but we just couldn’t get him on the ground,” Wilcox said of the mobile Ward.

Beyond the four sacks, Jack Plummer was harassed throughout by the Washington State pass rush, and he suffered a knee injury late in the game. No report was released regarding the severity of the injury with the Bears now having two weeks to prepare for their next game at Colorado.

Plummer finished 22 of 33 for 273 yards.

“We obviously don’t want him to get hit,” offensive lineman Matthew Cindrich said. “We definitely have to look ourselves in the mirror and say what can we do to not let that happen anymore.”

Downright Rebellious: UNLV’s late rally falls short, Cal moves to 2-0 with 20-14 win

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–California is looking forward after they hung on to defeat UNLV 20-14.

The Rebels and coach Marcus Arroyo are looking back, trying to understand how the numerous, second half opportunities they were afforded didn’t culminate with a touchdown that would have given them a late lead.

“We’ve got a locker room full of guys right now that are disappointed we didn’t finish that game,” Arroyo said. “You’ve got to capitalize against quality opponents.”

The Bears led 14-0 and 20-7, and at one point during the third quarter also held a sizeable advantage in time of possession, but from an offensive standpoint, they couldn’t finish off UNLV. Empty trips into the red zone and a damaging, early, second quarter interception kept the Rebels in it.

In the end, Cal’s defense pulled through when Henry Ikahihifo sacked UNLV quarterback Doug Brumfield for a loss of 13 yards with 1:03 remaining. Two plays later, Isaiah Young picked off Brumfield’s desperation, downfield pass.

While the Bears’ offense went from spirited to sputtering, their defense contained Brumfield, who threw for just 206 yards, while misfiring 15 times, and running for just 12 yards on ten attempts. Ricky White, the Rebels’ top receiver caught just one pass after the first quarter and totaled 56 yards on four catches.

Cal’s blitzing, which intensified on the final UNLV drive, not only led to the key interception, but also showed in the visitor’s penalty numbers, which saw them commit eight infractions for 101 yards.

“No. 1, is to win the game. It carries more weight than any other goal,” Wilcox said. “We also recognize where we need to get better.”

In that category, kicker Dario Longhetto converted field goals in the second and third quarters, but his miss from 43 yards with 8:06 remaining kept the game within one score.

Plummer finished 28 of 39 for 278 yards, but only two of his completions went for more than 10 yards. The first of those two saw freshman running back Jaydn Ott go 12 yards on a swing pass and leap into the end zone for a 14-0 Cal lead.

“He missed a couple, but he threw some very good balls,” Wilcox said of Plummer. “We’ve got to do things to protect him, to keep that pass rush at bay.”

The 2-0 Bears travel to South Bend, Indiana next weekend to face Notre Dame, who inexplicably lost to Marshall 26-21, their first ever loss to a team from the Sun Belt Conference. The Bears’ undefeated start will create confidence as will a match up against signal caller Ty Buchner, who has yet to throw a touchdown pass in two games, and was picked off twice by the Thundering Herd.

“They’re still a really good team,” said sixth-year defensive back Daniel Scott cautiously.