Cheez-It! More Like Can’t Believe It: Cal drops mistake-marred, 10-7 decision in overtime to TCU

By Morris Phillips

College football games aren’t normally this complicated.

But to introduce some historical perspective, college football bowl games have been known to get tricky, with the meeting of Horned Frogs and Bears at Chase Field in Phoenix on Wednesday clearly fitting that bill.

No football game should have more in-game storylines than points scored, but this one did, a 10-7 season-ending, overtime loss for the Cal Bears to TCU in which there were nine interceptions for the teams combined.

Three of the four quarterbacks to see action threw multiple picks (and looked bad in doing so), Cal’s Jaylinn Hawkins intercepted three balls, TCU used two place kickers to ultimately yield one made field goal, and Cal’s Steven Coutts punted nine times.

Also, Patrick Laird, the Bears’ indispensable running back carried the ball seven times then spent the remainder of the game on the sideline injured.

For starting TCU quarterback Grayson Muehlstein, who had four of his balls picked, missed on 13 of his 17 pass attempts and was briefly benched only to end the game as a decoy limited by injury, things couldn’t have deteriorated any faster. But Muhlstein was a winner when Jonathan Song connected on a 27-yard field goal in the first overtime to end it.

“Turned the ball over way too many times, but we managed to just hang in there and just keep fighting,” Muhlstein said afterwards.

The Bears played great defense as always led by prolific tacklers Evan Weaver and Jordan Kunaszyk, but simply made too many mistakes on offense. The Bears would finish with a meager 160 yards passing, but that came loaded down with 17 incompletions and five interceptions.  The fifth, thrown in overtime by seldom-used, fifth year senior Chase Forrest was returned 84 yards by TCU’s Juwaun Johnson, as big a play as possible in overtime without ending the game immediately.

“We just made too many mistakes during the game to win against a quality opponent like that,” said Cal coach Justin Wilcox.

And somehow, after Johnson’s mega-return didn’t end up as a game-winning touchdown thanks to 330-pound Jake Curhan running nearly 100 yards to push Johnson out of bounds, the Horned Frogs would need to run 10 more plays to set up Song’s game-winning field goal.

Ten plays. How’s that?

Well, first off nimble-footed TCU sports information director Mark Cohen stepped on to the field and promptly fell on his face, his sideline celebration 50 yards behind Johnson’s big return drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“Have you guys ever known that, in 150 years of football that the SID gets a penalty?” TCU coach Gary Patterson asked.

Eight plays later–all runs for five yards or less, except one (eight yard gain)–the Horned Frogs felt they had drawn close enough to attempt a game-winning field goal.

But an attempt by which kicker?

Song converted TCU’s extra-point after Sewo Olonilua’s one-yard touchdown run tied the game in the third quarter. But with TCU in position to kick a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation, and after a Cal timeout, Patterson pulled Song for backup Cole Bunce.

Bunce then missed a 44-yard attempt as time expired.

In overtime, and again after a Cal timeout. Patterson stuck with Song and he converted from 27 yards.

Olonilua was named the game’s MVP after he rushed for 194 yards including the game-tying touchdown from two yards that was initially ruled down at the one-yard line.

Chase Garbers led Cal to a first quarter score culminating with his four-yard run. But despite completing 12 of 19 passes, Garbers was benched at halftime after throwing three interceptions.

The Bears would go the final three quarters and overtime without scoring another point.

No O: Bears’ offense missing in ninth consecutive Big Game loss to Stanford, 23-13

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.”

Cal’s come a long way: Defense shines in surprising 12-10 upset win over No. 15 Washington

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, Calif. — Jake Browning passed for nearly 400 yards and six touchdowns on his previous trip to Memorial Stadium. With his pair of fleet receivers repeatedly making big plays, an overmatched Cal defense was completely taken apart, allowing 66 points for only the second time in school history.

Flash forward two years, and Browning’s field of dreams morphed into a house of horrors, as the senior quarterback was intercepted, and benched briefly in Cal’s jaw-dropping, 12-10 upset win.

One touchdown allowed as opposed to nine? Browning on top of the world, then benched in the return engagement? Clearly, Cal’s defense has come a long way in a short period, just ask Coach Petersen and the Huskies.

“Obviously, they had good players and I just think we just did not execute in a lot of stuff,” said UW’s Drew Sample. “We missed some blocks from a tight end perspective. We just, as a whole, were not in good positions so you know it showed. We couldn’t sustain drives. We couldn’t get in rhythm and we had shots at the end. We couldn’t execute.”

Still, Washington led at the half, 7-6, in part due to Cal’s Greg Thomas missing a 41-yard field goal attempt on the final play before halftime. But when Petersen saw his offense sputter on two possessions in the second half, the one-point lead mattered little. Browning, the senior leader with 90 career touchdown passes, was briefly benched.

“That had more to do with me trying to do something to help this offense way more than it did with Jake,” said Petersen. “Jake is a competitor. Jake does everything we ask. But, you know, we got to try help this offense out somehow, someway.”

Instead redshirt freshman Jake Haener helped Cal’s defense. On his second pass attempt, Haener overthrew his man and was picked by Cal’s Evan Weaver. Weaver deftly worked his way to the end zone, reaching for the corner pylon.

Cal assumed the lead, 12-7, add stubbornly held on even as their offense managed just 245 yards the entire game. And that’s after Browning missed just two series before Petersen relented, and put his senior quarterback back in the game.

Cal’s defense never snapped, erased the issues stopping the run they experienced against UCLA, and did it from the start. The Huskies–again without top runner Myles Gaskin–scored just seven points in the opening, their fewest this season. The Bears allowed three points in the second half, the fewest they’ve surrendered after halftime this year.

“It’s a great environment in the locker room as you would expect but I also don’t think anybody’s surprised,” coach Justin Wilcox said. “We weren’t perfect but found a way to win.”

Cal embarks on a brief, two-game road trip starting with a Saturday, November 3 matchup against No. 10 Washington State at 7:45 pm PT on ESPN.

Cal ends conference road woes with blowout of Oregon State 49-7

By Morris Phillips

Coach Justin Wilcox called Cal’s trip to Corvallis to meet Oregon State a pivotal moment. Apparently, Wilcox’s team adopted the same urgency laid out by their coach.

In their most impressive outing of the season to date, the Cal Bears wiped out the Beavers, 49-7, ending their 14-game conference road losing streak. The win also ended the three-game skid that prompted all the consternation after Cal opened 3-0.

“There was never a question of want-to or desire,” Wilcox explained. “What we ask them to do in practice, they try to do to the best of their ability. We just have to play more consistently, and we got some of that done today.”

The one thing Cal had to address was a rash of turnovers in the three, previous games that ultimately cost Brandon McIlwain his position as the starting quarterback. Wilcox went back to Chase Garbers as the starter against OSU, and the sophomore engineered a high octane attack that produced eight plays of 20-yards or more including a 55-yard pass play to Vic Wharton III that set up Cal’s first touchdown of the game.

The Bears also got a 53-yard run from Patrick Laird, who erased a surprisingly slow, first half to his season with a 193-yard rushing performance and three touchdowns. Laird scored on a 29-yard pass play and a 4-yard run in the second quarter as Cal sprinted to a 21-0 halftime lead.

After 15 turnovers in the three, previous games, the Bears only hiccup was a first quarter fumble by Garbers on the 14th play of a drive that brought them to Oregon State’s 2-yard line.

But the Bears defense forced a three-and-out and a short punt put them in prime position in the second quarter, a sequence that ended with Laird’s touchdown reception.

The Cal defense continued to make noise after halftime, finishing with 12 tackles for losses along with seven sacks of OSU quarterbacks Josh Drayden and Traveon Beck.

The Bears improved to 4-3 on the season with five games remaining, all against conference opponents with better records than Cal, starting with No. 15 Washington at Memorial Stadium next Saturday at 3:00 pm PT.

Cal starts fast, but sees North Carolina rally late in narrow 24-17 win

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, Calif. — Undoubtedly the California Golden Bears got a break in their sun-drenched opener against the North Carolina Tar Heels, but did they take advantage of it?

The Tar Heels were rocked by suspensions of 13 players including starting quarterback Chazz Surratt and defensive lineman Malik Carney due to improper benefits derived from the sale of team-issued Air Jordan tennis shoes. That created one obvious mismatch with junior quarterback Nathan Elliott facing the fastidiously prepared Golden Bears’ defense.

But while Elliott struggled until the end of the third quarter, the Bears did little outside two, early touchdowns that put the game out of reach. Down 24-3, North Carolina came up with a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to turn the final minutes anxious.

After the game, UNC’s early, offensive struggles and Cal’s uneven defense late stood out, but the Tar Heels four turnovers trumped both happenings in explaining how this one was won.

“Unfortunately, we turned the ball over four times today, and if you turn the ball over like we did, you’re going to have a hard time winning football games,” UNC coach Larry Fedora admitted. “You can still be in the game, but you’re going to have a hard time winning the football game. They didn’t turn it over and we turned it over four times.”

Elliott managed just one UNC first down before halftime, and three interceptions put the Tar Heels at a huge disadvantage on the scoreboard, trailing 17-0 at the break. With the Carolina receivers unable to create separation, and the Cal secondary jumping routes, Elliott found third downs to be disastrous.

Jaylinn Hawkins snatched Elliott’s overthrow late in the first quarter and that set up Cal’s first touchdown, Patrick Laird’s three-yard run three plays later.

Defensive end Cameron Goode joined the party in the second quarter going 23 yards with Elliott’s errant throw to give Cal a 14-0 lead.

Two other interceptions bogged down UNC’s offense that converted just one of their first 13 third down opportunities. Elliott finished 15 of 35 for 137 yards. Thirteen UNC penalties spoke to the team’s disjointed play given the numerous suspensions. But Cal never pulled away, as the Tar Heels crowded the line of scrimmage and dared Cal quarterback Ross Bowers to throw.

“We forced them to go to their quick game really the whole second half,” Fedora said. “I thought our guys played extremely well. The only other thing I would have liked to see from them would be a couple takeaways, but they played their hearts out. We were aggressive, we tackled. I thought we played really well on defense.”

The Bears head to LaVell Edwards Stadium to take on the BYU Cougars on Saturday, September 8 at 7:15 pm PDT.

Cal loses to UCLA on late field goal, bowl hopes dashed as well


California wide receiver Jordan Veasy, top, makes a touchdown catch as UCLA defensive back Darnay Holmes defends during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, in Los Angeles. UCLA won 30-27. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

By Morris Phillips

There’s no tougher way to lose a ballgame. Trailing all night, the Cal Bears got even with UCLA briefly in the third quarter, and then again with 2:20 remaining. But the Bruins put together one last drive against Cal’s depleted defense, resulting in J.J. Molson’s 37-yard, game-winning field goal with eight seconds remaining.

Game over and season over for the Bears. The heart breaking 30-27 decision left the Bears (5-7, 2-7) a game short of bowl eligibility. In a season in which the Bears were tabbed to fare much worse, they surprised and came just short of gaining far more.

“It really hurts among the team, especially the guys who walked off the field in their last football game,” Coach Justin Wilcox said. “There’s not a lot you can say that makes them feel a lot better. I talked to them about how much we appreciate them for everything that they’ve done. I’ve got to do a better job of helping us moving forward. All of our coaches and support staff do. Our guys came to compete every week. We just didn’t play good enough football today in a lot of ways to win the game.”

On Friday night at the cavernous Rose Bowl, Cal’s penalties and their inability to finish drives with touchdowns stood out. But so did the physical nature of their defense and Patrick Laird running the football. Laird finished with 178 yards rushing on 32 carries, and helped the Bears overcome a 27-17, fourth quarter deficit with his powerful running.

But in the end, the Bears couldn’t come up with a couple more plays, or overcome their mistakes.

“We were moving the ball well at times; we just didn’t capitalize in the red zone,” Wilcox said. “I wish it was one thing. Penalties definitely showed up, third-down conversions. We were settling for field goals. It’s hard in this conference to win games making field goals all day.”

Cal comes closer, but leaves more disappointed after eighth straight Big Game loss

November 18, 2017: Stanford Cardinal quarterback K.J. Costello (3) is sacked during a NCAA Football game between the California Golden Bears and the Stanford Cardinal at the Stanford Stadium in Stanford, California. Valerie Shoaps/CSM (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

By Morris Phillips

The losses to Stanford–now eight and counting–are difficult enough to process for the Cal Bears. But the latest one, both close and winnable, hurt that much more.

Stanford squeezed past Cal, 17-14, in the 120th Big Game Saturday night, and this time it was a hard fought ball game essentially decided when Ross Bowers was intercepted by Ben Edwards on a deep pass attempt to Jeremiah Hawkins that would have setup Cal with first-and-goal with 7:25 remaining. Stanford would go on a lengthy drive and exhaust the clock, winning by only three, when six of the previous seven Big Games were won by the Cardinal by at least 13 points.

“We played to win and we had our opportunities and that’s why this one hurts so much,” coach Justin Wilcox said of his Bears. “There’s a few plays here or there, both sides of the ball, that could have changed the outcome of that game.”

Undeniably, Wilcox had the Bears well prepared. Cal neutralized Heisman trophy candidate Bryce Love, fed standout Stanford defensive lineman Harrison Phillips a steady diet of double teams, and played efficiently and methodically on offense with Ross Bowers and feature back Patrick Laird. But in the end 14 points wasn’t enough for Cal to lead at any point, or impact a scoreless, fourth quarter.

“We knew each and every possession would be so critical. And we had some opportunities to get some stops in the first half and, obviously, the fourth quarter got to be able to get off the field there and get the offense the ball back,” Wilcox said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love our guys and the way they compete. They played hard, played their butts off, and we just needed another play here or there, and we didn’t quite have it.”

A missed 47-yard Matt Anderson field goal before halftime stood out because the ball careened backwards off the cross bar, but this time Cal had numerous chances when previous Big Games in the Stanford streak were basically decided by halftime. That Cal failed to secure bowl eligibility with a win made the proceedings that more agonizing.

“We just needed another play here or there,” Wilcox said.

The Bears finish the regular season at UCLA on Friday with a chance to even their record (5-6, 2-6). Stanford finishes their regular season at home against Notre Dame on Saturday. The Cardinal (8-3, 7-2) can qualify for the Pac-12 Championship Game on December 1 if Washington defeats Washington State on Saturday.

Gritty Bears turn Senior Day into satisfying victory celebration 37-23

Nov 4 2017 – Berkeley CA, U.S.A. California running back Patrick Laird (28) game stats 33 carriers for 216 yards and 1 touchdown break away from OSU defenders down the sideline during the NCAA Football game between Oregon State Beavers and the California Golden Bears 37-23 win at California Memorial Stadium. Thurman James / CSM (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–After a satisfying Senior Day win over Oregon State at Memorial Stadium, James Looney made his and his teammates’ intentions clear. The Bears have some unfinished business in their remaining games.

“We gotta get one more, get to bowling. We want to get two more, get the Axe for sure,” Looney said with teammate Raymond Davison III joining him in the postgame presser and giving his tacit approval of Looney’s bold statement.

One year after allowing 40 points per game, finishing 5-7, and enduring an oddly timed coaching change, the Bears have bold intentions to post a winning record in the face of prognosticators that felt Cal was capable of winning just two games in 2017.

Instead the Bears are 5-5 leading into their final two contests at Stanford and at UCLA, two opponents that lost this weekend while the Bears picked up a critical 37-23 win over OSU. A bye week comes first, a coveted break ahead of Cal trying to break a six-game losing streak to rival Stanford.

“It’s great to be in a position to earn ourselves another game,”  said quarterback Ross Bowers, who led Cal with 24 of 30 passing for 259 yards and two touchdowns. “This bye week is going to be huge for us. We can get in the mindset that ‘it’s just a bye week,’ but we have to get significantly better in whatever the little things are and then get ready for our next game.”

On Saturday, the Bears showed the persistence against OSU that was clearly lacking in the previous week’s disappointing loss at Colorado.  After the Beavers struck first with an option pass play to Ryan Nall for a touchdown less than four minutes in, Cal responded with consecutive scoring drives for a 17-7, second quarter lead, and then a 20-13, halftime advantage.

As have all of Cal victims this season, Oregon State got a heavy dose of running back Patrick Laird, who finished with 214 yards rushing on 33 carries. Laird’s big day served as the perfect counterpoint to Nall’s 224-yard rushing performance last season in the Bears’ most disappointing loss of 2016. Nall, OSU’s talented, big back had never surpassed 200 yards in a game before or after his breakout against Cal, that featured a trio of big, back breaking runs. This time, the improved Bears’ defense held Nall to 89 yards rushing and receiving combined, and limited his big plays to the 26-yard touchdown that gave OSU their only lead.

“We were going to be committed to stopping the run and we played a lot of heavy-run fronts,” Coach Justin Wilcox said of his team’s approach to stopping Nall. “He [Ryan Nall] hit some runs and he is going to earn some.”

Meanwhile, Laird was merely consistent, handling the ball on a career-high 33 carries along with six pass receptions, none of which went for more than 20 yards. Laird kept the chains moving on a day in which the Bears had 10 possessions, none of which concluded with a punt.

The Bears scored on three consecutive possessions again in the second half, extending their lead to 37-20 with 10:30 remaining.