The losing numbers are ugly, so we'll just get them out of the way in the beginning. The California Golden Bears fell 33-28 on Saturday to the Arizona Wildcats in front of 41,874 at Memorial Stadium. The loss was Cal's 13th straight to an NCAA FBS opponent, the longest such active streak for any member of a BCS conference. The loss was also Cal's seventh straight this season and dropped the Bears to 1-8 overall (0-6 Pac-12) with only three games remaining in the regular season.
Those are the basic ugly truths. But for those who have followed Cal football this season, Saturday gave us something different than we have had in far too long. The difference between Saturday's loss and the previous six defeats was evident from Cal's first possession. The Bears received the opening kickoff and marched 75 yards in 12 plays, capping the drive with a Jared Goff-to-Khalfani Muhammad 11-yard touchdown pass to give Cal a 7-0 lead. The significance? It was Cal's first lead in a game since the Bears defeated Portland State on September 7. The Bears were playing ahead for a change.
Some things stayed the same, however. After the Cal touchdown, the Wildcats scored on their opening possession, shredding the Cal defense with a 73-yard touchdown drive. (Arizona was aided by a 15-yard personal foul penalty called on Kameron Jackson for a shoulder-to-shoulder hit on Arizona's Samajie Grant. Yeah, I didn't understand it either.) It marked the eighth time in nine games this season that Cal's opponent scored on its first offensive possession of the game. This time, at least, the Bears found themselves tied rather than behind.
But fall behind the Bears would. Cal gave back the momentum of an emotional goal line stand by giving up a safety when Darren Ervin could not get out of the end zone after taking a deep handoff. Arizona eventually built a 19-7 lead midway through the second quarter. At that point, the question crossed Cal fans' minds: would the game get away at that point like others this season? Or would the Bears circle the wagons and find a way to stay competitive?
Cal did the latter, thanks in no small part to Kenny Lawler. The redshirt freshman wide receiver caught the first of his three touchdowns on a well-executed bubble screen to bring Cal to within 19-14 in the second quarter. Then after Arizona went ahead 26-14 in the third quarter to threaten to break the game open, Lawler dazzled the crowd and television viewers with an absolutely ridiculous one-handed touchdown grab, reaching behind him to gather in a pass from Goff in the right corner of the south end zone. Suddenly, Cal was behind only 26-21 with 3:34 left in the third quarter. If it wasn't already, it was official at that point: Cal had a chance to win a football game for the first time in eight weeks.
Alas, the victory we have been pining for was not to be. Arizona took a 33-21 lead after capitalizing on a Goff interception late in the third quarter. Arizona held onto that lead with 10:27 left in the fourth quarter when Goff threw another pick, this time in the end zone when trying to hit Brendan Bigelow on a 4th-and-2 play from the Arizona 22 yard line. Although Goff connected with Lawler for a 29-yard touchdown on a beautifully executed pass-and-catch with 1:42 remaining to pull Cal to within 33-28, the Bears' fate was sealed by a poor onside kick recovered by Arizona and 17-yard run by Ka'Deem Carey to give the Wildcats a game-clinching first down.
In the end, it was a loss, and losses never feel good. But for a Cal team that was uncompetitive in most, if not all, of the losses during the current losing streak, being in the game with a chance to win was a refreshing change. And Cal showed some things that could be characterized as improvement, if one is willing to allow oneself to look for small nuggets of encouragement in an otherwise lost season. The much-maligned Cal defense yielded 448 yards of total offense to the high-powered Arizona attack, but gave up only 3.7 yards per carry rushing. Though Carey, the nation's leading rusher, got his yards (152 of them on 32 carries), Cal did not let him run as wild as Washington's Bishop Sankey did a week ago. Cal also held Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker to 44 rushing yards just a week after Denker ran for 192 yards against Colorado. If you are looking for small signs of improvement for the Bears, there's a start.
On offense, there was Lawler. The redshirt freshman caught six passes for 72 yards and the first three touchdowns of his Cal career. Apart from the numbers themselves, Lawler showed the skill and athleticism that should put him in the mix to be a vital part of the Cal offense. On the ground, Cal got 72 yards rushing from Daniel Lasco and rushed for 137 yards as a team on 26 carries (5.0 ypc). Those rushing numbers, combined with the fact that Cal did not yield a sack, suggests that Saturday was the season's best performance for Cal's embattled offensive line.
Yes, it was another losing Saturday for Cal football, something that is becoming all too familiar. But as we play out the string, those of us who fanatically follow Cal football have to be encouraged by the fact that we had a chance to win a game against a Pac-12 opponent. In a season where there's been a lot of nothing, that is something.