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Lackluster Loss: Stanford Takes the 115th Big Game over Cal, 21-3

The Axe stays in exile in Palo Alto as Stanford beat Cal for the third straight year.

Ezra Shaw

The raw numbers are ugly when you look at them. Stanford 21, Cal 3 is, obviously, the most important set of numbers of them all, as it means that the Axe remains in Palo Alto for another year and that the Bears have lost three in a row to their rival. But as if a 21-3 loss is not bad enough, other numbers jump out at you to show how badly the Lobsterbacks dominated the Bears in the 115th Big Game:

TOTAL YARDS: Stanford 475, Cal 215

RUSHING YARDS: Stanford 252, Cal 3

YARDS PER RUSH: Stanford 5.5, Cal 0.1

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS: Stanford 4 of 14, Cal 1 of 14

TACKLES FOR LOSS: Stanford 11, Cal 4

FIRST DOWNS: Stanford 23, Cal 12

Those are just a few. Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor himself outgained the Bears on the ground, running for 189 yards on 28 carries. And Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas set up shop in the Cal backfield, racking up as many tackles for a loss (4) as the entire Cal defense made the entire game. It was a thoroughly frustrating and humbling experience for a Golden Bear team that thought it had a good chance to recapture the Axe and continue the upward trend that the season had taken the previous two weeks.

Instead, Cal is feeling anything but good about itself.

As badly as the game turned out to be, it started out with potential. Stanford gave Cal plenty of opportunities to take an early lead and seize momentum. On the very first offensive series of the game, Cal linebacker Robert Mullins forced Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes to fumble at the end of a scramble and Deandre Coleman recovered for the Bears at the Cal 47. And on the first play of the ensuing Cal series, Stanford gave the bonus gift of a 15-yard personal foul penalty to put the Bears offense in business at the Stanford 38. What did the Cal offense do with this gift?

Three and out, with two negative yardage plays.

Later in the first quarter, Stanford drove to the Cal 23-yard line, but settled for a 40-yard field goal attempt that was wide left. What looked like a sure Stanford touchdown drive turned into zero points. This had the makings of a momentum swing in the Bears' favor. What did the Cal offense do with it?

Three plays, seven yards, and punt.

With Stanford leading 7-0 late in the first quarter, Keenan Allen injected some excitement for Cal with a dazzling 29-yard punt return to the Stanford 25-yard line. After a Cal holding penalty threatened to stall the drive, Cal quarterback Zach Maynard hit Brendan Bigelow for a 31-yard gain on a screen pass to give the Bears a first and goal at the two-yard line. The Bears had a golden opportunity to tie the game. How did the Cal offense finish the drive?

Loss of a yard by C.J. Anderson, loss of a yard by Isi Sofele, and no gain by Zach Maynard on a keeper. The Bears settled for a 21-yard field goal by Vincenzo D'Amato for what proved to be Cal's only points of the game. Cal cut the lead to 7-3, but the failure to score a touchdown was deflating.

Stanford made Cal's failure to seize these opportunities even more deflating by taking advantage of Cal's mistakes in the second quarter. On the ensuing drive after the D'Amato field goal, a botched coverage by the Cal secondary led to a 68-yard pass play from Nunes to Stanford tight end Zach Ertz. That explosion play set up a 9-yard touchdown pass from Kevin Hogan to Levine Toilolo to make it 14-3. And then, after Allen fumbled deep in Cal territory, Stanford struck quickly. A 20-yard touchdown pass from Nunes to Ertz on the first play after the turnover made it 21-3 with 8:15 left in the first half.

Game over.

It was not all bad for the Bears. The Cal defense did yeoman's work to hold Stanford scoreless for the remaining 36:45 of the game. In the second half, the Bears made Stanford punt twice, held once on a fourth down on a nice defensive stand, and intercepted a pass deep in Cal territory before finally yielding a long clock-sucking drive at game's end when the matter was long decided. In another positive development, Cal committed only five penalties for 63 yards, which was fewer penalties and yards than what Stanford was flagged for (9 for 90). And freshman wide receiver Chris Harper continued to show promise, hauling in four passes for 82 yards as Cal's leading offensive weapon.

But the negatives in this game far outweighed the positive. The Cal offense could not get anything going all day and was held without a touchdown for the second time this season. The Bears were held to a paltry three yards rushing, marking the second time in less than a year that the Bears were held to single digit rushing yards. (Cal rushed for a slightly less pathetic seven yards against Texas in last December's Holiday Bowl.) And the 217 yards of total offense was the lowest output of the season for the Cal offense, a marked contrast to the last two weeks, in which the Bears gained a combined 987 yards of offense against UCLA and Washington State.

But by far the biggest negative was just what you saw with your eyes: Cal was not competitive in its much anticipated rivalry game, with a chance to recapture the Axe against a Stanford team (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) that was not exactly an offensive juggernaut. Notwithstanding the 252 yards rushing yielded by the Bears, the Cal defense played well enough to keep Cal in the game had the offense showed some -- any -- sign of life. But there was none to be shown, except for two measly red zone chances that fizzled. It was a disappointing performance in a game that should have been winnable for the Bears.

Where does Cal (3-5, 2-3 Pac-12) go from here? With the Big Game behind us, there is no longer that emotional rivalry game at the end of the season as a prize on which to keep an eye. But there are still four games remaining, including next week's winnable (theoretically) game at Utah. Cal now finds itself having to win three of the last four games if it wants to become bowl eligible.

After today, winning three out four has the feel of a pipe dream. But one thing is for sure: over the next several weeks (and assuredly in the comment thread below), we will see much rancor and debate about the future of the program and whether Cal should, can, or will make a change in leadership. After losing the Big Game for the third straight year and being reminded how wide a gap there is between Cal and its rival on the gridiron, the future of Jeff Tedford is the big golden bear in the room that cannot be ignored.