There were plenty of moments during the California Golden Bears' 41-24 loss to the Colorado Buffaloes (4-6, 1-6 Pac-12) at Folsom Field where ardent followers of Cal football had reason to doubt the Bears' ability to win the game. But during a seven second sequence of game time in the fourth quarter, with the game already realistically decided, Cal fans saw something else. It was a sequence of ineptitude that was notable even in a season of total ineptitude.
With 6:07 left in the fourth quarter, Cal's Brendan Bigelow scored his first rushing touchdown of the season. (Let that sink in for a second: the guy who came into the season as Cal's #1 running back scored his first rushing touchdown of the season in game 11.) Bigelow's touchdown made the score 34-16 in favor of the Buffs. Football mathematics dictated going for the two-point conversion. If successful, the deficit would be shaved to 16 points and it would be a two-possession game. Inexplicably, however, Coach Sonny Dykes and the Bears trotted Vincenzo D'Amato out for the extra point to make it 34-17, keeping it a three-possession game with a little more than six minutes remaining.
To borrow a word from one Jim Olson, a KALX colleague from my college days at Berkeley in the...well, I don't want to give you the date...I was dejuiced when I saw Cal kick the extra point. I think I may have audibly sighed. I viewed kicking the extra point as a sign of surrender. It was Roberto Duran saying "no mas" in New Orleans in 1980 against Sugar Ray Leonard. It was John Daly (in)famously hitting several balls into the water before walking off the course in the 2011 Australian Open. It was the Bears giving up hope of winning the game. We just wanted to get out of Boulder with our tail intact, albeit between our legs.
Which made what happened seven seconds later all the more bizarre. Cal didn't go for two, but thought the game still competitive enough to try an onside kick. In special teams ineptitude not seen since last week against USC, the Bears allowed Colorado's Nelson Spruce to scoop up the kick and run 46 yards for a Colorado touchdown that made it 41-17. Insult was officially added to injury.
Perhaps it was fitting: after all, Cal had made Spruce (8 receptions, 140 yards) a star in the game, making it seem like tackling him was as difficult as Rocky Balboa trying to catch a live chicken. Nonetheless, it was a depressing footnote to a loss that established the Bears as the Pac-12's worst team in 2013.
In contrast to the game's ending, the Bears had shown signs of bucking some disturbing trends that had plagued them throughout this lackluster season. For only the second time in 2013, the Bears managed to hold the opposition without scoring on the opponent's first possession of the game. (Colorado missed a 40-yard FG to come up empty on a game-opening 13-play drive.) The Bears also managed to give up only three points in the first quarter, the fewest first-quarter points Cal has given up this season.
Still, the Bears fell behind 10-0 and had generally stalled on offense during the first quarter-and-a-half of the game. Behind a 42-yard field goal by the almost automatic D'Amato and a dazzling 55-yard touchdown run by Khalfani Muhammad (10 rush, 78 yards, 1 TD), Cal clawed back to tie the game and had momentum on its side. But just as they always seem to do this season when they grab momentum, the Bears immediately gave it back. On the ensuing drive after Muhammad's game-tying touchdown, Colorado moved 75 yards in 10 plays, scoring on a 10-yard touchdown pass from freshman QB Sifo Liufau to Tony Jones. The Buffaloes then recovered a possibly unintentional onside kick, setting up another touchdown drive. When Christian Powell punched it in for a 2-yard touchdown run with 46 seconds left in the half, CU had turned a tie game into a 24-10 halftime lead.
The halftime score was disconcerting, inasmuch as the Bears were 14 points behind to a team that had been uncompetitive in each of its previous six Pac-12 games, all of them losses. Still, because of Colorado's futility in Pac-12 play (the Buffs had lost 14 consecutive Pac-12 games before Saturday), even a moderately optimistic Cal fan held out hope that Cal could be able to rally in the second half. But rally the Bears did not. The Buffs effectively put the game away by scoring the first 10 points of the second half, including a soul-crushing 63 yard touchdown on a screen pass to Michael Adkins II early in the fourth quarter.
The game was not without some positives for the Bears. Bigelow rushed for 107 yards on 15 carries (7.1 ypc) and his first two rushing touchdowns of the season. Muhammad added 78 yards rushing, including his 55-yard scamper. In all, the Bears rushed for 197 yards, averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and ran the ball more effectively than their opponent for one of the rare times this season. Quarterback Jared Goff was not at his best, however, completing only 23 of 45 passes for 173 yards. Goff lost the battle of freshman quarterbacks, as CU's Liufau threw for a career-high 364 yards against the Bears' beleaguered defense. Just as the last time these teams met in 2011, Cal had no answer for Colorado WR Paul Richardson, who caught 11 of Liufau's passes for 140 yards.
"He had a hard time; the ball was sailing on him," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said of Goff. "We felt like we had guys open all night they didn't do anything different than they did all year. We knew what to expect from the game plan, we just didn't execute."
With only one game remaining -- the Big Game against a top quality Stanford team -- Cal faces the harsh reality that it will likely go winless in conference play for the first time since the infamous 2001 season, Tom Holmoe's final one as Cal head coach. First year head coach Sonny Dykes will not suffer the same fate as Holmoe that year: Dykes has some leeway given that this is his first season and the fact that his team has suffered from a spate of injuries that is mind boggling to say the least. Nonetheless, the numbers that face this Cal program are daunting: a nine-game losing streak this season, a 13-game losing streak in Pac-12 games, and a 14-game losing streak to FBS opponents. It has been an ugly 2013 season.