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Cal outsmarts itself, throws away 36-34 loss to UCLA

A defining moment for a program climbing back to respectability was there for the taking on Saturday. Instead of seizing the moment, however, the Bears suffered a major buzzkill.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

For most of Saturday afternoon at Kabam Field at California Memorial Stadium, Cal fans were treated to a dichotomy of frustration and disbelief as they watched their California Golden Bears battle the UCLA Bruins.  The frustration came with UCLA's relative ease in moving the football, aided continually by dreadful tackling by the Cal defense.  The disbelief was a product of the Bears being in the game notwithstanding the struggles on defense.  Despite being outgained 567-366 in total offense and yielding a ridiculous number of first downs (33) to the Bruins, Cal had the ball, trailing by only two points with 3:40 remaining in the fourth quarter.  It was a perfect opportunity to seize the game once and for all and send the Bruins back to Westwood with their eighth consecutive loss in Berkeley.

It looked like Cal would do just that.  Starting at its own 23-yard line, the Cal offense moved to the UCLA 36-yard line in nine plays, one of them a seven-yard completion from quarterback Jared Goff to wide receiver Chris Harper on 4th-and-6 from the UCLA 46-yard line.  It was a clutch catch and run by Harper, who sold out to get the first down and was injured on the play by a Jaleel Wadood hit.  Though Harper had to leave the game, he left the Bears in a position to move into range for a game-winning field goal.

And then the unthinkable happened. Facing a 2nd-and-7 at the UCLA 36 with under a minute remaining, Cal called a play that was arguably outside the box for the situation.  The Bears sent four receivers on vertical routes down the field. Goff went for one of them--Kenny Lawler--for the home run ball down the right sideline. Instead of a go-ahead touchdown, however, the play resulted in an unhappy ending for the Bears.  UCLA's Marcus Rios got his hands on the ill-advised pass, juggled the ball momentarily, and gathered the ball in just as he went out of bounds at the Cal 2-yard line. The all-important call on the field was interception, a ruling that was upheld by the replay official, and UCLA (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) escaped Berkeley with a 36-34 win.

The all important question asked itself: already in fringe field goal range, why would the Bears (4-3, 2-3 Pac-12) go for the long touchdown throw instead of something more high percentage?

"We felt that we needed to get to ball to about the 25-yard line. We didn't feel that time was that big of an issue because we still had one timeout remaining," Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said. "The biggest advantage we had coming into the game was when they pressed outside, when their corners pressed our outside receivers, we made a lot of really big plays with Kenny [Lawler] and throwing some fade routes, so we liked that matchup. In a perfect world, we would throw the ball to one of the inside verticals, which would probably get us down to that part of the field. Jared looked out there and saw press coverage, and saw the matchup he wanted. He snapped the ball, the guy bailed and we didn't make a very good play on the football. That is what happens sometimes. We got a little bit fooled and their guy made a play on the football."

"It was just not a very smart play by me. It was a similar play that I had thrown a touchdown to Kenny earlier, so I thought I'd get it again," added Goff. "I kind of forced it a little bit, and it was probably not the best play in that situation.

"Again, it was a very similar look with the defense; similar to the play we scored on. The only difference when we scored, the defensive back stopped running and this time he ran right underneath it and made a good play."

It was a bad ending to a game that Cal, in many ways, had no business being in.  UCLA dominated the first half, outgaining Cal 363 to 144 on the way to a 24-14 lead.  It could have been much worse, except for Cal capitalizing with touchdowns off two UCLA fumbles.

"I thought our tackling was poor, especially in the first half," said Dykes. "I was not happy at halftime, but I talked to the guys and I thought we did better in the second half. I am still not pleased with our tackling at all. I thought we gave up leverage too many times. For us to play as poorly as we played and still have a chance to win the game, you have got to give our guys credit for playing really hard in the second half and battling hard enough to where we had a shot."

Cal had a shot because of a fast start to the second half. After stopping UCLA on a 4th-and-1 at the Cal 46, the Bears scored on just three plays, the big play a 49-yard pass from Goff to Lawler, to pull to within 24-21.  After a UCLA field goal, Cal took a 28-27 lead later in the third quarter when Goff found Trevor Davis in the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown.  Davis made a tremendous catch on the play, fighting off a defender right on top of him to gather in the pass.

The Bruins, however, overcame the Bears' rally and led 33-28 midway through the fourth quarter.   With UCLA driving for a potential game-icing score, the Cal defense made a big play.  On a 3rd and 12 from the Cal 46, Cameron Walker intercepted a Brett Hundley pass and returned it 39 yards to the UCLA 32-yard line.  Three plays later, Goff threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Lawler to put Cal ahead 34-33 with 6:50 left.

Inexplicably, the Cal extra point team took the field despite the fact that the game situation and simple mathematics dictated a two-point conversion attempt.  Realizing the math before it was too late, the Bears burned a timeout to get the offense back on the field.  Unfortunately for Cal, however, the two-point attempt failed and the lead remained one point.  The missed conversion proved costly, as Ka'imi Fairbairn's 26-yard field goal with 3:40 left put UCLA ahead to stay.

On the ensuing kickoff following the Fairbairn field goal, Davis was injured when he appeared to take a knee to the head as he was tackled.  Davis lay on the field for several minutes before he was carted off the field and taken to Highland Hospital in Oakland.  It was a scary moment for all observers, but Davis gave an encouraging thumbs-up sign as he was carted away from the field.

"Trevor was moving his extremities, both his arms and legs, and was talking," Dykes said after the game. "He said that he felt okay. He is going to the hospital, and I am sure he will get a series of tests run and we will know more. Certainly, the signs from the field looked good."

"UCLA's prayers are with Trevor Davis and hopefully the young man is OK," added UCLA head coach Jim Mora. "I saw him moving his feet and he gave a thumbs up. There's nothing better than seeing that. You just hate to see someone go down and when they bring the cart out it just puts everything in perspective. These are kids playing the game that they love and hopefully that young man is OK. UCLA is thinking about him."

As for the game, the loss is a tough one for the Bears to take, considering that they had a golden opportunity to win the game at the end.  Second guessing will abound about the play call and decisionmaking on Cal's final offensive play.  Heads will be scratched about why Cal squandered its timeouts in both halves of the game, especially the timeout taken in the fourth quarter when the Bears trotted the extra point team onto the field when they had to go for the two-point conversion. Wonderment will be had about Cal's running game, which generated only 38 yards (1.8 ypc).  And fans will wake up in a cold sweat thinking about dozens of missed tackles.

No time for wallowing, however.  Cal must right the ship as soon as possible. Unfortunately, things don't get any easier.  The next game is five days away, this Friday night at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara against mighty Oregon.  Tackling, decisionmaking, and game management must all get better because there will be little if any margin for error in that one.