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Big Game buzzkill: Stanford beats Cal 38-17 to retain The Axe

Hopes ran high for the Golden Bears and their fans going into the 117th Big Game. Conventional wisdom said Cal had its best chance to beat Stanford since the Cardinal's current Big Game winning streak began. But Stanford put the kibosh on Cal's hopes early and never looked back.

Going into Saturday's 117th Big Game at Kabam Field at Memorial Stadium, the California Golden Bears had reason to feel good about their chance to upend the rival Stanford Cardinal and recapture the coveted Axe.  Both teams were 5-5 going into the game and their fortunes seemed headed in opposite directions -- Cal had quintupled its win total of a year ago while Stanford had tumbled from its early-season perch as a top-15 ranked team.

The scenario on Saturday was a familiar one, albeit with roles reversed.  In 2005 and 2007, Cal came into the game as the team that had not lived up to expectations, while Stanford was the team that had made progress and thought it could regain the Axe after having lost it for several years running.  Unfortunately for Cal, Saturday's script followed what Cal did to Stanford in 2005: the Cardinal seized control of the game, took advantage of Cal mistakes, and cruised to a 38-17 win, Stanford's fifth straight in the storied rivalry.

If you believe in signs and omens, it's fair to say that it took until the game's first offensive play for the Cal faithful to question whether it was the Bears' day.  After Stanford's Kevin Hogan completed an 18-yard pass to tight end Austin Hooper, Cal senior safety Michael Lowe was flagged for a personal foul for purportedly targeting Hooper on the tackle.  The officials ejected Lowe from the game for targeting, a decision with which Fox Sports 1 officiating analyst Mike Pereira disagreed.  After just one play, Stanford was down to the Cal 42 yard line and a senior leader on defense was gone for the game.

"It was frustrating for everybody. It was frustrating for me. In 20 years, I have never seen something like that happen during the first play of the game," said Cal coach Sonny Dykes. "That is a tough call for the first play of the ball game. I wish that something like that wouldn't affect us as much as it did. It affected me and I think it affected our players."

For many Cal fans, Lowe's ejection was particularly galling given what happened in last year's Big Game. A clear incident of targeting by Stanford's Shayne Skov knocked Goff out of the game with a separated shoulder, but Skov (inexplicably to Pereira) escaped ejection.  Yet, Lowe was tossed for what Pereira described as "a football act" that was not an instance of targeting.

Four plays and one pass interference penalty (Darius White) later, Remound Wright scored the first of his four rushing touchdowns on the day to give Stanford a 7-0 lead just 2:22 into the game.  The tone was set: Stanford had swagger and fortune on its side while Cal would not be able to expect any benefit of the doubt in this game.

Cal fought to within 10-7 after a 10-yard touchdown pass from Jared Goff to Stephen Anderson early in the second quarter.  But after that, the mistakes started piling up for the Bears. Goff threw two second quarter interceptions to Stanford linebacker Blake Martinez, both of which were deflected at the line of scrimmage by defensive linemen.  The second one proved costly, as occurred deep in Cal territory (negating an interception by White that killed a Stanford drive), leading to a Stanford touchdown that made it 24-7 at halftime.

In the third quarter, things got a little interesting -- but for all the wrong reasons as far as Cal was concerned.  First, Stanford increased its lead to 31-7 on its first offensive possession of the second half.  Then, the Bears made coaching decisions that were perplexing. And finally, and most infamously, the officials made back-to-back curious decisions that cost Cal a touchdown and snuffed out any hope of a Bears' rally.

The perplexing: with Cal down 31-7 (still, technically, a three-possession game), Luke Rubenzer entered the game at quarterback with Cal facing a 2nd-and-6 at the Cal 45. Rubenzer stayed in the game at quarterback for six of the next eight snaps, before the drive ended with Rubenzer throwing the first of his two interceptions.  That wasn't the last of Rubenzer's offensive series in the game. The freshman quarterback took the reins on for six plays on Cal's next drive (which ended in a field goal) and four of Cal's 10 plays on the ensuing possession after that. And though Rubenzer gained 60 yards on 12 carries, he was not relied upon solely to run the ball during his time in the game: Rubenzer was 5 of 9 passing for 49 yards.

The timing of the back-and-forth was curious as well.  On two occasions, with Rubenzer having handled most of the snaps in the series, Cal brought Goff back for 3rd-and-long situations.  For his part, Goff downplayed the back-and-forth between him and Rubenzer.

"We've been doing it for a while now. Nothing really affects it," said Goff, who completed 16 of 31 passes for a season-low 182 yards.  "He was doing a good job and running the ball well and getting good reads. I think he did a really good job."

As for the curious officiating decisions, those came one of the series where Rubenzer was prominently featured.  Cal drove to the Stanford 12-yard line, and from there began a sequence in which three apparent Cal touchdowns were reversed by the replay official. The first reversal was legit -- a Rubenzer run that was initially ruled a 12-yard touchdown was rightfully reversed after replay showed Rubenzer's knee clearly down at the 1-yard line before Rubenzer got into the end zone. But the next two reversals were highly questionable.

On second-and-goal, Rubenzer was ruled to have crossed the goal line. But the replay official reversed the ruling, finding that the ball touched down at the 1-yard line.  The ruling was strange, however, as Rubenzer appeared to stretch the ball across the plane of the goal line before he was down, which would have militated in favor of allowing the ruling to stand. The reversal was particularly costly for the Bears, as tackle Steven Moore was called for a dead ball unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, which moved the ball back to the Stanford 16-yard line on 3rd-and-goal.

This was called a touchdown on the field. In his infinite Pac-12 officiating wisdom, the replay official took it away. (HT to Avinash for the screen shot from the Pereira video).

Karma appeared to be on Cal's side, however, on the very next play. Goff reentered the game and threw what was ruled on the field to be a touchdown pass to Kenny Lawler.  Lawler made a nice play, catching the ball on the right sideline before turning his body to stretch the ball across the pylon for the touchdown.  But the replay official ruled that Lawler didn't "complete the catch," as he lost the ball after falling out of the end zone. This reversal was also questionable, however, as Lawler arguably completed the reception when he caught the ball in bounds and then turned to make the football move of stretching the ball across the goal line. Even though the call on the field was arguably correct, the replay official took away a Cal touchdown for the second time in consecutive plays.  Cal settled for a James Langford field goal to make it 31-10.

The Bears kept some sliver of hope alive when they recovered Langford's perfectly executed onside kick on the ensuing kickoff.  But Cal could not capitalize on the possession, turning the ball over on downs at the Stanford 22.  The Cardinal added a touchdown on the ensuing drive to remove any doubt.

The 21-point was disheartening for the Bears, and not just because Cal fell to Stanford for the fifth consecutive year. It isn't much to say Saturday's loss was more competitive than the 50-point debacle in last year's Big Game, but Stanford's relatively easy victory raises the question of whether the two programs are further apart than Cal fans thought coming into the game.

"We certainly don't feel that the gap is as big as the score is," insisted Goff. "We just didn't play up to our potential, and we made too many mistakes and too many turnovers and really just shot ourselves in the foot all day. When you are playing a team that is as disciplined, strong and experienced as they are, and you make those mistakes, it is going to be hard to win. They are a good team."

Indeed, mistakes and turnovers were a key component of Saturday's loss. Cal turned the ball over five times against a Stanford defense that had managed only two takeaways in conference play prior to Saturday.  And the Bears committed an unsightly 12 penalties for 113 yards while their Cardinal counterparts were flagged only four times for a mere 21 yards.  Cal's penalties were exacerbated by their magnitude: Moore's aforementioned unsportsmanlike conduct penalty turned a 3rd and goal from the one-yard line into a third-and-goal at the 16 and the Bears committed two pass interference penalties on third downs to keep Stanford touchdown drives alive.

As bitter as the defeat is, all is not lost for Cal.  The Bears have one game remaining -- next Saturday at home against BYU at 1:30 PT.  A win will make Cal bowl-eligible, which would be quite an accomplishment for this team after last year's 1-11 campaign.  As nice as that would be, Saturday's Big Game showed that Cal still has a long way to go to become the football team we want the Bears to be.