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Bowl-less in Berkeley: Cal loses to BYU 42-35 to end the 2014 season

The season is over.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

When Jared Goff's final pass of the 2014 California Golden Bears' football season fell incomplete in the north end zone of Kabam Field at California Memorial Stadium, clinching a 42-35 victory for the BYU Cougars (8-4) and ending Cal's season one victory short of bowl eligibility, it was inevitable for the grueling exercise of mental self-torment to hit most Cal fans. The exercise of mentally reviewing the season was bound to result in recalling many moments during the season where the Bears might have made a play here and there to pick up one more win.

The fact of the matter is, there were many such moments.  And I'm not just talking about the obvious ones like the Hail Mary pass by Arizona or the last minute interception by UCLA or the 100-yard fumble return and consequent 14-point turnaround by Washington.  While Cal fans will remember those specific plays as fulcrums upon which the season pivoted, no epitaph of the Bears' 2014 season is complete without a discussion of Cal's inability to stop the opposition's passing game.  Coming into Saturday's game against BYU, the Bears had given up 361.2 passing yards per game, ranking 125th -- dead last -- in FBS in yards per game allowed.  (In fact, entering Saturday, Cal and Washington State were the only two teams in FBS that averaged 300 yards or more given up per game through the air.)

As far as Cal's inability to defend the pass, Saturday's game proved to be a microcosm of the first eleven games of the season. BYU quarterback Christian Stewart, a former walk-on, torched the Bears' secondary for 433 yards (on 23 of 38 passing) and five touchdown passes.  Twelve of those completions, 267 of those yards, and four of those touchdowns came as a result of passes to wide receivers Jordan Leslie (5 receptions, 155 yards, 2 TD) and Mitch Juergens (7 receptions, 107 yards, 2 TD). And the Bears looked particularly bad on the two fourth-quarter touchdowns to Leslie: (1) an 83-yarder in which Leslie beat Cameron Walker on a vertical route down the right sideline and (2) a 38-yard pass with 2:39 remaining that proved to be the game-winner, a play in which Leslie inexplicably ran free down the center of the field with none of the Cal defensive backs seeming to own the responsibility of covering him.

Frustrating as the long touchdowns to Leslie were, almost as frustrating was the Bears' inability to get a consistent pass rush on Stewart, a bugaboo of the Bears all season long. Though Cal managed three sacks on the afternoon, the Bears had numerous other opportunities where they simply could not get to Stewart before he was able to dump the ball off to checkdowns, who ran for big yardage after the catch.  And ironically, one of Cal's three sacks on the afternoon was one that the Bears would have rather not had.  In the second quarter, with Cal leading 21-14 and BYU facing a third down at the Cal 33, Jalen Jefferson chased Stewart into an ill-advised pass that was intercepted by Devante Downs and returned 53 yards for an apparent Cal touchdown.  However, the Bears' BFF -- the replay official -- reversed the touchdown after determining that Stewart's knee had touched down before he threw the ball.  Instead of a potentially game-changing pick 6 and a two-touchdown lead, the Bears had to settle for a seven-point halftime lead.

Whatever momentum the Bears lost from the pick-6-that-wasn't they seemingly regained in the third quarter after a stunning turn of events left the Bears on the right end of a 14-point turnaround.  The Cougars appeared as though they were going to parlay a Goff interception into seven points when the Cougars had first-and-goal at the Cal 1-yard line.  But an errant lateral by Stewart was recovered by Cal's Stefan McClure, ending the scoring threat.  Tre Watson capped Cal's ensuing drive with a 9-yard touchdown scamper around right end to give the Bears a 28-21 lead with 4:12 left in the third quarter.

The Bears could not hold the momentum, however. BYU answered the Watson touchdown with a frighteningly easy 10-play, 81-yard drive, scoring on Stewart's second touchdown pass of the day Juergens.  Minutes into the fourth quarter, the Bears then found themselves behind after the defense could not capitalize on a Luke Rubenzer pooch punt that pinned the Cougars at their own 1-yard line. The Cougars converted a 3rd-and-1 and their own ten-yard line before Stewart burned the Bears with the 83-yard touchdown pass to Leslie.

Though the Bears would tie the game on an outstanding 23-yard pass play from Goff to Trevor Davis with 9:17 remaining and eventually got the ball back after a BYU punt with 6:54 left, the bowl dream was not to be. Cal elected to punt and fourth-and-one from its own 34, giving the ball back to BYU with 4:27 left.  The Cougars drove 66 yards in just five plays for the game-winning score, the last four of them passes.  The final play was the aforementioned wide-open 38-yard touchdown pass to Leslie.

Down by 7 with 2:35 left, Goff attempted to lead Cal on a game-tying or -winning drive. And he looked as if he might, marching the Bears from the Cal 33 to the BYU 9-yard line with 29 seconds left.  Marring the drive, however, were a curious game management decision and a costly mental error.  Cal Coach Sonny Dykes used a timeout 53 seconds remaining after a run by Daniel Lasco netted the Bears a first down at the BYU 35.  Dykes burned the timeout (Cal's next-to-last) even though the clock stopped after Lasco made the first down.  At the very least, if he was indeed intent on using a timeout in that situation, Dykes might have waited until the chains were moved and the ball was set for play.  If he had done that, a timeout would not have been necessary because, as it turned out, BYU had an injured player who would have necessitated an officials' timeout.

The Bears' unnecessary timeout proved costly because of the mental error a moment later.  After a 26-yard pass from Goff to Kenny Lawler (12 catches, 138 yards, 3 TD) gave Cal a first-and-goal at the BYU 9-yard line, the Bears were whistled for a false start (Cal's only penalty of the second half), moving them back to the 14-yard line.  To avoid the 10-second clock runoff otherwise required by rule, the Bears were forced to use their final timeout with 29 seconds remaining.  Though Cal saved 10 seconds, it no longer had a timeout -- a circumstance which may have limited the offensive options the Bears may have otherwise had in the red zone.  Four incompletions later (each of which were intended for Lawler), Cal's bowl hopes were gone.

The loss was bitter and meant the Bears ended the season with three straight losses and losses in 6 of their last 7 games.  But what should not be lost in the bitterness of the loss are some of the accomplishments the Bears achieved this season.  Among them:

  • Cal won 5 games after winning only 1 in 2013;
  • Lasco gained 130 yards on 26 carries against BYU, giving him his fifth 100-yard rushing performance of the season; Lasco also finished the season with 1,115 yards to become Cal's first 1,000-yard rusher since Isi Sofele in 2011;
  • Goff threw for 3,973 yards and 35 touchdowns, both Cal single-season records;
  • Lawler caught three touchdown passes against BYU, giving him 9 for the season, good for fifth all time on Cal's single season receiving list;
  • Cal set the school single-season record for team passing yards with 4,152, set the modern record for points in a season (459), and tied the school record for touchdowns (59).

Numbers aside, the important stat is wins.  And Cal was one victory short of achieving its goal of a bowl game this year.  If Cal is to make progress in 2015, the Bears will have to see to it that they find a defense that can improve as much as the Cal offense did from 2013 to 2014.