clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Stanford 35, Cal 22: Sonny Dykes still can't win big games, much less Big Game

Under the pressure, Dykes buckled again.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Axe is staying at Stanford.

If Sonny Dykes is staying at Cal, I don't know when exactly it's ever coming back.

In many respects, Cal played an even if not superior game with Stanford. Cal outgained Stanford 495 to 356, and that advantage was even more pronounced through three quarters. They both averaged six to seven yards per play. Cal was 10-18 on 3rd down, Stanford 5-10. Cal even won the time of possession battle, which feels like a minor miracle as an Air Raid squad battling Stanford grit and grind. Tony Franklin had the Bears marching down the field for much of the game and Art Kaufman had the Cal defense holding its own for three quarters (only 14 points allowed!).

This is actually the proudest I've ever been of the Bears this season. Stanford is a fringe playoff contender and Cal had their chances to pull off a monumental upset. Heck there were times that Cal often looked like the better team play to play.

So why was Stanford leading 21-6 at halftime and 35-16 midway through the 4th quarter? Why did Cal never have a realistic shot at winning this football game?


We'll track through the errors. To the recap.

1st quarter

Cal does a good job stopping Christian McCaffrey on the first drive of the game, allowing only seven yards on two carries (although they're aided by an odd third and long draw play). The Bears aren't much better though, getting pinned deep on their side of the field and running their own 3rd and long draw. A pretty weak Cole Leninger rugby punt put Stanford at midfield, and they marched down the field behind McCaffrey runs of 24, 9, 4, 5 to set up a short Wright touchdown. 7-0.

Cal then did a little ball control of their own, holding the ball for over six minutes! Trevor Davis had a nice return to the 33. Jared Goff completed 17 and 11 yard passes to Darius Powe and 8, 6, and 19 yard passes to Bryce Treggs to put Cal in the red zone.

But Maurice Harris couldn't maintain an easy touchdown catch, Goff threw a hopper short on 3rd down to Kenny Lawler. The Bears were without Kenny Lawler for most of the game (although he did come in at the end of this drive) and Cal simply did not know how to convert in the end zone without the sure-handed Lawler available.

Somewhat of a coaching error: 4th and goal at the 3, and Sonny opted for points. This was after going for it on 4th and short in his own territory! Stanford would be at worst pinned at its own three. Try and tie this game up. Field goals are not going to win this.

It's still early though, so not a huge coaching error.  It becomes more of a coaching error when the trend expands to monstrously bad decisions.

Cal trails 7-3 after one quarter.

2nd quarter

After the Cal defense stiffens near midfield and doesn't allow a play over seven yards, Stanford punts. Goff scatters the wealth to Treggs, Tre Watson, Trevor Davis and Powe, but a pick play penalty by Davis negates a first down and eventually puts Cal in a fourth down situation.

Coaching error #2: 4th and 3 at the Cal 45, Dykes has the team lined up to go for it and opts for the long punt by Harry Adolphus instead. How is this situation any different from the 4th and 1 on the previous drive--Stanford plays straight defense so no way? Goff has been shredding them!

The net touchback gains Cal only 35 yards of field position and Stanford gains most of that back in three plays. Then McCaffrey makes the Cal defense look silly for a 49 yard touchdown. 14-3 Stanford.

Cal marched back with another long and methodical drive before halftime, with Goff finding Chad Hansen, Bug Rivera, Powe and Davis for an assortment of catches. But the drive stalled in the red zone, with Goff overthrowing Hansen for a touchdown and misconnecting with Treggs.

Coaching error #3: 4th and 3 at the 11, and Dykes sends out the field goal unit to cut a 14-3 lead to 14-6. Cal has shown the ability to convert short yardage situations for most of the game now, Stanford has proven they aren't very good at stopping short yardage all season, so why not try and get a crucial touchdown? David Shaw has proven to not be the greatest game manager in close games. Make him think.

Dykes took the points instead.

Then came the coaching gaffe that essentially put Stanford in the driver's seat.

Massive error: The decision to kick directly to McCaffrey. Okay, Hogan has done nothing with the football so far tonight. Stanford generally is one of the most conservative teams in the country when it comes to two minute drills--if they don't have to do it, they won't.  Squib it and go into halftime down 14-6, if not 17-6.

So, why, why, why would you line drive kick it to Christian? McCaffrey was the 7th leading kickoff returner in the nation coming into Saturday's game and has been the only player on Stanford you've had trouble stopping. WHY?

Touchdown Stanford. Bears went into the locker room trailing 21-6.

3rd quarter

Cal got the ball to start the second half and were in the red zone in a minute thanks to a huge Watson rush and Goff finding Maurice Harris for 23 more yards. But again the drive stalled when Goff and Watson couldn't quite connect correctly on 3rd and short.

Colossal error: 4th and 3 at the 8 and down 21-6, Dykes sends in the field goal unit to cut a two touchdown lead to a two touchdown lead. Seriously, why? There is decent justification for the first field goal and at least you're cutting a two score game to a one score game on the second, but this one makes no sense. Again, for the THIRD TIME IN A ROW, the worst that can happen is Stanford gets pinned back deep.  The best thing that happens is it's a one score game and you know a stop and score could have this thing all tied up!

Oh well. It's 21-9.

The Cal defense plays inspired football and forces a Stanford 3-and-out, and the Bears finally score a touchdown: 13 plays, 86 yards. Goff was at his best, going 7 for 8, overcoming a bad intentional grounding penalty and distributing the ball to Harris, Hansen, Powe and Davis. Goff would finally find Powe leaking to the outside in the end zone on 3rd and goal to make it 21-16.

4th quarter

But Stanford finally commits to the run for good, and Cal doesn't do a good job of stopping it. McCaffrey picks up 44 yards on the ground to fight his way to the Cal red zone, a screen to Francis Owusu puts Stanford in 4th and goal, and the offensive line just grinds down an overmatched front seven. 28-16 Stanford.

Cal had to respond on their next drive, and Goff led Cal back to the red zone with crucial first down throws to Treggs, Ray Hudson, Treggs and Powe. But a ticky-tack roughness penalty on Dominic Granado put Cal in 3rd and 25 situation, and Goff eventually overthrew Hansen on 4th down.

A Bryce Love 48 yard touchdown put the game on ice for Stanford on the next drive.

Why. Are. You. Kicking: This game is almost out of reach, but crazier things have happened in Big Games, right? Cal always fights to the very end against Stanford, right?


4th and 6 at the Cal 39 and Dykes sends in the punt unit.

Stanford burns 2.5 minutes off the clock and Cal gets the ball back in time to score a stupid touchdown.

Why. Are. You. Kicking, Part II: A quick minute drill drive by Cal leads to a long connection from Goff to Treggs that makes it a two touchdown game with 1:44 left, so now we go for craziness and see what happens, right?

Nope, instead of attempting an onside kick, Dykes kicked the ball away so Stanford could run out the clock. Either that or it was the most off-target onside kick of all time.

The Bear will not quit! Except when Dykes was assured that Cal would not be blown out. Then it's time to go home.


Cal had a good overall gameplan to contain the Stanford offense that worked for three quarters before the talent gap up front had its way. The Tony Franklin System did a good job moving the ball up and down the field and putting Cal in a position to score. The players did their best to go toe-to-toe with a more skilled and talented foe.

But red zone failures plagued the Bears, and the coaching didn't step up and  and with nothing to lose and everything to gain Dykes opted for field goals instead of touchdowns at every early juncture to give Stanford an advantage that they would not relinquish.

Repeat: Stanford has scored 30+ points in every game in Pac-12 play, and Dykes thought nine points would be enough to "keep the Bears in it". If that's the type of coaching you think will ever win the Pac-12, much less get the Axe back home, you're kidding yourself.

I don't know if Cal beats Stanford on Saturday, but losing by two scores to them is unacceptable given how closely the Bears played the Trees in the trenches. Dykes played it safe and hoped that the players would bail out the majority of his conservative decisions. They did their best, but Stanford is too formidable an opponent for the head coach to play it safe.

So Sonny Dykes has his bowl game, but it's hard for Cal fans to feel good about anything else.

  • For the second straight year, Dykes's team started strong only to falter late in the season. Cal started 4-1 in 2014 and finished 1-6 with three narrow losses and three decisive beatings. Cal started 5-0 in 2015 and is currently on a 1-5 slid with two narrow losses and three decisive beatings.
  • Sonny has only beaten hapless Oregon State past the midpoint of October during his Cal tenure.
  • Dykes is 2-19 against winning FBS teams (this year's San Diego State and Washington State squads).
  • Cal is 0-9 against the California rivals in Dykes's tenure, and only a third of those losses have come by a touchdown or less, and only in one of those games did Cal have a chance to win the game with the ball.
  • Cal has been outscored 146-52 in its last three Big Games. Sonny Dykes has never held a LEAD at a single point of any Big Game!
Finally, the most annoying, frustrating, horrifying stat of all.
  • Tom Holmoe: 12-21 in first three years at Cal, 7-17 in Pac-10, 3 Big Game losses
  • Sonny Dykes: 12-23 in first three years at Cal, 6-20 in Pac-12, 3 Big Game losses

Cal is going to make a decision soon about whether they believe in Sonny Dykes long-term. Throw out all the academic considerations, the great group of players who bleed blue and gold, and the embracing of Cal traditions. These are all things that can be accomplished with proper institutional support, and it seems like Cal is providing it on a stronger basis.

Ask yourself these football-only questions about these coaches:
  • Are you happy with what you've seen from your coaching staff on a game-to-game basis?
  • Do they make adjustments you agree with on a regular basis? Do they make strategically sound decisions?
  • Are you prepared for a step back to see if the program can take two steps forward in the years to follow?
  • Is this team ready to play from snap to whistle? Are they disciplined? Are there clear signs of improvement year to year, game to game?
  • Can they recruit at an elite level and find the players that can thrive at Cal and bring back the swagger missing from this program for a decade?
  • What are your expectations for this program year to year? How much (or little) do you expect from your Bears every year? And what do you expect these coaches to do based on what they've previously accomplished at Cal?
  • How much do you think this staff outcoaches the opposition on gameday? Are we well-prepared, ready to play, and executing at a high level?
  • Do you believe this is the group that can build a program that is resilient and strong for the long haul?
As the Bears prepare to commit to Sonny Dykes for the future, I hope they ask these questions first and foremost. Because the Big Game brought all those warts back out. At times, it felt like Dykes was playing for a safe close loss rather than going all-out for the big-time upset, and that's a feeling I've felt way too many times this season in our second half stumble. "Yeah, we lost again, but look at how close this one was compared to last year!"

With nothing to lose and a bowl game at hand, I was expecting so much more from Sonny. He had so many chances to get that signature win, the game that would galvanize the Cal fanbase. After three years, Cal is still waiting, and the fanbase discontent grows stronger year by year. Time is running out for him to earn the goodwill he needs to be here for the long haul. Big Game was the best prepared his team has looked, but again his coaching flubs booted the opportunity away.

So Cal goes another year without the Axe. And as Stanford celebrates another likely New Year's Bowl and potentially more Pasadena roses, the excuses for the Bears not being able to be as great when their archrivals can stand tall in the Pac-12 wear thin.

All it takes is one great coach to turn a program around. As season 3 draws to a close with Dykes, it's becoming harder to believe it's the one we currently have.