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The Wrap: Cal falls to Stanford in the Big Game

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The Bears fell just short of a massive upset in Palo Alto

California v Stanford Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

An optimist and a pessimist walk into a bar...

There were many reactions worn by Cal fans as the Stanford offense lined up in victory formation at the end of the 120th big game. Some Cal fans stood and watched the final seconds tick by, perhaps to let the memory sink in so it will be that much sweeter when the shoe is eventually on the other foot. Section 238, Row LL felt robbed of the jovial vibe that had carried through the section for most of the evening and was left a somber and pensive wasteland filled with the usual “what ifs” and “but why’s”.

The two reactions I most want to acknowledge and then examine is that of the aforementioned optimist and pessimist, as they both would surely enjoy each others company at a dinner table.

An optimist looks at this game and takes away a lot of little wins.

This is year one for coach Wilcox, the spread was Stanford -14.5, Cal lost arguably the Pac-12 defensive player of the year and still contained Bryce Love (outside of one run), Cal was projected to win two games this year, Cal was one or two passes away from winning this football game. Hell, you don’t even have to be all that optimistic to say that these Cal bears are away ahead of schedule. On paper the Bears had no business being in this game. This is by in large the same team that Stanford throttled each and every year during the Sonny Dykes era and by a stoke of coaching magic here they are less than a year later competing with a Pac-12 north favorite.

This is exactly what Cal has done all year long and why so many Cal fans will be pointing directly to 2018 when any Stanford fan comes knocking. The bright side for the Bears is quite clear. Cal will return most of their offense and most of their defense for 2018 while adding depth. Patrick Laird, who finished the evening with a ridiculous 153 yards and a touchdown, will be back with nearly the same offensive line and more threats at receiver. Ross Bowers will either return as a clear cut starter with hopefully improved deep ball accuracy or at worst be an extremely serviceable backup with a plethora of dynamic receivers in Wharton, Robertson, Stovall, Noa and most likely Ray Hudson.

Defensively Hicks and Bynum will be haunting receivers for years to come and the defensive line will see the return of Cameron Saffle and the arrival of Gabe Cherry to help increase the effectiveness of each Bears blitz. The future is extremely bright and playing Stanford to the closest big game result in recent history adds to a very impressive first year for Coach Wilcox and the Cal staff.

And now for the pessimist perspective...

There is a case to be made that despite the rosy (see what I did there) future that may await the Bears, Cal gave away this game. Most people will point to the interception thrown in the 4th quarter as the key moment where Cal went from inevitably pulling off the upset to inevitably losing in the most painful way possible.

Not only did it seem like Ross Bowers had another option on that play, the pass itself was in such a bad position that Vic Wharton couldn’t contest the safety who eventually picked the ball off. At the time, Cal was driving downfield and it felt like the Bears might be able to maintain possession for the entire rest of the fourth quarter before scoring the elusive go ahead touchdown. Alas it wasn’t meant to be.

While that play had a measurable impact on the outcome, there were other moments that doomed the Bears. Bowers looked solid coming out of the bye week, hitting his receivers in stride and the timing routes to the outside were a thing of beauty all night long. The biggest thing that killed Cal tonight was their inability to come away with touchdowns when in Stanford territory. Bowers missed Wharton on a deep ball in 1 on 1 coverage that could have been a touchdown and then a drive later badly missed an open Patrick Laird on a ball that looked like it had end zone written all over it. When you are on the road against a two touchdown favorite, you have to get into the end zone. The Bears, for all the good they accomplished on offense, didn’t find the end zone enough when they had the chance. There was also the missed field goal by Matt Anderson that would have most likely left Stanford trusting their kicker to win the game at the end of regulation but Anderson’s kick fell short.

Defensively there were a couple of bad reads early and of course a big run from Bryce Love when Gerran Brown couldn’t get to the outside in time to prevent the 50+ yard score. The defensive backs were at times overmatched by Stanford’s bigger receivers, with K.J. Costello lobbing critical passes over Cal defenders. The defensive line towards the end of the game struggled to get much of a push against the bigger Cardinal offensive line and eventually that determined the game on a game sealing fourth and one run by Cameron Scarlett. Finally, on the only passing touchdown for Stanford the Bears defense nearly got to Costello but he stepped into the pocket just past our edge rusher and hitting his receiver in stride for a touchdown. It was this combination of smaller plays that in aggregate made a huge difference on the outcome of this football game.

Final Thoughts

As coach Wilcox generally says after a win or a loss, there are always places that this team can improve and still can be so much better. It is really hard to complain about much when a team that had such low expectations to begin the year is playing at this high of a level after playing one of the toughest schedules in the country. Cal fans should take pride in the fact that they at least hit 5 Stanford fans with 25 t-shirts that were inexplicably left on their chairs to start the game and dominated the in game atmosphere all evening. The sections in Stanford stadium were as full of Cal fans as I can remember in recent years which speaks to the upward trajectory of this program and hopefully will ignite the rest of the Cal faithful.

The Wilcox era at Cal is just beginning and dare I say there is a lot that Cal fans deserve to be hopeful about, despite how risky that can be.

There will still be questions about the missed chances and there will be plenty of fond memories to go along with those questions (hello Dylan Klumph fake punt). The Big Game has returned to its better form, a matchup that each team has a true shot at winning. This year we will take comfort in that. Next year, we will take the Axe.