For a while, it looked as if Cal football (4-7, 2-6 Pac-12) would pull off the shocking upset. In the midst of a three-game losing streak where they looked equal parts exhausted and overmatched, the Bears returned to Memorial Stadium (where they were 3-1 this season) on Saturday in the hopes of finally defeating a red-hot No. 24 Stanford team (8-3, 6-3).
The last time Cal lifted the Axe was in 2009, when then-head coach Jeff Tedford was in his eighth of 11 seasons with the Bears, Jared Goff was at Marin Catholic and Dykes was the offensive coordinator at Arizona. For a program punctuated by constant ups and downs, a win over the Cardinal would at least serve as a symbolic step in the right direction. Instead, the Bears produced a pedestrian effort for the fourth consecutive week, falling to their rivals, 45-31. With the loss, Cal’s chances of reaching a bowl game this year are effectively out the window, barring the inclusion of several 5-7 teams this postseason.
“I’m disappointed in the way the night played out,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “I thought going into halftime we were in a pretty good position, and then we came out in the third quarter and didn’t maximize our possessions on offense.”
During the first half, all the trite talk of “good week of practice” and “important game for our legacy” seemed apt. Cal’s defense, which had surrendered an abysmal 45.6 points per game coming into the matchup, held up its end of the bargain, rattling Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst with its pass rush and getting a rare decent showing from its secondary. Chryst finished the first half 9-16 with 105 passing yards and one rushing touchdown. The Bears’ run defense, however, continued to be every Cal fan’s worst nightmare and every running back’s dream come true. Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey entered halftime with 124 yards on 15 carries after setting up Chryst’s touchdown and one from tight end Dalton Schultz.
Even with wide receiver Chad Hansen at nearly full strength, however, Cal struggled against a 14th-ranked Stanford defense. A 7-yard rushing touchdown by running back Tre Watson just more than a minute into the second quarter gave Cal its last points of the half and a momentary 14-7 lead.
Stanford proceeded to score 17 unanswered points until the Bears stopped the bleeding with a 43-yard field goal from Matt Anderson almost six minutes into the third quarter. But by then, it was too late for Cal.
Despite beginning the third quarter with a meager 17-14 deficit, the Bears appeared to be out of gas, which Stanford began to use to its advantage by leaning heavily on McCaffrey. Cal’s defense — unable to stymie the run-heavy Cardinal — failed to contain Stanford’s workhorse, who collected 143 yards in the third quarter, highlighted by a 90-yard rushing touchdown. McCaffrey would go on to break his own single-game school record for rushing yards, finishing the night with 284.
“Christian McCaffrey is really a once-in-a-lifetime football player. He’s as good as advertised,” Dykes said.
Though the Bears were only down 31-24 heading into the final quarter, it seemed the Cal faithful had seen enough. Stanford eventually tacked on two more touchdowns in the fourth, including a 1-yard rushing touchdown from McCaffrey.
Cal’s defense, which has woefully occupied much of the spotlight this season, labored its way to yet another dreadful performance against the Cardinal, which ultimately tallied 555 total yards. Aside from McCaffrey’s 306 all-purpose yards, wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside had 107 yards on only four receptions.
“We need to continue to get better at the details,” Dykes said. “We’re a team that doesn’t have a tremendous margin for error, and when you don’t have that, you have to be really good at the little things. We’re not good enough at them yet.”