In the 120th rendition of the Big Game, the Cal football team headed to Stanford looking for its first victory since 2009. Despite a performance that made this one of the most exciting Big Games in years, Cal once again came up short against their cross-bay rivals, 17-14. Difficulty getting into the redzone in the first half, as well as a crucial fourth quarter interception by Ross Bowers did the Bears in, giving Stanford the longest winning streak in the history of the game.
“We had our opportunities and that’s why this one hurts so much,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox.
The first half was relatively uneventful on the scoreboard. Both offenses racked up more than 170 yards in the first half, and moving the ball in the middle of the field was seemingly easy. But as each offense entered its opponent’s half, the defenses stepped up and held their opposition in check.
Stanford running back Bryce Love ran for nine on the first play of the game, a seemingly poor omen for a notably weak Cal run defense. A pass two plays later went for 33 yards, and it seemed like the Cardinal would quickly score. Great play from Cal linebackers Alex Funches and Gerran Brown, however, stalled the Stanford drive and they settled for three points.
The Cal offense then responded similarly, with two straight big-yardage completions by Ross Bowers ─ first to Vic Wharton for 10 and then to Jordan Veasy for 23. Running back Patrick Laird got in on the action, gaining solid yards on the ground, as well as on a 20-yard pass play, but he too was stopped before he entered the redzone. Matt Anderson tied the game with a 44-yard field goal.
The next Stanford drive had one big gain and two first downs, but then the Cal defense ─ helped by Brown again, and defensive lineman James Looney ─ stepped up on a third down to take down Cardinal quarterback K.J. Costello and force a punt.
Cal certainly had an opportunity to take the lead on the next drive. Laird rushed up the middle on the first play for 47 yards, and then a few plays later took a run up the gut to keep the drive alive on fourth down. But Bowers overthrew Laird in single coverage approaching the endzone, and the Bears had to settle for a 47-yard field goal, which Anderson missed short, bouncing the wrong way off the crossbar.
Costello led Stanford on their next drive very methodically, taking just over six minutes and going 4-6 with a nine yard run, ending the drive with a 17-yard strike to Kaden Smith to put the Cardinal up 10-3.
Cal quickly responded, but again had difficulty getting into the endzone. Big gains from Laird got the Bears into the redzone, but they were stuffed there and forced to take another Anderson field goal.
One more drive for Stanford was relatively unsuccessful in the final 2:35, and it ended with a pick by Darius Allensworth as the half expired.
Cal started the second half with the ball, but didn’t make much of it, getting to the Cardinal 44 before a Bowers pooch punt gave Stanford the ball. Love, who had a dismal first half with 17 yards on six carries, quickly showed why he is a Heisman candidate, breaking away on the left edge for a 57-yard touchdown.
“Just didn’t fit it right. Give him a little crease and you guys saw what he’s done all year when he finds a little crease,” said Cal linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk. “One big play like that, in the end, could change the outcome of the game.”
Laird, who had the far better stat line in the first half, made sure not to be outdone with rushes of 17 and 39 yards to get Cal one yard out of the endzone. Laird punched it in for the touchdown on the following play, and Bowers opted to run it in for the two-point conversion to cut the Bears’ deficit to 17-14.
Cal desperately needed to hold Stanford out of the endzone on the following drive, which consumed almost eight minutes of clock. After giving up four first downs and 49 yards, the Cal defense twice held up Love for short yardage. Then a brilliant pass breakup by Elijah Hicks forced a field goal, which missed wide right and gave Cal the ball back with just over 11 minutes left.
Cal appeared to be driving on a scoring drive, converting on a huge 3rd and 11 with a Bowers pass to Jordan Veasy, but the opportunity was squandered on the next play. A deep ball lofted toward Jeremiah Hawkins was easily picked off. With only 7:25 remaining, Cal still needed at least a stop and a field goal to tie.
“Offensively we executed pretty well, just that one turnover,” Bowers said. “We have one more game. That’s what we’re focused on. We’re focused on UCLA.”
The Cardinal turned to a ground and pound effort that ultimately ran down the clock. With 2:19 left, Stanford running back Cameron Scarlett jumped over his line to convert on fourth down and seal the win.
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].