There were a lot of factors that looked to be going Cal football’s way in their quest to become bowl-eligible with a road win over UCLA. The Bruins had just fired their head coach Jim Mora, and just a year ago, the Bears blew out UCLA in their Thanksgiving week game. But the only factors that truly mattered in this game were the superb play of Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen and his wide receiving core, and Cal quarterback Ross Bowers inability to get his own passing game going until the very end of the game. “Chosen Rosen” looked destined to end Cal’s bowl-eligibility hopes by himself, but even with him missing the second half, Cal couldn’t capitalize, and their season came to a close with a 30-27 loss in the Rose Bowl.
Following a missed 46 yard field goal from Matt Anderson on the Bears first drive, the Bears defense clearly came out with something to prove after their loss to Stanford. Raymond Davidson III and Alex Funches both had massive sacks on Rosen on the Bruins first drive, but Rosen did manage to convert a 3rd and 16 before punting the ball away. It was a haunting omen of his consistent ability to make plays in dangerous situations.
A punt from Dylan Klumph on the next drive pinned the Bruins at their own four yard line, and Rosen had the ball slip from his hand while in the endzone, but he managed to pick up his own fumble and dive out of the endzone, avoiding a defensive touchdown or safety. Shortly after, Cal took a 3-0 lead on a field goal following a Bruins fumble, but it’s hard not to think that the Bears could have juiced the situation for more.
With points finally on the board, the Rosen show began, and he picked apart Cal’s defense on the way to a touchdown despite fairly good play from the Bears secondary. He was now fully in the swing of the game, and seemingly couldn’t be touched by what had been a formidable Cal pass rush. The Bruins managed a field goal and a touchdown on their next two drives, with Rosen picking up chunk plays with ease.
Cal’s offense managed two more field goals in that time to make the halftime score 17-9, but things were trending the wrong way, with the Bears unable to turn good field position into touchdowns, and quarterback Ross Bowers failing to get into a rhythm. He was held to 62 first half passing yards, and after Cal’s third field goal he was visibly upset with the inability to get in the end zone, after he had lead the Bears to the red zone for the second time.
“You can’t kick field goals and play good teams, and they came out and played well tonight,” Bowers said.
Funches again brought Rosen down as the first half was coming to a close, wrestling him to the ground with the brunt of the fall coming on Rosen’s head. He finished the drive, but the UCLA signal caller would not return for the second-half, with Devon Modster taking the reigns.
The beginning of the second half featured some ugly offense on both sides, but without Rosen to worry about, Cal seemed to find its stride. On 4th and 2 from the UCLA 22 yard line, Laird hurdled a defender to set up an easy Bowers keeper for a touchdown. A successful two point conversion tied the game at 17-17.
Modster was getting his legs under him at the exact same time, and two beautiful throws moved the Bruins into the red zone, from which they punched in a rushing touchdown for a 24-17 lead. Wide receiver Jordan Lasley was quickly becoming a big time problem for the Cal secondary, and he was up to eight receptions and 150 yards midway through the third quarter.
Still without a passing game to speak of, offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin rode Laird as the offensive focal point, and he had his 27th rushing attempt by the end of the third quarter, by which point he was leading the Bears down the field nearly on his lonesome. Just outside of the red zone, Cal once again went for it on 4th and 3, but a brutal sack and turnover on downs meant Cal once again came away from a good offensive possession without much to show.
Another huge completion to Lasley — this one for 41 yards — got UCLA’s next possession started right, and a field goal made it a two-possession game early in the fourth quarter, 24-17. Jeremiah Hawkins ran into his own blocker on the ensuing kick return, falling at the 10 yard line and making clear that the comeback to extend the Bears season was going to be tough to come by.
Bowers had his best drive of the game, completing five passes for 61 yards and adding 13 yards rushing before the team had to settle for another field goal when the Bruins finally figured out how to stuff Laird runs. But Cal’s defense came up with a big stop on the next drive, and Bowers drove his team right back down the field.
A costly defensive holding penalty on 3rd and 14 gave the Bears a new chance after the drive looked to be coming to an early close. Bowers made one of his finest throws of the season on a fade to Jordan Veasy that tied the game at 27-27 with a little over two minutes remaining.
Unsurprisingly, it was Lasley that ended up costing Cal the game, his nine yard reception moving him over 200 yard for the game and putting the Bruins firmly into field goal position. J.J Molson’s 37 yard attempt was good despite an icing attempt from Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. The Bruins were up 30-27, and the four seconds remaining were an unfortunate technicality in a decided contest.
Three of the Bears’ final four games on the season were road losses, all hard to swallow for Cal faithful in their own particular way. The Bears simply played their worst game of the season against a mediocre Colorado squad, but Stanford and UCLA were both well fought before the opponent’s superiority showed through.
“On the road we’ve hurt ourselves penalty wise more than we have at home,” Laird said. “But I like our group of guys and I’m confident we’re going to figure it out.”
Each is a tad difficult to criticize all that much on their own, but the fact that pulling out a win in any of those three would have meant playing December football puts a damper on the end of a season in which Cal still managed to impress overall. An appearance in the Independence Bowl may not have ended up meaning much in the long term, but it would have avoided having a season that began so hopefully end so quietly.