Fighting the good fight — but coming up short

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Memorial Stadium was ready for Saturday’s Opening Day. Cal, however, didn’t show up until the second quarter.

The two-sentence press release showed up about five minutes before the kickoff of Nevada’s 31-24 win. Zach Maynard will not start due to missed tutoring appointment, it said. The team was told on Friday. Maynard’s half-brother, star receiver Keenan Allen, found out on Thursday. The decision was made in early June.

So after the Bears’ defense stuffed Nevada’s pistol offense on their first drive of the contest — Cal’s best defensive stand of the game, by the way — Allan Bridgford took over.

Bridgford, a junior with 13 competitions, 184 yards and zero touchdowns to his name, went 1-of-8 for eight yards. On Cal’s fourth drive, with the Wolf Pack already leading by a touchdown, head coach Jeff Tedford had seen enough and sent Maynard into the ball game even though 1:34 still remained and Maynard had been told he would miss the entire first quarter.

Maynard’s first pass was a 20-yard strike to tight end Jacob Wark, but the punting team was out soon enough. The senior signal caller admitted that he needed time to get into a rhythm, and by the time he did, his squad was looking at a 14-point deficit.

The Bears fought the good fight for the next three quarters, as Maynard brought the team back to a 24-24 standstill. True freshmen Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs caught eight passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns between them, and Vince D’Amato nailed a 40-yard field goal after missing a 31-yarder. Tedford even had no reservations about going for it on 4th-and-9, as Maynard found Allen 11 yards for a first down.

But Cal ran out of time.

With 5:44 to go and the ball on their own two, the Bears managed to gain a first down after tailback C.J. Anderson cut to the outside for nine yards. A sack forced Cal into a third-and-long — one of many — and pretty soon the Wolf Pack were within field goal range with one minute left. Game over.

The thing is, overall the Bears didn’t play that poorly. The defense’s performance — weak as it was — still was better than two years ago. In that game, Nevada’s pistol offense “beat the bricks off of Cal,” as linebacker Chris McCain put it on Saturday. Maynard was decent — above the “average” grade Tedford bestowed upon him — and the squad turned the ball over just once before the very end. Nevada even had twice as many penalty yards as Cal.

The Bears just needed another drive. But not one lost from Maynard’s first quarter absence, which Tedford should be applauded for in expecting accountability not just on the field but in the classroom, too.

Cal did not lose because Zach Maynard missed a tutoring session with a coach months ago. The Bears lost because Maynard fumbled a yard short of the red zone, because receivers missed wide open passes and because 1,300-yard rusher Isi Sofele had just five carries for 21 yards. They lost because the defense allowed Cody Fajardo and Stefphon Jefferson to run all over them for 269 yards and four scores. “We didn’t execute,” McCain said. “We let frustration get the best of us.”

Most of all, they lost because Nevada is a better team.

Just because Memorial Stadium had a $321 million improvement doesn’t mean the Cal football team is vastly improved. While the stadium kept key aspects of its history — such as the facade — the team continued its history of losing in heartbreaking fashion.

Maybe there’s no magic left in Memorial. Or maybe the Bears are nothing more than a barely bowl-eligible squad playing in a stadium far more captivating than the semi-attractive club they have become.