An end to more than bowl hopes

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Jeff Tedford preached leadership after Saturday’s game.

At least that is what he told reporters after Cal’s second straight loss left the squad needing to win out to make a bowl.

“It’s gonna take leadership from everyone,” he said.

On defense, the Bears’ emotional leader is linebacker Chris McCain, at home with a heart that surely hurt more than the bum ankle that cost him a trip to Salt Lake City. On offense, the quarterback is the leader, but Zach Maynard seems to only lead his team in field goal drives.

The head coach is the undisputed leader of the entire team. Yet there was apparently no motivational monologue from Tedford after Cal’s embarrassing 49-27 loss to Pac-12 bottom-dweller Utah. There was no emotional sermon from the 50-year-old who might soon be out of a job.

Instead, Tedford said that he let the players do most of the talking in the postgame locker room.

Despite fielding a team that opened its season with a stupefying loss to Nevada, failed to score a touchdown in last week’s Big Game meltdown and then failed to show up in Saturday’s must-win game against the Utes, Tedford claimed that he and the coaches have not lost their team.

“Not at all,” he said. “No way. Emphatically, no way.”

One must take Tedford at his word, especially as there is no evidence to the contrary; but one can only wonder when a squad as talented as Cal can’t even stay competitive with a foe as weak as Utah. When a team can’t put it together, blame doesn’t fall on struggling seniors or zealous sophomores — it falls on the coach. That’s why Tedford makes $2.3 million a year.

The thing is, Saturday’s loss is not all that surprising. Neither is Utah’s margin of victory. This is the second straight year that the Bears set off for an easy victory over a floundering team and returned home licking their wounds.

Last year, it was against a UCLA squad coming off a 36-point loss that left five players suspended. Saturday, the Bears could not defeat a Utah club that had yet to beat a Pac-12 opponent.

In fact, these lopsided outcomes have become commonplace over the last few years. In 2009, there was the 42-3 loss to Oregon, followed by the 30-3 defeat to USC. The next year held the worst Big Game loss in 80 years, a 48-14 decision. The Ducks only beat Cal by 28 points last year, but there is clearly something very wrong when the Bears’ 7-6 season was considered successful.

But Utah is not Oregon, USC or Stanford. This loss has already been cemented as one of Tedford’s worst.

The Bears deserve better than that. It’s not fair to Isi Sofele, who scraped and clawed his way to 47 rushing yards playing in front of friends and family in his home state of Utah. It’s not fair to Cole Leininger, who twice punted from his own end zone.

It’s not fair to Keenan Allen, arguably Cal’s greatest receiver ever after breaking the school record for receptions Saturday.

“I’d rather have the win,” said the always honest junior.

It is hard to argue that Cal does not have more individual talent than Utah, but the Utes are clearly better than the sum of their parts — and they are clearly better than the Bears.

Winning the remaining three games is not impossible for Cal, but it will require more than hard work. Effort is not everything. Of course, the Bears tried. Of course, they competed.

What they need is execution and precision and preparation and everything that is not talent and sweat.

The fans at Memorial Stadium will still cheer when Cal runs through the North Tunnel on Friday night. They are trying to have everyone wear gold to “gold out” the Huskies.

That same promotion worked for Utah in its “blackout” game. But the 40,000-plus people wearing black at Rice-Eccles Stadium might as well have been mourning the end of Cal’s season and its coach’s career.

Jonathan Kuperberg covers football. Contact him at [email protected]