Halfway through the second quarter Saturday, Cal’s defense literally caught what looked like an insanely lucky break.
In a third-and-3 situation for Washington State, Cal junior safety Michael Lowe stepped in front of Connor Halliday’s pass for an interception. As he scrambled to find his footing, his knee grazed the turf. But he leapt up and kept running, all the way to the end zone.
Just as he was about to cross the threshold, Lowe back-flipped into the promised land.
It was the kind of play that Cal’s problem-riddled defense could only dream of this season. It was big. It was momentum-shifting. It would have been the Bears’ first touchdown of the day and cut the Cougars’ lead to two.
Instead, officials reviewed the play and ruled that Lowe’s knee had in fact touched the ground. To add insult to injury for Cal, Lowe received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for celebrating before he crossed into the end zone. The ball was called back, past Cal’s 22-yard line — where Lowe first went down — to the 11.
The fans who were scattered halfheartedly throughout the stands booed as if on cue. Yet the play was so typically Cal — brilliant one second, too good to be true the next — that you have to wonder if it’s even worth it for spectators to get mad.
Cal football isn’t just a spectator sport; rather, it makes sport out of its spectators’ emotions, toying and building up and crushing season dreams with every sloppy fumble.
Berkeley is mercifully not USC, where winning is so demanded that a coach on the hot seat can face a downright disrespectful firing squad in the middle of the night four weeks into the season.
Winning is great in Memorial Stadium, but losing isn’t foreign. Lifers should know better than to feel discouraged over one or two (or, as of now, four) losses. These people probably will die without ever having seen their team in a Rose Bowl. They also (hopefully) have more class than to immolate a man in his first year at the helm.
Still, Saturday’s 44-22 loss to Washington State — a team traditionally called a bottom-dweller, yet one that now has a significantly better record than Cal — heralded the Bears’ ninth-straight loss to an FBS team. That skid (which began, ironically, after the Bears beat the Cougars last October) is the longest of any team in a BCS conference.
After the outing, head coach Sonny Dykes repeated over and over that his team’s confidence is fragile. For young guys inexperienced in the art of losing, a third-straight loss has to be pretty earth-shattering.
“The disappointing thing is that if you look at our team against Northwestern and our team now,” Dykes said, “we haven’t played as good as we have in that game since then.”
Dykes hit the nail on the head there. The season opener against then-No.22 Northwestern was exciting to watch. Since then, though, injuries have ravaged the defensive squad so much that it looks more like 14th-century Europe trying to survive the Black Plague. Repeatedly blown coverage has revealed a basic lack of fundamentals. Two routs in three weeks at the hands of top-five teams crushed whatever confidence Cal might have shored up.
But today showed the Bears that the slip in confidence isn’t relegated to the locker room. It was homecoming weekend in Berkeley, which meant an inundation of alumni and proud parents starting Friday afternoon. But you wouldn’t have been able to tell that if you set foot inside Memorial Stadium on Saturday. The crowd was anemic, with entire sections still nearly empty by the opening kickoff.
At one point, with a little under 11 minutes left in the third quarter, ESPN College Gameday tweeted out, “Is there anything better than a college football Saturday?”
For Cal fans, it looked like the answer was yes.
Annie Gerlach covers football. Contact her at [email protected]