Despite disappointing season, Cal football continues to fight

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A few years ago, the NHL ran these inspiring commercials during the Stanley Cup playoffs with the tagline “History will be made.” I could watch those spots a thousand times and still feel the goosebumps (I just did, actually. The Bobby Orr one. Damn).

On Saturday, history was made in Memorial Stadium — a different kind of history. A not-at-all-inspiring history for the Bears. Cal fell to USC, 62-28, in the former’s last home game of the season. The final score denotes the most points the Trojans put up against the Bears since 1930 (Cal got blanked, 74-0).

There’s more bad news, too. The 447 points the Bears have allowed this season — good for an average of nearly 45 per game — are the most ever allowed by a Cal defense.

I’d bet good money that, somewhere tonight, former Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast thanks his lucky stars he was on the opposing side of the field for his Memorial Stadium homecoming. His defense at USC is a thing of solidity, which sounds mundane but keeps the team in every contest.

Cal’s defense, meanwhile … Well, we all know the story. Worst in program history. The end.

But it wasn’t the defense that killed the team this week. Unexpectedly enough, the punting team drowned the Bears, giving up 21 points on two monster touchdown returns and a blocked punt return 14 yards from the end zone.

“Our punt team killed us,” said head coach Sonny Dykes.

The explanation sounds like a scratchy line from a broken record, but only because everyone has heard it a hundred times before: Cal lacks experience. On defense, on offense, even on the special teams, it turns out.

There are only three seniors on the two-deep chart, Dykes said after the game. He punctuated the statement with a moment of silence as if mourning the loss of what could have been.

“Experienced, tough grown men win football games in a conference like the Pac-12,” he added, “and that’s not who we are right now. Now it’s who we’re going to be. But it’s not who we are right now.”

At this point, this is a team just trying to finish out the year intact. No more injuries, sparks on the defense, maybe one last great day for quarterback Jared Goff. That’s all that Cal can realistically hope for at this point. Just fight for 60 minutes for two more weeks.

It’s no longer about survival of the fittest: Cal never really stood a chance, not with the front-loaded schedule, the decimation of the secondary, the sheer inexperience of players who had to step up and start. At this weary point in the year, all the Bears have to do is survive. Period. Make it past the Big Game and assess the damage afterward. Spend a few months looking at tape and rosters to figure out what works, what doesn’t. What went wrong, what showed promise.

Take a few months off, let the players rest and recover (and, hell, grow up) and come back in the spring with fresh confidence.

“We’ll go play well next week against Colorado, try to win a football game and then play our tails off against Stanford,” Dykes said. “At that point, then we’ll start building for next year.

“We’re gonna get this thing right. I don’t have a doubt in my mind.”

The end is well in sight, and for the first time in a long time, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of buildup leading up to the Big Game. This season was over long ago. Playing No. 4 Stanford won’t feel exciting so much as finalizing. It will be one final loss before the team can make its retreat.

At least, that’s how it will feel for me. But for some crazy reason — maybe it’s the youth, the naivete — this Cal team just won’t give up.

“We just got to keep fighting,” said linebacker Michael Barton. “One thing we have done really well is not give up this year. And I think we’ll continue to do that.”

I guess that’s inspiring enough.

Annie Gerlach covers football. Contact her at [email protected]