Cal football squanders opportunities, loses 5th-straight Big Game, 38-17

Michael Tao/Senior Staff

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Down 31-7 in the third quarter against Stanford, Cal was desperate to spark a comeback. Chris Harper looked like he had just the thing the Bears needed.

Sprinting down the left side of the field on a punt return, Harper cut to his right and found a hole. He had just one man to beat on his way to the end zone — Stanford punter Ben Rhyne. But Harper misread his cut and ran directly into Rhyne, coming down at the Cardinal’s 31-yard line.

It was a missed opportunity — one of many on the day — that ultimately cost the Bears the 117th Big Game. Stanford would go on to win the rivalry matchup for the fifth time in a row, 38-17.

When Cal’s offense took the field after Harper’s return, the Bears brought in Luke Rubenzer at quarterback. The Rubenzer package had found some success on the previous drive before an interception cut it short. After a 14-yard rush by Daniel Lasco, Rubenzer finished the drive off with an 11-yard touchdown run.

But the officials reviewed the play and ruled that Rubenzer’s knee had come down just before the football crossed the plane. Instead of a touchdown, Cal had the ball on the one-yard line. Rubenzer ran it again, again breaking into the end zone.

Then, another whistle cut through the celebration. This play was also reviewed, and, again, it was overturned. The frustrated 56,483 fans in attendance started a loud chant with a simple message:

“Ref, you suck! Ref, you suck!”

“I thought I was definitely in,” Rubenzer said. “…But I guess the cameras don’t lie.”

On the next play, quarterback Jared Goff found Kenny Lawler for a touchdown on the right side of the field. Lawler barely made it in, his hands stretching past the pylon for the long-awaited score.

But another review. After a long silence, the official finally addressed the anxious crowd.

“After review, the receiver did not come down with possession…”

The crowd exploded, cutting out the rest of the explanation with a roar that rivaled any heard in the stadium up to that point. A third-consecutive would-be touchdown had been wiped off the board for the frustrated Bears.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Goff said. “And I guess I’ll probably just leave it at that.”

The drive ended in a field goal, bringing the score to 31-10, but the nail was essentially already in the coffin for the overmatched Bears.

“I’m not going to say much about that whole thing. I mean, there’s nothing I can say about that that’s good,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “You guys saw it, you know, write your opinions of what you saw. I thought it was shameful, myself, but it is what it is.”

Cal tried to make something happen by kicking — and recovering — an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff. But the Bears squandered that possession when they failed to convert a 4th and 10 at the Stanford 22-yard line. Stanford took the ball down the field on the next drive, scoring on a five-yard Remound Wright touchdown to push the lead to 38-10.

Wright was the key to Stanford’s offense, rushing for 92 yards and four touchdowns on the day. His 23 carries allowed Stanford to retain possession for nearly 33 minutes, keeping Cal’s better unit off the field.

When the Cal offense was playing, it wasn’t able to get going at the rate it needed to, with Goff throwing for only 182 yards. The offense also didn’t make the most of the opportunities it did have, as Goff had two tipped passes intercepted in Stanford territory in the first half. The two interceptions were part of five turnovers on the day. The Bears also recorded 12 penalties for 113 yards.

“We can live with penalties that are aggressive penalties, but we can’t live with penalties that are lack of discipline penalties,” Dykes said. “And today we had a lot of lack of discipline penalties.”

It all added up to another Cal defeat in the Big Game that never felt particularly close.

“It was frustrating, it was really, really frustrating,” Dykes said. “Our kids really wanted to play well, we really wanted to play well as a coaching staff, our fans wanted us to play well. And we didn’t make a very good showing today, I’m really disappointed about that.”

Riley McAtee covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee