PALO ALTO — Down 7-0 halfway through the opening quarter, Cal quarterback Jared Goff hurriedly scanned the field and locked eyes with Maurice Harris in the endzone.
Goff lofted the pass to his receiver, who cradled the ball in his hands and looked to have tied the game. But the refs ruled that Harris, shadowed by sophomore cornerback Alijah Holder, had lost possession, bringing the Bears to third down. But Cal was unable to convert after Goff underthrew Kenny Lawler from a bootleg on the wideout’s first snap of the game.
The deficit was cut to 7-3 on a field goal, but the Bears couldn’t shake the feeling that what had started as a promising drive had devolved into a missed opportunity.
“We hurt ourselves, honestly,” said Cal running back Tre Watson. “They were a good team, but we put ourselves in a hole and didn’t go out, execute like we were supposed to.”
This disappointing drive proved to be costly later on, as Cal (6-5, 3-5 Pac-12) soon began to sputter on both sides of the ball, leading to a 35-22 Stanford win in the 118th Big Game.
Heading into Saturday night, the buzz regarding the matchup mostly surrounded Stanford running back — and possible Heisman candidate — Christian McCaffrey, who entered the night ranked first in the nation in all-purpose yards. The Bears’ defense managed to contain McCaffrey, Stanford’s bread and butter this season, on the Cardinal’s first drive, holding the sophomore to seven yards and forcing a punt.
That was as good as Cal’s defense would get.
After a quick three-and-out by Goff and Co., the Stanford offense returned to the field, hoping to take advantage of a rushing defense that ranks ninth in the Pac-12.
Beginning its drive on a short field, the Cardinal (9-2, 8-1) quickly drew up four straight rushing plays for McCaffrey, who collected first down after first down and bulldozed through both Cal’s hopes and its front seven. After finding itself on Cal’s two yard line, Stanford, bringing in extra blockers, handed the ball off to running back Remound Wright, who punched the ball in for the score and the 7-0 lead.
The teams exchanged punts after a Cal field goal, but McCaffrey proceeded to slice through the Bears’ porous run defense, notching two consecutive first downs on Stanford’s next drive. McCaffrey, Stanford’s third-leading receiver, then turned a screen pass into a 49-yard touchdown, taking advantage of poor tackling by the Bears to bring the score to 14-3. Cal added yet another field goal with under a minute left in the second quarter, after a long drive ended with a flurry of incompletions.
But McCaffrey continued to do his damage, punctuating an impressive first half with a 98-yard touchdown on the ensuing kickoff after several Cardinal sealed off the right side to give him a clean lane.
What seemed like a manageable eight-point deficit suddenly began to look insurmountable for Cal, which headed into halftime down 21-6.
Much to the chagrin of Cal fans everywhere, the Bears didn’t cease their penchant for field goals, after a pass to Watson gained no yards and brought up fourth down. Cal failed to tally its first touchdown until late in the third quarter, when Goff connected with wideout Darius Powe for a three-yard score.
But no matter how often the Bears attempted to close the gap, McCaffrey continued to be their downfall. Stanford, lining up in power I, fed him the ball five times on the drive, allowing him to set up the Cardinal’s fourth touchdown with his 44 yards. McCaffrey ended the night with the program record in all-purpose yards with 389 — 192 rushing alone.
“Has anybody seen a running back — I’ll say this, a football player — better than Christian McCaffrey this year?,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “Tell me. Show him to me. I haven’t seen anybody.”
Though the Bears would tack on a garbage-time touchdown late in the fourth quarter to make the final score more respectable, they ultimately dropped their sixth straight Big Game, despite earning 495 total yards on offense to Stanford’s 356, and despite an impressive performance from Goff, who threw for 386 yards and two touchdowns.
“When you have almost 500 yards of offense against a good defense, it’s a little bit frustrating when you score 22 points and don’t win the game,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes.