In front of what will likely be a mostly empty Thanksgiving weekend crowd, the Cal football team (4-7, 2-6 Pac-12) will take on a similarly mediocre UCLA squad (4-7, 2-6) at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
With both teams seemingly out of the conversation for bowl eligibility — though the Bruins might make it with a win and some luck and the Bears could qualify if they can find a few four-leaf clovers (wrong holiday?) — this season finale will find its most interesting storylines happening off the field.
As yet another disappointing year winds down for the Bears, the season of giving thanks is about to be in the past, instead giving way to the season of pointing fingers. A four-game losing streak, the nation’s worst defense and an offense that seems more prone to filling up stat sheets than being productive will leave plenty of contestants for the blame game. All get one last chance to atone for their mistakes in this matchup seemingly destined to be a snoozer.
For the Bears’ seniors and those departing for the NFL, the game will cap off a Cal career full of years like this one, save for the anomaly that was last year’s winning team.
Now, those seniors will finally be able to stop answering some questions: Why did you lose? Why can’t you hold on in the second half? What went wrong this year?
“I think a lot of things added together to end up where we ended up,” said senior offensive lineman Steven Moore in response to that last question. “If you look back, there’s a lot of games we could’ve won that we didn’t win. There’s a lot of games that we could’ve lost at the end but we did win.”
Six of the Bears’ 11 games this year have been decided by 10 or fewer points. While optimists will cite that as a reason that Cal isn’t all that far from relevancy, it’s just as important that the Bears could easily be 1-10 with a single convincing win to their name.
The Bruins, meanwhile, are struggling as well. They have have been without Josh Rosen for most of the year and are going into the game leaning on Mike Fafaul. The senior has thrown 1,426 yards and 11 touchdowns, but has barely completed more than half of his passes. Since Fafaul started receiving the majority of the snaps, UCLA has gone 1-4 as his unspectacular mix of merely decent accuracy, poor arm strength and even worse decision making have sunk the Bruins’ offense.
The Bruins’ run game has been disappointing as it has averaged a truly terrible 2.9 yards per carry on the season. Sophomore running back Soso Jamabo has followed up a promising freshman year with only 313 yards on 81 rushes, both of which mercifully lead the team.
But there is no better set of floaties for a floundering offense than the mess that is the Cal defense. The Bears have allowed 45.5 points per game, putting them 128th in the 128-team FBS.
So even though it’s not really clear where UCLA’s points will come from, it’s safe to assume Cal’s offense will again need to put a big number on the board to win.
For that task, the Bears will turn to quarterback Davis Webb, who is preparing for the final game of his yearlong stint with the team. He has led the offense to 37.2 points per game and will need to get them back to that level after putting up only 25.8 per game in the midst of this four-match losing streak. This will be a tough task against the Bruins, who have only allowed 10 passing touchdowns this year.
“They’re probably one of the most athletic defenses in the Pac-12,” Webb said. “They haven’t had many teams throw it behind them.”
Webb will play in the Senior Bowl once the season is over after having put up impressive numbers for Cal, and he is hoping to make it to the NFL after the year is up.
“I’m thankful for my time here. I’m thankful for coach (Sonny) Dykes and coach (Jake) Spavital giving me the opportunity to come here,” Webb said. “If anyone asks where I went to college, I’m going to say Cal first.”