Actor Sam Elliott once declared, “Sometimes you get the Bear, and sometimes the Bear gets you.”
Unfortunately for a Cal football team eager to erase the memory of back-to-back losses against Pac-12 opponents, the visiting Bruins from UCLA caught the Bears at a good time. All game long, the winless Bruins seemed a step ahead of Cal’s ailing offense and tired defense, as Cal’s return home was spoiled by UCLA to the tune of a brutal 37-7 defeat.
Sporting throwback Joe Roth jerseys in honor of the former Cal quarterback, the Bears entered Saturday’s homecoming game with the 12th most efficient defense in the country. Last week against Arizona, another stout defensive display was overshadowed in the storylines by four brutal turnovers in the second half.
But on a gorgeous, fit-for-a-postcard late afternoon in Berkeley, the Bears’ performance was anything but, as both the offense and defense failed to subdue a UCLA team that ran the ball down Cal’s throat right from the get-go.
“Total team loss,” head coach Justin Wilcox said. “We didn’t do anything well enough to win the game. We need everybody to perform better throughout the entire program.”
Starting UCLA tailback Joshua Kelley, who began the game with 276 rushing yards and one rushing score on the season, broke out for 114 yards on the ground in the first half alone. Elsewhere, tight end Caleb Wilson found holes in a defense playing without starting safety Jaylinn Hawkins in the first half because of a targeting penalty last weekend.
It was Wilson’s 46-yard connection with true freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson that set up UCLA to take a 10-0 lead on a field goal early in the second quarter. Earlier, Kelley had punched in his second score of 2018 from 5 yards out, but UCLA’s young runner was far from finished.
Despite entering play with a goose egg in the win column under new head coach Chip Kelly, it was evident that the Bruins came ready to play, capitalizing on more difficulties from Cal’s struggling offense.
While quarterback Brandon McIlwain received a vote of confidence in drawing the start after throwing three interceptions in the second half of last weekend, UCLA’s defense, led by safety Adarius Pickett and linebacker Krys Barnes, bothered McIlwain to another shaky showing.
UCLA refused to allow Cal’s offense to get going early, limiting the Bears to just a shade more than 100 total yards in the opening half. And while Cal had a chance to tack on points with a glimpse of rhythm in the final minute, Greg Thomas’ 32-yard field goal clanked high off the upright, securing the Bruin defense a shutout in the opening half.
“We’re going to go out there and attack it,” McIlwain said of this upcoming week of practice. “We’re going to come out with a different mentality than we had today.”
With Hawkins returning for the second half and the Bears trailing 13-0, the homecoming crowd of 45,889 hung around to see if McIlwain could right the ship. And at first, things pointed in the right direction.
A handful of completions, including a trick play in which running back Patrick Laird threw the ball to receiver Vic Wharton III for a first down, gave the Bears and the crowd some life. Moments later, Laird, who surpassed the 1,500-yard mark for his collegiate career earlier in the game despite fumbling away the rock in the first quarter, found the end zone from a yard out to cut UCLA’s lead to 13-7.
But as Bon Jovi’s “Livin on a Prayer” echoed throughout Strawberry Canyon at the start of UCLA’s possession, it was the 0-5 Bruins’ prayers that were answered. One thing’s for certain: The team that showed up today did not look like an 0-5 team.
On the first play of the drive, Thompson-Robinson threw a strike to leading receiver Theo Howard, who collided with safety Ashtyn Davis, hanging onto the ball and seemingly sucking the life out of California Memorial Stadium once again.
Davis, Cal’s third leading tackler heading into the game, left while holding his upper body and did not return. The Bruins would ultimately add on to their lead, as Kelley rushed for two more touchdowns on his career day at the office. He was so dominant that Thompson-Robinson, who finished the game with an efficient 13 of 15 for 141 yards, was almost in cruise-control, acting like a worker in a button factory mechanically handing the ball off to his backfield mate seemingly every snap.
“We have to be accountable to perform when the lights are on,” Wilcox said. “We have to be accountable to performing better, and trying hard doesn’t get it done.”
Kelley would finish the contest with 30 carries for 157 yards and three touchdowns.
Desperately trying to will his team back into the game, McIlwain was forced into dire situations, throwing two interceptions and fumbling the ball away twice, including a scoop-and-score that put the Bears down by 30 points. His final line speaks for itself: 22 of 40 through the air for 168 yards and four total turnovers, all of which came in the second half.
Lost among the ugly stats was an eye-opening one on the part of linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk, who recorded a career-high 22 tackles.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter,” Kunaszyk said of his stat line. “It’s cool to look at on the stat sheet, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter to me if we didn’t win.”
On the anniversary of Ross Bowers’ famous front flip, which encapsulated Cal’s upset of then-No. 8 Washington State, the Bears suffered arguably their most brutal loss under Wilcox. The result means that after a taste of the top 25 two weeks ago, the Bears are 0-3 in conference play, with the teeth of the Pac-12 (USC, Washington, Stanford) still awaiting Cal later this season.
While a bowl berth is still a realistic goal for a team whose season looked oh-so-promising early once again, the margin of error is close to none here on out.
“I don’t think (our season) is slipping away at all,” Kunaszyk said. “We have to just continue to work hard, and it’s inevitable that we’re going to put the fire out.”