Gridiron gloom: Slow start, late turnover seal Cal football’s 21-17 loss to Oregon State

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With two weeks between games No. 6 and No. 7, fans, analysts and even the student-athletes themselves wondered how Cal’s offense would perform to kick off the second half of the 2019 campaign.

Playing without both starting quarterback Chase Garbers and starting center Michael Saffell for the first time all season, it’s safe to say things didn’t go as planned in a 21-17 loss to Oregon State.

Minus two penalty-aided drives, a slow first quarter turned into a game-long drought, with the Beavers (3-4, 2-2) consistently staying a step ahead of the Bears (4-3, 1-3) just when things appeared to tip in Cal’s favor.

Even a late quarterback change, with true freshman Spencer Brasch entering the fold for starter Devon Modster, couldn’t spark the necessary edge the Cal offense needed to bring home an elusive win for a defense that sacked OSU quarterback Jake Luton five times.

The end result? Cal’s third straight Pac-12 loss and third consecutive defeat on homecoming weekend in the Justin Wilcox era.

The dismal ending, capped off on the final play by Oregon State’s ninth sack on the day, will slide the Bears down the Pac-12 North standings and well out of reach of any consideration for Top 25 votes.

While Cal’s defensive efforts, spearheaded by linebacker Evan Weaver’s 21 tackles and a combined three sacks from Cameron Goode and Zeandae Johnson, kept the team in the ball game for most of the early afternoon, a rough first half had the Bears playing catch-up in the final minutes of another close contest.

Meanwhile, the Oregon State offense relied heavily on the services of tailbacks Artavis Pierce and B.J. Baylor, who filled in nicely for injured speedster Jermar Jefferson.

It was Pierce’s 8-yard connection with quarterback Jake Luton in the first quarter, a surprising blow against a Cal defense that forced three first-quarter turnovers against Oregon in its previous contest, that sent the first wave of uneasiness through the blue and gold crowd.

But the biggest blow from the Beavers’ backfield came with 4:41 to go in the contest, when Baylor capped off a 12-play, 80-yard drive to give Oregon State the late, four-point upper-hand.

It was a lead that likely never should have been reclaimed — the Beavers’ 13 penalties for 102 yards was a key factor in keeping Cal’s drives alive in the first place, including one that culminated in the Bears’ first touchdown of the afternoon — a 1-yard score from Christopher Brown Jr. to bring Cal within four points, 14-10.

On the ensuing drive after Baylor’s score, the Bears were forced to go with Brasch, removing Modster after the latter was just 12 of 27 through the air for 151 yards. While Wilcox acknowledged that Modster was “not available” for the final two drives, a 5 of 16 conversion rate on third down for the game may have forced Cal’s hand regardless of Modster’s status.

“It’s a tough position to be in,” Wilcox said of Brasch’s late appearance. “First time he’s taken a snap; we’ll keep working with him.”

For a moment in the third quarter — a frame in which the Bears outscored the Beavers 14-0 — Cal’s offense looked like a modest group, if not formidable. A beautiful lob over the top of the defense from Modster to receiver Jordan Duncan saw Cal take a 17-14 lead heading into quarter No. 4, with the defense humming a second-half shutout.

It wasn’t meant to be, however. As Cal’s offense — accentuated by a banged-up offensive line missing three projected starters from the beginning of the season — sputtered for the third consecutive fourth quarter, Luton (18 for 34, 174 passing yards, two touchdowns) marched his team down the field, converting on key third downs and bullying Cal’s tired defensive front.

When Baylor’s touchdown was confirmed upstairs by replay officials, the situation almost identically mirrored that of the scene three weeks ago, when Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin halfway solidified the nail in the coffin late in the fourth quarter.

With Brasch under center, the script for a different ending than the ASU outcome was torn in half, as Hamilcar Rashed Jr. tipped an errant throw into the waiting arms of defensive back Jaydon Grant. The turnover was the first forced by either defense, and sent many fans heading for the exits and into the cloudy, late Berkeley afternoon.

Cal’s run of bad luck continued under the raining disapproval of alumni, who voiced their frustration with the team’s lack of overall execution.

While Oregon State deserves a ton of credit for setting the tone early and staying one step ahead down the stretch, the Bears are kicking themselves after letting one slip away late.

“We’ve got to work on the fine details,” Johnson said. “Coach said it was razor-thin margins; that’s on us and we’ve got to fix those. We’re going to come in Monday, wash it under the bridge and get it fixed.”

As Utah — the Pac-12 South Division favorites — awaits Cal for a late-night matchup in Salt Lake City next weekend, it’s do-or-die time for a Bears program that has now lost three straight for the third year in a row.

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.