Ebb and flow is a natural, cyclical part of life, and football is no exception — players, programs and even possessions have their inevitable ups and downs. But Cal’s 31-27 loss to Oregon State on Saturday had more back and forth than Wimbledon. Reams of unlikely injuries, plays and circumstances translated into a luckless loss for the Bears. Buried by a borderline unbelievable blocked punt and an equally improbable late interception, Cal fell short once again, sinking to 0-2 on the season despite showing promise.
The emotional seesaw started rocking before the game even began when Cal announced its second positive COVID-19 test of the season and that several starters were benched because of possible exposure. Starting offensive linemen Jake Curhan, Valentino Daltoso and Will Craig were ruled out along with running back Christopher Brown Jr., nose guard Stanley McKenzie and outside linebacker Braxten Croteau, leaving the Bears reeling with uncertainty.
“I don’t really look at it like it’s a nightmare. It’s really frustrating to lose a game; we had opportunities to win the game, and that’s what we’re going to look at,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox after the game. “You’ve got to execute at a high level to win the game, and we just didn’t do that.”
Beavers running back Jermar Jefferson wasted no time embarrassing the Bears by taking the rock on a 75-yard run to the house on the first play of the game, but Cal was quick to strike back. After a few quick first downs, Cal quarterback Chase Garbers threw a 44-yard dime to Kekoa Crawford, priming the Bears for a touchdown of their own after connecting with sophomore receiver Makai Polk in the end zone to tie the game 7-7.
A three-and-out from Oregon State promptly gave the ball back to Cal, but an illegal block on the Bears rendered receiver Nikko Remigio’s 89-yard punt return futile. Instead, the Bears ended up punting from their own end zone to cap off the drive, putting the ball a brief 35 yards away and granting the Beavers a gimme.
Down 7-14, the Bears had ample chances to tie it up. After narrowly avoiding a three-and-out, Garbers took matters into his own hands and rushed for the first down. After a 33-yard airmail pass to redshirt junior Jake Tonges on the outside and a couple of carries by running back Marcel Dancy, who started in place of Brown, Cal was within striking distance yet couldn’t pull off the touchdown. Kicker Dario Longhetto ensured that the drive was not completely fruitless by slotting a field goal to make the game 10-14.
The second quarter saw a lull in scoring, despite both teams flexing strong offensive plays, such as Garbers’ 52-yard completion to Polk, and Oregon State quarterback Tristan Gebbia starting to hit his targets better. However, after a 64-yard-long downfield push, Garbers dealt an impeccable 21-yard touchdown completion to Crawford to lift the Bears to 17-14.
With the ball back to Oregon State and just more than two minutes left in the first half, the Beavers looked ready to capitalize on the drive, especially after a face mask penalty called on Cal’s Josh Drayden gave the Beavers an easy 15 yards. But in the blink of an eye, it was Drayden notching his first interception of the year, turning the tides and opening the door for the Bears to score instead. Longhetto continued his streak as he came in clutch with a dubious 52-yard field goal, giving Cal a 20-14 lead.
The Bears got more bad news, however, at the onset of the second half when offensive lineman Michael Saffell, one of the only starters to play along the ravaged offensive line, was carted off with an apparent leg injury. Oregon State paved its way downfield in the third, settling for a 35-yard field goal from Everett Hayes thanks to plays from Cal inside linebackers Kuony Deng and Evan Tattersall.
“We just had a lack of urgency as an offense,” Garbers said after the game. “We stalled out in the third quarter, didn’t put any points up.”
Still, the Bears ramped up their production in the fourth and went tit for tat with the Beavers for the remainder of the game, exchanging scoring drives and defensive stops until the board read 27-24 with Cal still holding on to the lead.
The Bears had plenty of running and passing plays that proved successful in getting them downfield, but they fell short in converting where it matters: the red zone.
This year has been relentlessly adverse for the Bears, and the obstacles didn’t stop at another positive COVID-19 test. After the Beavers blocked a punt and provided Cal with a worst-case scenario, the Bears found themselves defending at their 14-yard line and bracing for heartbreak. Gebbia took the ball to the house to make it 31-27 and secure a fate that was all but sealed by a wildly unlucky deflected interception thrown by Garbers with just more than a minute left.
Garbers threw for a staggering 315 yards and dealt some dazzling passes, and despite the unforeseen changes to the starting lineup, the Bears touted impressive games from players such as JH Tevis and Brett Johnson. This Cal team was projected to have a season for the decades, and this week, the Bears showed why — the offense was firing, and the defense notched key stops while tacking two picks onto its record.
But the Bears will need short-term memory loss if they plan on moving forward. Cal has less than a week to prepare for archrival Stanford, which it will face Friday at 1:30 p.m.
“I think we’re going to come hungry. The exciting thing is we had a good week of practice, so I know this will be an even better week,” said offensive lineman Matthew Cindric. “Obviously we’re ready for every opponent, but Stanford brings a different energy. I’m excited to go to battle with these guys again and beat up on the trees.”