Instant analysis/reaction: Cal loses nail-biter to Oregon State, drops to 0-2

Photo of Nikko Remigio trying to elude an Oregon State defender
Al Sermeno/KLC fotos/Courtesy

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Key takeaway

Refraining from jumping to conclusions is always easier said than done. Regardless of the 27-31 loss Saturday, Cal’s abysmal offensive performance against UCLA last week was simply not indicative of what fans should expect to see in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s first season. After putting up only 176 total yards against the Bruins in the season opener, the Bears quickly obliterated that total Saturday against Oregon State, racking up 317 yards of offense in the first half en route to 439 on the game.

Despite having a full week to plan this time around, the confidence in Cal’s offense took a shot early Saturday morning upon news that the Bears would be missing five starters, several of whom were likely out because of contract tracing protocols after Cal had its second positive COVID-19 test of the season. Veteran offensive linemen Jake Curhan, Will Craig and Valentino Daltoso, along with tight end Collin Moore, were all declared out.

To make matters worse, star running back Christopher Brown Jr. was unable to play due to injury, and the offensive line was delivered another blow in the second quarter, seeing team captain and starting center Michael Saffell leave the game before returning to the sideline on crutches. With all of these absences, no one would’ve expected Cal’s makeshift offensive line — consisting of mostly underclassmen — to deliver a respectable performance that saw only two sacks allowed.

The primary reason for Cal’s success was Musgrave’s willingness to throw the ball downfield, which was made possible by the line’s improved protection, even without four starters. Quarterback Chase Garbers threw accurate, highlight-worthy throws throughout the afternoon, maneuvering his way around the pocket to keep the Oregon State defense on its toes.

Garbers threw an awe-inspiring seven completions of more than 15 yards, but a slow start to the third quarter proved to be too much to overcome. The Bears had a chance at redemption, but a tipped throw on the potential game-winning drive popped directly up into the air before falling into the hands of a Beaver defender. Given the staggering number of starters out Saturday, Cal’s offense seems to be in solid shape moving forward.

Cal’s game MVP

Garbers had the type of game that opens up the eyes of NFL scouts, but he wouldn’t have been able to do so without a phenomenal outing from senior receiver Kekoa Crawford. His 10-catch, 141-yard performance was easily a career best, and he was a consistent target for Garbers on all-important third downs.

Crawford flashed his physicality on several receptions, boxing out his defender to make tough catches. The jack-of-all-trades doesn’t lack downfield speed either, as he burned his defender on a 44-yard fly route to bust open Cal’s opening drive and set the tone for the afternoon. Crawford’s sure hands will likely be utilized more throughout the season, and if Garbers delivers throws that are as accurate as their 21-yard touchdown connection in the second quarter, the duo could become Musgrave’s favorite in clutch situations.

Defensively, outside linebacker Cameron Goode was dominant off the edge, forcing several stops against both the run and pass. He finished the game with seven tackles, 2.5 of which were for loss. As a bonus, Goode was there to quickly recover a dangerous muffed punt by Nikko Remigio in the fourth quarter with Cal up just 3 points.

Eye-opening stat

While Cal was incredibly explosive on the offensive side of the ball, its defense is still having trouble giving up chunk yardage, allowing seven plays of 15 or more yards against Oregon State — a complete turnaround from the theme of last season. The defensive breakdowns against the Beavers were not an anomaly either, as the Bears allowed nine plays of 15 or more yards against UCLA.

On the game’s very first play from scrimmage, Oregon State running back Jermar Jefferson, who has been the Beavers’ clear go-to playmaker this season, took the ball 75 yards to the house. The defensive line allowed a major hole as the play developed, and after Cal safety Elijah Hicks got caught up taking a reckless angle toward the ball, Jefferson was already waving goodbye to the white jerseys behind him. Late in the fourth quarter, the running back put together an almost identical play, sprinting his way to a 65-yard gain to seal the victory over the Bears.

Cal inside linebacker Kuony Deng was also the victim of a big play, losing a man-to-man battle against tight end Teagan Quitoriano for a 35-yard touchdown pass from Oregon State quarterback Tristan Gebbia. The Beavers’ signal-caller threw for an additional three explosive passes, hitting his receivers for catches of 15, 17 and 22 yards.

Looking forward

As the 123rd edition of the Big Game quickly approaches, Cal faces some serious player availability concerns heading into the Friday afternoon contest. While it is not clear which of Cal’s missing players from Saturday were directly linked to the positive COVID-19 test, those affected will likely not be allowed to play against Stanford, unless city health officials grant an exemption. Meanwhile, the severity of Brown’s and Saffell’s injuries is still unclear, but if either is cleared in the coming days, the Bears will receive a major boost heading into the Big Game.

The Bears and Cardinal each enter Friday with two games under their belts, as Stanford’s matchup this weekend was canceled because of multiple COVID-19 cases within the Washington State program. Stanford currently sits at 0-2 after being blown out by then-No. 12 Oregon in the season opener, which it followed up with a nail-biting loss to Colorado in the second week.

Stanford quarterback Davis Mills was one of the Pac-12’s most impressive quarterbacks in 2019, but his performance against Colorado was a bit shaky. Despite throwing for 327 yards, Mills completed just 55% of his throws, and Cal’s secondary gave him fits in the Bears’ Big Game win last season — their first victory in a decade. The Cal defensive line must get to Mills in the pocket, which will be key to keeping the Axe in Berkeley for another year.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].