Instant analysis: Small mistakes sway Big Game, ax Cal

Photo of 2019 Big Game Stanford vs. Cal
Sunny Shen/Senior Staff

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Key takeaway

The performance of the Cal special teams unit has left much to be desired. Nikko Remigio — the usually slippery punt returner who notched 89-yard and 96-yard returns against Oregon State, which were ultimately overturned due to penalties — dropped and overturned the rock in a rare but weighty blunder. The muffed punt was pivotal for Stanford, shifting the momentum in favor of the Cardinal and putting them in prime position for their first touchdown of the game. Cal head coach Justin Wilcox had a swarm of bees in his bonnet contesting a potential punting penalty just minutes before, and a blocked Cal field goal — the second of the season — ended the half, as if to foreshadow the outcome of the game.

Of all the heartbreak and hurt the Bears have experienced this season, another blocked kick on the play that would have tied the Big Game is certainly the height of it. With 58 seconds on the clock, Cal kicker Dario Longhetto launched a line-drive extra point attempt right into the outstretched arms of Stanford defenders.

Other position groups have had far more unpredictable seasons, but rightly so. Three starters on the offensive line were out, the defensive line is running on only two full weeks of practice, Cal’s starting running back is injured and the novice defensive backs are still finding their footing. However, each of these groups has more than held its own, some of them even looking dramatically superior to what was expected.

The special teams unit, however, has had the opposite inauguration. Despite the 52-yard field goal from Longhetto against the Beavers, Remigio’s inconceivable albeit futile punt returns and a 45-yard punt from Jamieson Sheahan at UCLA, critical mistakes axed the Bears on Friday. It certainly didn’t help that Stanford’s special teams unit was having a field day: Punter Ryan Sanborn buried the ball in the red zone seemingly every time, condemning Cal to poor field position at the onset of every drive.

Cal’s game MVP

Although veterans used to the infamy of the Big Game certainly rose to the occasion, the relatively fresh faces were the ones who gave Cal a fighting chance against Stanford this year. Freshman Damien Moore broke away in the third quarter for a crucial team-high 54-yard dash with nothing but green grass ahead of him, setting the Bears up nicely for their second touchdown of the game.

After playing four games off the bench last year and posting only five tackles, redshirt sophomore JH Tevis has quickly become an essential piece at defensive end for the Bears. He notched 10 total tackles at UCLA and put up one for loss against Oregon State. Tevis cut down the trees twice with his career-high two sacks, especially impressive considering the Cardinal have only allowed one this whole season. The stops shut down a dangerous Davis Mills and prevented what could have been a formative third down and distances for the Cardinal.

Eye-opening stat

The 123rd Big Game was the first matchup played in California Memorial Stadium since USC visited more than a year ago, and at some moments, the Bears looked like they hadn’t played since then.

Technical gaffes defined the game for both squads but were especially detrimental to the Bears. Both of Cal’s turnovers resulted in drives punctuated by Cardinal touchdowns. A holding penalty against Elijah Hicks in the third overturned Daniel Scott’s deep pick, a play that may well have given the Bears another touchdown.

Even with enough offensive acumen to produce heady drives such as the Bears’ 75-yard opening march downfield, Cal allowed four sacks and seven tackles for loss, mistakes that the team ultimately paid a high price for.

Looking forward

Besides the Big Game, the Bears’ upcoming matchup against Oregon has been one of the most highly anticipated of the season. Cal was predicted to romp through most of its Pac-12 opponents this fall, and while the Bears certainly got off to a rocky start by having to face UCLA, Oregon State and Stanford without many of their starters, the Ducks have always been the team to beat.

Comparing the lofty level of play Cal displayed against Oregon State to Friday’s alarmingly error-ridden showing against Stanford, the game against the Ducks is shaping up to be more of a lopsided affair than predicted at the outset of the season.

Although the special teams unit is in dire need of redress, Cal can rest slightly more assured knowing the true capacity of the rest of its position groups. Having shown considerable dexterity even with thin offensive and defensive lines, the Bears can be cunning when they’re clicking. Additionally, Cal desperately needs to convert on third downs — the team racked up five three-and-outs before the fourth quarter even started and could barely crack Stanford’s mediocre defensive line. The fate of the season rests entirely on how Cal cleans up, and with a Herculean Oregon team traveling to Berkeley next week, the Bears will have to execute with sheer precision on every part of the gridiron.

Emily Ohman covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @emilyohman34.