Turnovers, special teams plague Cal in 23-24 Big Game loss to Stanford

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

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As Cal and Stanford prepared to take the field for the 123rd Big Game, Memorial Stadium stood engulfed in sunshine, the crisp fall air making for a picturesque afternoon. Upon the opening kickoff, though, rather than the roar of 60,000 fans engulfing the stadium, a few hundred paper cutouts sat silently in the eerily empty stands and prerecorded fan noise played through the speakers. But in 2020, you take what you can get.

With the Bears aiming to keep the Axe for two consecutive years for the first time since 2008 and 2009, their hopes were dashed by a severe lack of execution on routine plays. Turnovers proved to be the deciding factor in this year’s Big Game, with two of Stanford’s touchdowns coming swiftly after Cal mishaps. Both a muffed punt and a fumble gave the Cardinal phenomenal field position, and they were able to capitalize on both occasions, cementing the path for Stanford to take back the Axe.

“Obviously, we’re all going to be a little bit down right now,” said Cal defensive lineman Brett Johnson. “We fought hard, and this was a tough loss for all of us, but we have to keep our heads up and get ready for next week.”

Playing on its home turf for the first time in 2020, Cal showed early signs of life, the offense masterfully navigating its way downfield on the game’s opening drive, bringing fans a needed sense of relief following a stagnant second half in last week’s loss to Oregon State. The line, still without three veteran starters who are in quarantine, created gaping lanes for the Bears’ explosive running back tandem of Marcel Dancy and Damien Moore, with regular starter Christopher Brown Jr. receiving limited snaps due to injury.

“It’s a good feeling, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my offensive line,” Moore said postgame of his 121-yard outing. “It’s tough; the performance doesn’t really matter to me. … It’s tough.”

Quarterback Chase Garbers capped off the eight-play, 75-yard drive with a strike to receiver Kekoa Crawford, who didn’t seem to lose a step coming off of a career game against the Beavers.

The bulk of that offensive magic was lost for the remainder of the first half, however, with the Bears coming up scoreless on all but a single drive that concluded with Dario Longhetto nailing a 24-yard field goal early in the second quarter. Throughout the afternoon, the offensive line struggled to protect Garbers, who often found himself having to frantically scramble to evade pressure. Stanford employed various defensive looks and blitzes to throw off the relatively inexperienced line, allowing unblocked rushers to get to Garbers on several plays.

The Cardinal, led by quarterback Davis Mills, were unable to take full advantage thanks to a relentless effort from Cal’s own front seven. Defensive end JH Tevis was able to shed his blockers on numerous occasions, pulling down Mills for a career-high two sacks in the first half alone.

Midway through the second quarter, the Bears’ defense was able to force its first three-and-out, but the excitement proved fleeting. With the defense celebrating on the sideline, Cal returner Nikko Remigio saw the punt slip right through his hands, and the ensuing rummage ended with the ball in Stanford’s hands.

“I was just trying to do too much; my head was trying to make a big play,” Remigio said. “I lost track of my fundamentals. At the end of the day, you can’t make those mistakes.”

The Cardinal capitalized quickly: Mills lofted up a fade throw to receiver Michael Wilson, who evaded cornerback Camryn Bynum to haul in the touchdown and tie the game at 10-10.

The Bears’ special teams unit, which has been a significant issue for Cal throughout the season, again failed to do its job with the final seconds of the first half winding down. Longhetto’s chip-shot kick was handily blocked, forcing Cal back into the locker room with the scoreboard still even.

After the defense forced Stanford into another three-and-out to open the second half, the turnover bug got Cal yet again. This time, Dancy had the ball punched out of his hands after securing a first down on a pitch from Garbers, again giving the Cardinal the ball in fantastic field position. A deep pass over the middle was enough to bring Stanford into the red zone, and running back Austin Jones only needed two carries to punch the ball across the goal line, putting his team up 17-10 after a successful extra point.

Still, Cal’s run defense saw a drastic improvement from its first two games, holding Stanford to just 95 rushing yards on the afternoon despite coming into the game allowing 224.5 on average. Inside linebacker Kuony Deng was a key reason for the improvement, notching 14 tackles to make up for his slow start to the season.

“We’ve been able to put together some pretty good stretches,” Deng said. “But we have to play well for all four quarters. We’re a good football team, but we haven’t put it all together.”

With the Bears aiming to respond on the next drive, Moore, a true freshman, pulled away for a 54-yard gain before being chased down by Stanford safety Kendall Williamson, setting up Cal to tie the game. Garbers again caught the Cardinal defense off guard with a play-action rollout to his right, finding a wide-open Remigio for an easy 3-yard touchdown pass on fourth down.

While Cal’s overall rushing defense did progress, Stanford’s physical style of ball-carrying was enough to move the pile and get tough yards when needed. Late in the third quarter, Jones dragged multiple blue jerseys into the end zone for his second touchdown of the day, giving Stanford another lead that Cal would have to overcome.

With the Cardinal still ahead 24-17 with under five minutes remaining in the game, Cal outside linebacker Cameron Goode burst off the edge to take down Mills, forcing Stanford to punt.

In a similar fashion to last year’s Big Game, Garbers was called upon to lead a late-game drive yet again. Another explosive run by Moore was enough to bring the Bears near midfield, where they continued to push the ball forward through a combination of quick passes and runs. With a minute remaining, Brown, who spent most of the game on the sideline, barreled his way into the end zone, setting Cal up to tie the game at 24.

But just as hope arises, it falls — with the Bears again celebrating on the sidelines, the high-fives turned into horror as Cal’s special teams unit allowed its second blocked kick of the night, leaving the blue and gold down a single point. As if the season hadn’t gone badly enough for Cal, a single missed extra point would be the reason the team fell to 0-3.

“From the team standpoint, every unit — offense, defense, special teams — needs to clean up,” Garbers said. “We need to dissect the film, work on it in practice and make it translate.”

In a game where its defense held Stanford to just 300 total yards, it was the simple mistakes that cost Cal a victory. With any postseason or Pac-12 championship hopes now well out of reach, the Bears must turn their focus to sorting out internal issues, starting with ball security and special teams. Cal’s season certainly hasn’t gone the way anyone expected, but in these times, there probably shouldn’t be expectations to begin with.

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