A knockout punch

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Sleepless in Seattle. That’s likely how Cal head coach Justin Wilcox felt following his team’s nightmarish 31-24 overtime loss to Washington last weekend.

The Bears, who entered this season with high hopes of claiming the Pac-12 North crown, saw that optimism likely erased for good Saturday. Cal quarterback Chase Garbers earned 390 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns, the defense held the Huskies to one first down in the fourth quarter and the Bears made five trips to the red zone, but the blue and gold failed to finish the job.

So that begs the question: Is Cal capable of getting the job done?

Looking at the Washington loss, many have pointed out that the Bears showed resilience every time the Huskies seemed to seize momentum. While that may be true, every time the blue and gold flashed any offensive prowess, they also could not get out of their own way. Not to mention that this came against a Washington team that was also 1-2 and sitting in the Pac-12 basement.

The UW game was a perfect microcosm of Cal football since the glory days of Aaron Rodgers and Marshawn Lynch. Sophomore running back Damien Moore, arguably the blue and gold’s best offensive player this season, kept battling until an overtime fumble at the goal line ended the contest. To make matters worse, Moore was slow to get off the turf following a big hit on that play. So close and yet so far.

Given the Bears’ play this season, a loss to a conference opponent in a hostile environment should not come as a major surprise. But Cal fans have been trained to always search for greener pastures — even after narrow defeats to Nevada and TCU, the Bears’ faithful pointed to how close Cal came to victory.

Sure, the Bears are often in it right until the end — they’re right there. Yet they never seem to be able to get over the hump.

It is a futile exercise for fans of the blue and gold to keep searching for silver linings. In 2019, many pointed to Cal’s 7-0 record in games that Garbers started and finished as proof that had the Bears’ starting quarterback remained healthy, the blue and gold would have made it to the Rose Bowl. In 2020, fans wrote off a disappointing season due to coronavirus-induced weirdness. In 2021, the silver linings playbook is filling up with each passing game.

It’s time to stop giving the Bears the benefit of the doubt.

Top-rated recruits already have. Within the past two weeks, four-star running back Jaydn Ott and four-star quarterback Justyn Martin announced their decisions to decommit from Cal. Both were expected to play a big role in reshaping the landscape surrounding the Bears’ football program. For a campus that is looking to rebrand itself as a football school, you simply cannot lose winnable games — if you do, you will also lose recruits.

Let me be clear: This was not the worst loss in Cal football’s history. Not even close. There are certainly far too many to name that can vie for that title. But this one in particular definitely stings.

Perhaps it’s because when the lights shut off at Husky Stadium on Saturday night, it felt like the end of something. With the Bears now sitting at 1-3 and a tough slate of conference opponents still on the menu, it feels like a bowl game is now out of reach. It felt like the unceremonious closing of the book on a team full of veterans and super seniors who will likely leave Memorial Stadium after this season. And it felt like the knockout punch to a fan base that desperately needed a morale boost.

Kabir Rao covers football. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @kabirr26.