Pasadena punishment: UCLA pummels Cal’s postseason dreams

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On a night that started with so much promise, Cal football could not finish. The Bears failed to keep pace with the Bruins as UCLA stomped Cal 42-14 in the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

“We expected to play better than we did. It’s on everybody — coaches like myself, players. This loss was on everybody in the program,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox.

Led by senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the Bruins’ high-octane offense picked up right where it left off after putting up 106 points over its last two outings. UCLA made everything look effortless on its first drive, using the tandem of Thompson-Robinson and star running back Zach Charbonnet to march down the field for an early field goal.

And where the Bruins’ offense found success, Cal’s had no answer. A 3-and-out to start set the tone for the rest of the evening as Cal failed to turn a 58-yard kickoff return from senior receiver Nikko Remigio into any form of points. A third-down zero blitz from UCLA and a fourth-down drop by Cal freshman receiver J. Michael Sturdivant kept the Bears scoreless.

But that wasn’t the only opportunity Cal would squander. With the Bruins knocking on the door, linebackers Braxten Croteau and Nate Rutchena appeared to knock the ball free from Charbonnet. However, the Bears’ coaching staff’s hesitancy to throw the challenge flag allowed UCLA to hustle to the line and run a play — an easy pitch-and-catch to junior receiver Kyle Philips that gave the Bruins a 10-0 lead.

“We were confident, and I think we had shown great flashes over the past couple of weeks,” Remigio said. “We had executed in all three phases, and we just came up short tonight.”

It wasn’t until the Bruins made mistakes that Cal finally captured any semblance of offensive rhythm. After a touchdown run by senior running back Christopher Brooks, the Bears took advantage of a muff by UCLA’s Kazmeir Allen on the ensuing kickoff. Redshirt senior quarterback Chase Garbers called his own number, and within minutes, Cal somehow found itself holding a 14-10 lead.

Unfortunately for the Bears, that would be the last time they sniffed the end zone until the game was already out of reach. Garbers, who has posted career-high marks in passing yards, rushing yards and passing touchdowns this season, was under duress all night long. The Bruins reached home four times, and constant pressure forced Garbers into throwing two interceptions — an unusual stat for the Pac-12’s leader in total offense.

That pressure had rippling effects. With Garbers being flushed out of the pocket, he had to use his legs to extend plays. But Cal’s receivers struggled to gain separation downfield from a UCLA secondary ranked near last in the conference. The result was an offensive unit that looked like a shell of the one that lit up Stanford’s defense for 41 points just one week ago.

“Name a matchup, and they beat us most of the night. There were a number of factors. It wasn’t just one thing,” Wilcox said.

As the Bears’ offense struggled, the Bruins’ found its footing and never slipped up again. Thompson-Robinson, who finished with 266 total yards and three touchdowns, used play-action looks to dice up Cal’s secondary as UCLA roared back with 32 unanswered points. Even another big kickoff return from a fired-up Remigio couldn’t shake the Bears out of their slump. Things got so ugly that Ethan Garbers, younger brother of Chase Garbers and the Bruins’ backup quarterback, came in to finish the game.

With the clock ticking down to zero, the Bears, who needed to beat UCLA on Saturday night, saw their last hopes of bowl game eligibility extinguished. It was a familiar scene for Cal, which has now dropped six of its last seven meetings in Pasadena. But one that fans of the blue and gold certainly hoped would be different with the Bears cornered into a must-win situation.

“The mood is as expected. Guys are disappointed, but at the end of the day, we have one game left, so it’s on to the next,” Remigio said. “Everybody has to take this loss on the chin and move forward.”

For a team that has shown so much resiliency all season long, Cal football finally appeared to wave the white flag Saturday.

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