So much had gone right for Cal football in 2018, that when Cal head coach Justin Wilcox’s defense put on one of its signature efforts in clamping down on Stanford and keeping the game close, it seemed like it had to be only a matter of time until the other side of the ball reciprocated and took a lead. That time never came, as the offense seemingly buckled under the weight of the Big Game, and the Cardinal emerged from Memorial Stadium with a 23-13 win and the axe for the ninth straight year.
In the first quarter, the Bears simply looked limp. The defense was unable to get any pressure whatsoever on Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello, who in turn was able to pick apart the Bears’ zone defense as he wished. While the Cardinal’s first drive stalled out in the red zone and resulted in just a field goal, the second ended on a more dynamic note, as backup running back Cameron Scarlett took a screen pass 46 yards to the house. Stanford’s offense looked to be in full effect, taking advantage of its size advantage with receivers and relying on a deep stable of running backs.
Cal’s offense, on the other hand, looked like the mediocre unit that managed just over 200 yards against Colorado last week. Chase Garbers was hesitant and nothing opened up in the running game, and it ended with Stanford up 10-0 and holding a 4:1 advantage in total yardage, 164 to 41.
Roles were quickly flipped in the second half, as the Bears defensive line came out with a bundle of energy, and finally made Costello somewhat uncomfortable, helped by the loudest Memorial Stadium crowd in years. On its first three drives of the quarter, Stanford managed two three and outs and a single first down. Evan Weaver was making his usual outsized impact, and defensive end Tevin Paul was playing some of his most effective football of the year.
Cal converted on a short fourth down, followed by a third down by going to trusty utility player Malik McMorris, but had to settle for a field goal. On their next drive, Patrick Laird put a hesitation move on a Cardinal linebacker that allowed him to streak 62 yards down the field, but on 3rd down just seven yards from the endzone, Garbers missed an open Jordan Duncan, and kicker Greg Thomas was back out again.
The Bears looked to be stringing together another good drive to end the half when McMorris fumbled, and Costello quickly found the always dangerous JJ Arcega-Whiteside 31 yards downfield to put the Cardinal one yard out from another touchdown. The Bears stood tough, however, limiting the damage to three points, and headed into halftime down 13-6.
Cal’s offense had a shot at getting something going at the start of the second half, but Jeremiah Hawkins inexplicably failed to haul in a near-perfect pass from Garbers with nobody close on third and eight to force a punt. The rest of the quarter failed to develop for both teams along similar lines, with Cal’s defensive line continuing to gain steam, and Garbers indecisive play continuing to hinder the Bears. All-in-all, both teams combined for less than 100 yards from scrimmage in the quarter, making for an aesthetically un-pleasing stalemate.
It was only appropriate, then, that the fourth quarter start with fireworks. The Bears offense was finally making progress down the field when Garbers forced a poor throw into the endzone, which was picked off with one hand in highlight fashion by sophomore cornerback Paul Adebo.
Just when it seemed the Cardinal had seized control of the game, linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk forced the ball out of Bryce Love’s hands, with Cal’s Siula Fuimaono falling on it. And just when it seemed that the Bears had taken the game back, Garbers indecisive scrambling forced a 36 yard field goal attempt. Thomas, who had looked to be in the zone on two previous kicks, promptly missed an ugly one and the score, seemingly impossibly after so much action, remained at 13-6.
Cal appeared to have forced a three and out following those miscues, but Paul put a black mark on what had been such a positive day for him with a blatant roughing the passer penalty that extended the drive. Another big completion to Arcega-Whiteside put Stanford in striking distance, and a field goal put the margin between the two teams at an insurmountable two possessions.
The Bears offense tried to rev its engines again with three minutes remaining in the game, but the crowd, which had been so electric in the first half, seemed to already know the effort was doomed and barely managed a peep. Adebo picked off another ball after it deflected off Vic Wharton’s hands, and very nearly took it to the house. Instead, Scarlett punched it in and fans finally began to file out into the streets.
It hardly felt fair for the offense’s ineptitude to end up leaving Cal fans with a bitter taste in their mouth after an impressive seven-win season, but for anyone who had watched that unit throughout the season, it was no surprise. Until the Bears can get both sides of the ball on the same page, they seem doomed to play little brother in their biggest rivalry.
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