Twitter
Categories
Archives
10:26AM

Best Big Game in years decided by big run, big mistake

By Art Spander

STANFORD, Calif. — One great burst by the other guy, the great runner, Bryce Love. One big mistake by their guy, the improving thrower.

The best Big Game in years could be distilled down to those two plays, which is both unfair of so many plays but very fair because, in a game as close as this one was Saturday night, the difference invariably is a play or two.

Yes, as expected, Stanford won, beating Cal for an eighth straight time of out 120 times the schools have played, but they won 17-14, the smallest margin of those eight games. And against a team that has more muscle and has had much more success, that counts for something.

Stanford was supposed to win this one and win it big, as it has the past few years before Justin Wilcox took over this year as Cal’s coach, installing a defense, instilling hope.

Yet the Golden Bears were there at the end, basically until their thrower, their quarterback, Ross Bowers, went deep and was intercepted.

“This one hurt,” said Wilcox. “We had our opportunities. We weren’t able to capitalize.”

What they didn’t have, or didn’t have enough, was the ball. Stanford grinds it out and grinds you up, and then unsurprisingly, Love, the prep sprint champ, gets the ball and, literally untouched, goes 57 yards down the sideline in the third quarter.

Cal got that touchdown back when Bowers bulled a yard to end a 75-yard drive. But in the fourth quarter, after Cal had moved to the Stanford 48, Bowers threw long and was picked off on the six-yard line. There were more than seven minutes remaining on the clock. But in reality, time had run out for Cal.

“We strain to compete against Stanford,” said Wilcox. His record as a rookie head coach, Cal’s record, is 5-6, 2-6 in the Pac-12, with a game remaining Friday night against UCLA in Los Angeles.

Stanford is 8-3. 7-3, also with a game to play, against Notre Dame. But it’s another game, between Washington State, which beat Stanford, and Washington, which lost to Stanford, that has more meaning to the Cardinal.

A Washington victory and Stanford plays in the Pac-12 championship against USC. A Washington State victory, and it’s old WSU (Wazoo in the vernacular) that faces the Trojans.

But that doesn’t particularly concern Wilcox.

“It was one of those games,” said Wilcox of Cal-Stanford, “when we knew possession and third-down situations would be important.”

Of course. When you’re the underdog, the team that is trying to prove it belongs, trying to change the direction of recent history, you must keep the ball on drives and stop the other team — Stanford in this case — when needed, which Cal was unable to do.

That’s why Stanford is an elite team and why Cal is not.

The stats were balanced and misleading. Cal converted 6 of 12 third downs. So did Stanford. But Stanford kept the ball when it had to. In the third and fourth quarter.

That was Stanford football under David Shaw, power football, get the ball and shove it through the other guys, eating up the clock, wearing down the opponent. It’s brought them to Rose Bowls and other bowls.

And still it’s the one man, the Christian McCaffrey, the Bryce Love, who makes the big move, who shows the greatness. We used to think of Stanford for quarterbacks, John Brodie, Jim Plunkett, and John Elway. Now it’s all about running backs, about grabbing the football and either dashing or powering to daylight. That beats up the defensive line. That keeps the ball away from the other team.

Love is from North Carolina, Wake Forest, which has a darn good university football team. But he came west, and if Stanford wasn’t playing those awful late-night games (it was after 11:30 pm in the east when the game ended) he would have good shot at the Heisman, injured ankle or not.

Love has 11 touchdowns of 50 yards or more this season, breaking a FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) record. His teammates, naturally, were elated.

“It’s down to the point,” said Stanford receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside, ”where it’s like, ‘There he goes again, let’s go celebrate with him in the end zone.’”

A celebration that, for Cal, was something they watched with pain and regret.

8:23AM

No team as exciting to watch — or play for — as the Warriors

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — There have been other great basketball teams, probably in the minds of some, particularly those in the east, better basketball teams. But for the here and now, if not the forever, there is no team as enjoyable to watch and cheer — and play for, verifies Klay Thompson — as the Golden State Warriors of 2017-18.

OK, the Celtics had Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones and Tom Heinsohn, and won seven championships in row and nine in 10 years, still unequaled. And those Lakers teams of the recent past, Magic, Shaq and Kobe — and James Worthy — well deserved the embellishing, copyrighted label, “Showtime.”

But the NBA now, top to bottom, is better than it’s ever been, and at the top, the very top, are the Warriors, the team of a dozen stars, if you’ll pardon just a slight exaggeration, and a thousand moves. But of only one direction.

You want to know about these Warriors? Their gunner, their spark, their two-time MVP, Steph Curry, was unable to play Monday night because of a leg contusion.

“What that means,” said Shaun Livingston, who started in Steph’s spot, “is we’re missing 25 to 50 points a game.” But they didn’t miss a chance to win their seventh in a row, defeating the Orlando Magic, 110-100, at the Oracle, if failing for the first time to win by 17 points or more.

“This experience is good for us,” said Livingston of victory without Curry. “I know it sucks for the fans. They want to see Steph.”

Of course. He’s a star. He’s an attraction. He makes commercials. He makes three-pointers. He makes a ton of money. But sometimes the chorus, the people in the back of the stage, carry the show. Only, on the Warriors, the subs, the role players, are people like Andre Iguodala, an NBA finals MVP, and Livingston, who had it not been for a terrible injury to his left knee 10 years ago might have been one of the greats.

We haven’t heard that slogan “Strength in numbers,” much in the opening weeks of this season. But the numbers are stronger than they’ve ever been. What a roster. What a problem for head coach Steve Kerr, trying to get the subs off the bench or off the inactive list and onto the court.

Kerr’s own background was as a backup. “I sometimes didn’t play for three weeks,” he said of his days with the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. “I didn’t feel part of the team. I learned from (head coach) Phil Jackson the real power is playing a lot of people. I just know we are lucky to have such talent we can win games without Steph Curry.”

Talent such as Kevin Durant, also a league MVP, who Monday night had 21 points and eight assists, and Draymond Green, 20 points and five assists. Livingston scored 16 points and had six assists. Thompson had 15 and five.

Nick Young, a starter for the Lakers but a role player for the Warriors, scored nine. David West had 11 rebounds. Iguodala was in nearly half the game, 23 minutes, 9 seconds, passing, shooting and, perhaps most significantly, defending. Yes, the Warriors are loaded.

Thompson said it’s as much fun watching these Warriors as playing for them. "It doesn’t matter if it’s the finals or preseason,” he pointed out. "The fans are great. It’s like that every night.”

Kerr, in effect, has been given the key (players) to the kingdom, and he’s making the very best of the opportunity — while determined to give everyone on the squad an opportunity.

“It’s a luxury to have Shaun Livingston,” said the coach. “He was headed for an All-Star career before that severe injury. It’s amazing how he’s stayed himself since the injury.  He’s one of our most mature teammates. He has an incredible basketball IQ.”

And he’s a reserve.

It was a different look without Curry, although there was not a different pattern. The Warriors were behind early, caught up and then blew the game apart in the third quarter, as they seem to do night after night.

“Teams come out and play great against us in the first half,” said Durant. “Then we play defense, get a hand up, make them miss and score quick.”

Kerr has his own explanation: “We have such great talent, everybody is comfortable just treading water. Then we seem to pay more attention to detail.”

And win big, very big.

9:44AM

‘Kyle made us believe,’ said Niners’ Celek

By Art Spander

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Sure, it was inevitable. Nobody loses them all in the NFL — if you discount the 2008 Detroit Lions. Still, that doesn’t mean there weren’t doubts from some of the players. Hey, you try going to work every day when the world is upside down.

And that doesn’t mean when the 49ers won for the first time since Kyle Shanahan became head coach — in their 10th game — they wouldn’t celebrate by dumping a bucket of water over on him, not Gatorade.

“We knew it was coming,” said Garrett Celek, the tight end who was very loose. “That’s the mentality of Kyle. He makes us believe.”

Then after a pause, a bit of self-reflection if not self-congratulations, Celek, who scored a touchdown on a 47-yard pass play in which he looked more like a ballerina than a receiver, compared a glorious recent pass with a disappointing present,at least until Sunday’s 31-21 victory over the New York Giants.

“I’ve been on teams (the 2012 Niners, his rookie season) that went to the Super Bowl,” said Celek. “It’s easy to work out then, easy to go every day. But when you haven’t won, it’s not so easy. But Kyle made us believe. That’s the culture he created.”

Although, as Shanahan conceded, the losses eat away at you. “Most people,” said the coach, “it’s a lot easier to check out, point fingers at people. That’s not what our guys did.”

Yes, just 1-9 (as compared to the awful Giants at 1-8), but success at last. Smiles at last. The way the Niners jogged off the field, players tossing chin straps and gloves to the remainder of a much-too-small Levi’s Stadium crowd (70,133 tickets sold; maybe 45,000 tickets used) it was if they had won a championship.

There was Jimmy Garoppolo, presumably the quarterback-to be, still not having played a down since being acquired from the Patriots, hurling his chin strap to a delighted fan. And there was C.J. Beathard, the quarterback of the last few weeks — and didn’t he play beautifully Sunday? — running to the locker room and the unknown.

The Niners have their bye next weekend. On ESPN, Adam Schefter said when they play their subsequent game, Garoppolo will be the starter. Not so fast, said Shanahan. “C.J.’s done a good job," the coach said. “He’s the same guy he’s been all season. Nothing’s too big for him.

“We haven’t made any decisions yet on our quarterbacks, so how could it be announced? We’re taking it week by week. We’ll continue working with Jimmy during bye week. We’ll have a bonus practice next Monday, then see where it goes from there. We’ll make our evaluation after that, WednesdayThursdayFriday.”

Beathard, a rookie who took over for Brian Hoyer a few games back, threw for 288 yards and two touchdowns and ran 11 yards for another touchdown. If this was his last game as a starter — for the immediate future, at least — it was a memorable one.

The Niners had lost five games in a row by three points or fewer. Then they were thumped. “Adversity,” said Shanahan. “It made us tougher. We got better through adversity.”

Now they have a victory. “Just one win,” said Shanahan. “We worked real hard for it. “

He was standing at the dais in the auditorium employed as a classroom for the players and at other times, such as this, media interview sessions. He was soaked and happy.

A season ago, as offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, he had gone to the Super Bowl. But now he was the head man. From now on, Kyle Shanahan would never lack a “W” beside his name.

“What people don’t realize,” said Shanahan, who is the son of former coach Mike Shanahan and grew up within the game, “is how hard it is to win in the NFL. The more you coach, the more you realize, whether it’s a good team or a not so good team ... five in a row by three points or less made us understand you can’t waste one play, can’t waste one day.

“Four hours on Sunday, but it starts on Wednesday.”

This was the first time in any of their six home games this season the Niners had a lead. “The biggest thing,” said Shanahan, "was how we did on third down. We had struggled not being able to play those third downs and stay on the field.”

In this game, this first winning game, they stayed. And stayed. They converted eight of the 12 third-down attempts, 67 percent. So two out of three times, the 49ers had their first down.  And with Beathard connecting with Celek for the 47 yards, with Marquise Goodwin for 83 yards (“fastest man in the league,” Celek insisted) and with Matt Breida running 33 yards, they had what’s more important, touchdowns.

“We had some explosiveness this year,” Shanahan agreed. “We didn’t have explosive touchdowns. Then we got them.”

And, at last, the win.

10:31AM

Kerr on losing Warriors: ‘At some point game has to matter’

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — You want theories? They are almost as numerous as the Warriors' bad passes.

The Dubs are thinking that, as champions, they can win virtually by pulling off their warm-ups. That trip to China has cost them conditioning and timing. Each opposing squad plays its best against the team that everyone says is the best.

And, oh yeah, the season started two weeks earlier than in recent years. True, that doesn’t make them any different from the other teams in the NBA, of course, Nor does the inescapable fact that when they play as imprecisely as they did Sunday night — make it sloppily — they’re going to lose.

Which they did to the Detroit Pistons, 115-107, at home, at the Oracle.

Despite leading by 14 points in the third quarter.

Despite shooting 48 percent from the field.

Despite making more field goals than the Pistons.

Despite grabbing more rebounds.

Despite Klay Thompson getting 29 points, Kevin Durant 28 and Steph Curry 27.

But oh, those turnovers. Twenty-six of them. So unlike the Warriors. Last year’s Warriors. This year, this season, the Warriors are a team trying as much to find their old selves as find the ball on a pass.

A team that having lost two of its four home games, according to head coach Steve Kerr, lacks intensity, lacks focus — and certainly lacks the ability to throw a pass when and where it’s supposed to be thrown.

"At some point,” said Kerr, “the ball has to matter. The game has to matter enough for us to win. We must be leading the league in turnovers.”

Sure, it’s just one game out of 80. Sure, there’s another Monday night in Los Angeles against the Clippers, who Friday night were beaten by the Pistons, their first loss of the season. Sure it’s only October, and no one is supposed to care until May — or at the least, April.

But trends develop. Suddenly the team that was said to be unbeatable becomes very beatable. And maybe there’s an injury to one of the stars. And maybe the other team on the court begins to hit virtually every shot, as the Pistons did in the fourth quarter, when Detroit shot 63 percent.

“This has to do with a complete lack of focus and fundamentals,” said Kerr. The NBA champs, the team that dropped only one of 16 playoff games, unfocused, lacking fundamentals? How can that be?

“We are throwing the ball all over the place,” said Kerr. “Even some passes just hitting guys in the shoes ... I didn’t feel like most of the turnovers were because of their pressure. It just felt like more of them were just us throwing the ball around.”

It was a tough Sunday for the Bay. The Raiders lost. The 49ers lost. Then, at home, stunningly, the Warriors lost. Blowing a big lead.

“We finally started caring with six minutes,” said Kerr, “when we were threatened. We immediately cut it to three. But the right team won. Karma was in the right place tonight.”

Unlike many of the Warriors players trying to receive a pass.

“I think we care,” said Durant. “We’re just trying to squeeze the basketball into places that are not there. We care about the game. It’s the small details.”

That have become big mistakes. “They did a great job of converting our turnovers,” said Durant. “They made shots when they needed them.”

That happens more often than not in the NBA. These guys are the best in the world. Avery Bradley made 8 of 13 for the Pistons, scored 23 points. Reggie Jackson made 8 of 12, scored 22 points.

Detroit out-Warriored the Warriors, hitting on 12 of 27 3-pointers, while the Dubs were 10 of 27.

The fans who usually have that rolling chant, “War-rrr-iors,” instead were begging “Let’s go Warriors.“ First they were pleading and then, too quickly, the game was over and they were leaving.

"We won a championship on this floor,” Durant reminded. “There so much the crowd gives us. They were ready to explode. We didn’t take advantage of it.”

You might say they threw away the chance, just like they did the basketball.

7:35PM

Dwight Clark wanted to see Niner mates ‘one more time’

By Art Spander

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The game was forgettable. As opposed to the halftime ceremony. That is something we must never forget, an emotional tribute — realistically, and how awful it is saying this — a farewell.

The 2018 49ers played awful Sunday. “There’s a very fine line between winning and getting your butts kicked,” said first-year coach Kyle Shanahan. They got their butts kicked.

They were beaten by the Dallas Cowboys, 40-10, at Levi’s Stadium. The team and the rookie head coach are 0-7. And while NFL teams rarely win them all or lose them all — yes, the exception is the 2008 Detroit Lions, 0-16— the possibility of the Niners going without a victory this fall is growing.

Depressing for Niners fans. As, in a way, was the halftime program. Depressing and at the same time uplifting, because it reminded us of better days, for the franchise and for the man being honored and remembered, Dwight Clark.

Clark has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a horrible, cruel ailment that traps a person in his own body, stealing life a day at a time. “A few months ago,” remembered the kind man who operates the press elevator at Levi’s, “I saw Dwight and he was joking, laughing.”

But time moves quickly with ALS. A healthy, robust individual is conquered by an ailment for which there is no cure. Clark made it to midfield Sunday at halftime, but when he spoke there was hesitancy in his words, as if he were fighting to get them out and barely succeeding.

Clark is best known for The Catch, and while surely no explanation need be required, not if you know football, not if you know Northern California, not if you know the 49ers, one will be given.

It was Henry Ford who said, “History is bunk.” What he meant was don’t look back when you should, look ahead. Yet all of sport is wrapped in history, and when the first pro franchise created in San Francisco has gone year after year without the championship and then in a moment of timing and brilliance it is transformed because of one play, The Catch, then the past must be cherished.

Early January 1982, Candlestick Park, the NFC Championship game for 1981, Niners and Cowboys, and once again it seems Dallas will win. But Joe Montana, Super Joe, avoids the leaping pass rush of Ed “Too Tall” Jones and flings ball to heaven knows where. To a desperately leaping Dwight Clark, that’s where. Touchdown, and after a brief defensive stand, Super Bowl, the start of a dynasty.

Montana was part of the ceremony on Sunday. Of course. So were as many teammates of those 1981 49ers as could be located and, through the passion and generosity of former owner Ed DeBartolo Jr., brought to the stadium.

Each wore a red 49er jersey with Clark’s number, 87. History. Memories. Sadness.

“I just want to see my teammates one more time,” Clark said he told DeBartolo. “And the 49ers heard that and flew all these players in so I could see ‘em one more time.”

DeBartolo wiped away a tear. Perhaps others did as well.

Montana reminded us that he and Clark were rookies and roommates in the summer of ’79, a friendship still strong. You watched, you listened, you shook your head in disbelief. Clark is 60, so young.

I’ve known others with ALS, including Bruce Edwards, who for quite a while was the caddy of champion golfer Tom Watson. What causes the disease? Why does it strike so many football players and golfers or caddies? Is it something on the grass? Something in the air?

Clark said DeBartolo flew him to Japan, hoping a researcher would have an answer, have a cure. “Thanks, Eddie,” said Clark. “You’ve been my friend since 1979.”

Then, after a few seconds, he said, “It’s been a tough year.”