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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.

9:33AM

S.F. Examiner: Christian has believers on both sidelines of 119th Big Game

By Art Spander
San Francisco Examiner

Christian McCaffrey got his million yards — well, OK it was only 284, but it seemed like a million — and the Big Game remained in Stanford’s possession. But let’s not forget that for the first time in five years Cal had a lead, if a short-lived one.

Early on, the Golden Bears were in front, 10-7. Very early on. Otherwise, when the 119th Big Game came to a thudding conclusion Saturday evening, it was Stanford in front, 45-31, a record-tying seventh-straight win for the Cardinal.

Read the full story here.

©2016 The San Francisco Examiner

9:28AM

‘Little miscues,’ McCaffrey decide the Big Game

By Art Spander

STANFORD, Calif. — One of the stars almost certainly is done. Jared Goff has one more year of eligibility, but the thinking is he’ll leave Cal, enter the NFL draft and be selected very high and thus become very rich. The other star, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, is not going anywhere, except through the other team’s defense.

As Saturday night he went through the Cal defense. For 389 yards, rushing, receiving and on kickoff returns.  Dashing, rumbling, bashing, bouncing, scoring. “He’s a physical runner,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes, in affirmation. “That’s not hard to see.”

What Dykes and everyone else at Stanford Stadium for the 118th Big Game saw were bravura performances by Goff, the junior, who threw 54 times, completing 37 for 286 yards and two touchdowns, and McCaffrey, the sophomore, who leads the nation in all-purpose offense. What they also saw was another Stanford victory, defeating the Golden Bears, 35-22, the sixth in a row for the Cardinal in what loosely might be termed a rivalry.

“I have not seen anybody like this kid,” Stanford coach David Shaw said of McCaffrey.

It was a bit better of a game than the last few of these. Cal only trailed 21-16 with some five minutes to go in the third quarter. Still, Stanford wasn’t going to lose, not the way it was tackling, or failing to tackle, or being penalized.

Stanford (9-2) is the better team, which meant if the Bears were going to win they had to be effective and alert. Which they weren’t. “Penalties killed us,” said Dykes of drives that got to to the two and the eight and the 11 and got nothing more than field goals. And that sloppy defense was no less critical.

That’s bully-ball played by Stanford, blockers crushing defenders so the running back or the returner — McCaffrey in most of the cases — often was unhindered. That 98-yard kickoff return for a TD by McCaffrey just before halftime, and just after a Cal field goal, was perfect. If anybody touched McCaffrey it was one of his teammates in the end zone, joyfully offering congratulations.

“I thought that was a momentum-breaker,” said McCaffrey. The Bears had moved to within 14-6 and, whoosh, it was 21-6. “We tried to tackle him,” said Dykes, in his third year as Cal coach. “We got guys in position. We just couldn’t tackle.”

This was the sort of game that would confuse those obsessed with statistics. Cal had 495 yards total offense to Stanford’s 356. Cal had the ball 31 minutes, 16 seconds to Stanford’s 28:44. But Stanford kept Cal from touchdowns — more on that later — and Cal couldn’t stop Stanford.

Maybe when the ball was inside the Stanford 10, or just outside, the Bears should have gone for the end zone on fourth down. Settling for three points when you’re behind is not very advantageous.

“If we had scored on third down,” said Goff, who just missed on a couple of those chances, “we wouldn’t have to ask about going for field goals.”

Or as Dykes glumly confirmed, after Cal dropped to 6-5, “Dropped the ball the first series, missed a pass when Kenny (Lawler) was open in the end zone. Just little miscues. That was kind of the difference for us.”

Little miscues in the Big Game, which because of a TV delay — the Arkansas game preceded it on ESPN — began at 7:41 p.m. PST, the latest ever for a Cal-Stanford meeting. It ended before 11, which isn’t bad, if you’re fortunate to live in the Pacific time zone.

Not that people in New York or Philly have much interest in anything west of the Sierra Nevada, other than the Warriors.

The Cal-Stanford series has been very streaky of late. Before the current stretch of six in a row by Stanford, it was Cal taking seven out of eight.

Before they left the pre-game locker room, the Bears heard Dykes tell them, “Do whatever it takes to make tonight a special night.” What it took was the kind of sharp play, especially on defense, that Cal still seems incapable of executing.

“When you have almost 500 yards of offense against a good defense,” said Dykes, “it’s a little bit frustrating when you score 22 points and don’t win the game. But as I said, penalties really, really hurt us.”

So did Christian McCaffrey, and he’ll be back, whether Jared Goff will or not.

8:51PM

Cal can't keep composure — or the football

By Art Spander

BERKELEY — So this was the year Cal had a chance against Stanford, the year the Golden Bears had a defense and had tenacity. What they didn’t have one play into the game was their starting strong safety.

What they often didn’t have after that was discipline. Or, more critically, the football.

The air shooshed out Saturday virtually as the balloon was inflated. All the excitement, the hopes, the possibilities, disappeared in moments.

An ejection. A rapid 10-point deficit. Dejection.

The sun came out above Memorial Stadium after a morning rain, but the day metaphorically was dreary for most of the less-than-capacity crowd of 56,483.

The Cardinal was too much for Cal, maybe not as much as 2013 when the score was 67-13, the most one-sided in the history of a series that now has reached 117 games, but plenty nevertheless.

The final this time was 38-17, and the way the Golden Bears played defense, made penalties and threw interceptions, you never felt Cal had a chance. Both teams entered with 5-5 records, but there was no question one was superior.

“Frustrating” was the primary word tossed around in the Cal post-game comments, followed by “disappointing.” No one expected the Cal people to be pleased. Yet the remarks are becoming litany, and for the faithful, the Old Blues as Cal alumni designate themselves, agony.

The game overall was a bewildering mix of mistakes and official video reviews. In the third quarter alone, Cal had three touchdowns overruled on three consecutive plays. But good teams overcome all that incidental stuff. Bad teams don’t.

Was it a shock that on the first play from scrimmage Cal strong safety Michael Lowe was penalized and ejected for what the official believed was “targeting,” driving his helmet into Stanford tight end Austin Hooper? Of course.

“In 20 years,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes, “I have never seen something like that happen the first play of the game. I wish that something like that wouldn’t affect us as much as it did. It affected me, and I think it affected our players.”

Which tells you perhaps as much you need to know about Cal. It is an improving team but also a fragile team, working its way back from a 1-11 record in Dykes’ first season. One blow knocked it off kilter.   

Not that Stanford’s defense and a Cal offense, which lost four turnovers — against a team that only had nine takeaways all season — weren’t major factors.

“They are a physical team,” Dykes, painfully honest about his program and other programs, said about Stanford. “And they laid some pretty good hits on us. They did a nice job tipping a couple of passes, and you have to give them credit for that. We have to make sure we move the pocket and make space.

Starting quarterback Jared Goff threw a couple of those, which were tipped and picked. His alternate Luke Rubenzer also threw two interceptions. Running back Daniel Lasco fumbled near the goal line, Stanford recovering. And there you have part of the tale of self-destruction.

“Our kids really wanted to play well,” said Dykes. “We really wanted to play well as a coaching staff. Our fans wanted us to play well. We didn’t make a very good showing today, and I am really disappointed about that.”

Goff, the sophomore, broke his own single-season record for passing yards. He had 182 Saturday on a so-so 16-for-31 completion mark and now has totaled 3,580 for the season with a game left to play against Brigham Young.

“They’re playing Savannah State,” quipped Dykes. “Probably winning 120-0, getting their confidence.” (It was only 64-0, but his point was understood. BYU gets a lot of points. And the Bears give up a lot of points.)

Goff, said Dykes, didn’t have one of his better games. “When you face a good defense,” reminded Dykes, “you have a small margin for error. Five turnovers are pretty significant errors.”

And 113 yards in penalties (Stanford had 21) are no less significant.

“I am disappointed in the way we played,” said Dykes. “I anticipated us playing better football. It was a bit of a strange football game, and it certainly didn’t start the way we wanted it to start.”

It didn’t end the way they wanted either. Stanford has won the last five years, half a decade. Somehow, Cal has to find a way to keep the other team out of the end zone — Stanford’s Remound Wright tied a Big Game record with five touchdowns — and, no less importantly, find a way to keep its composure.

10:47PM

Stanford makes points, Cal makes promises

By Art Spander

STANFORD, Calif. — The figurative laundry list for Cal was as as big as Stanford’s point total, the largest by either team in the history of the Big Game, which has been held 116 times.

The Cardinal won this one, destroyed Cal in this one, embarrassed Cal in this one, 63-13, on a sparkling Saturday afternoon in late November.

Attendance was announced as a sellout of 50,424 at Stanford Stadium, although there were plenty of empty seats, perhaps tickets held by Cal fans who couldn’t bring themselves to view a mismatch greater than anybody imagined.

Sure, Stanford, 9-2 and headed for a bowl, whether it be Rose or Fiesta or something else, was a 32½-point favorite. But the eventual spread was 50 — OMG, 50 — and the Golden Bears, after losing starting quarterback Jared Goff with a shoulder separation, couldn’t score a single point after halftime.

It was understood Cal had no defense. The Bears were last in the Pac-12 in that category and then Saturday allowed Ty Montgomery to catch five touchdown passes and Stanford to gain 603 yards.

But supposedly Cal had an offense.

That supposition was disproved, Cal gaining only 383 yards and after the opening four minutes getting only two field goals.

After Cal (1-11) finished with an 11-loss season for the first time in a football history that goes back to the 19th century — yes, teams didn’t play 11 or 12 games until the last few years — head coach Sonny Dykes took the blame and then took a stand.

“My job is to get the team ready,” said Dykes, who was hired last December from Louisiana Tech, “and I clearly didn’t do a very good job.”

Someone tried to get Dykes to allude to the many injuries to Cal players during the season. He made an acknowledgement, then took the high road.

“Yeah,” he conceded, “I can find a bunch of excuses. It is what it is. You guys can look at the depth chart. That’s up to you guys (the media) to draw your own conclusion.

“I think we got a bright future. There’s some things we got to fix. But yeah, we’re going to work tomorrow and get them fixed. Actually we’re going to go to work (Saturday) night.”

After having been worked over by a Stanford team that even with a mammoth lead in the closing two minutes was throwing, backup quarterback Evan Crower hitting Francis Owusu for 14 yards and a touchdown with 1:51 remaining.

Asked if he thought Stanford, which was running up the score, was indeed running up the score, Dykes answered, “Not at all. That’s part of football. Our job is to stop it.”

They couldn’t. They couldn’t stop anything or anyone. In any game, other than one against Portland State, which Cal won 37-30.

Cal gave up 63 points to Stanford, 62 to USC, 55 to Oregon, 52 to Ohio State. 580 points overall in 12 games. Ridiculous.

When somebody wondered what Dykes would say to Cal partisans, he responded, “I don’t have much to say. I wish it was better. It’s on me. That’s all I can say.”

Not all. Visibly dismayed, Dykes promised improvement. Everywhere.

“Blocking,” he began, then halted. “Well, no, we’re going to learn to pick up our locker room. We’re going to learn how to go to class. We’re going to fix our graduation rates.”

Cal, it was disclosed earlier this month, had the worst graduation rate for football players of any school in the Pac-12 — maybe, for the highest-ranked public university in America by several polls, a greater shame than a 1-11 season.

“We’re going to appreciate being a Cal student,” continued Dykes, “be supportive of other Cal students.

“We’re going to get faster, stronger in the weight room. We’re going to get bigger and improve our diet. We’re going to be more committed to getting sleep, rest and recovery.”  

And then the two that actually might make a difference.

“We’re going to learn to play on offense and defense.”

Dykes pointed out he had been coaching for years, been “lucky to be successful,” at every level. Until this year, until a year that terminated with a rout by Cal’s cross-bay rival.

“Never seen anything like this,” said Dykes. He was referring generally to the season, but neither Cal nor Stanford fans had seen anything like Saturday. No team in the Big Game ever had scored more than 48 points. Now one has scored 63.

“I haven’t been a part of it,” sighed Dykes. “Obviously haven’t done a very good job dealing with it. It’s on me to figure out how to deal with it, and go from there.”

He knows the problem. The solution will not come quickly.