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9:15PM

Stanford has a defense — and a ninth straight win over Cal

By Art Spander

BERKELEY, Calif. — Cal scored a touchdown. When it didn’t matter. Not even against the point spread. Certainly not even against Stanford.

Sure, you want to do something besides kick field goals (or in one case, miss a field goal), but getting your only TD with 10 seconds remaining — and the crowd, once more frustrated, heading out of Memorial Stadium — is just eyewash.

This was supposed to be a close one, a couple of points was the line, and it was close. On the scoreboard for a while. But not on the field. We knew that Stanford had an offense. What we realized with its 23-13 victory, its ninth straight over the Golden Bears, was that Stanford has a defense.

If you want the disappointment — from the Cal viewpoint — distilled to a small segment, try these five plays in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, with Stanford in front, 13-6.

Cal quarterback Chase Garbers, on first and 10 from the Stanford 34, throws an interception in the end zone. Next play, Stanford’s all-everything running back, Bryce Love, oops, fumbles and Cal recovers on the Stanford 23. But four plays later Cal misses a 36-yard field goal.

There was 12:49 remaining, but for all effects the game was over.

And shortly in the Cal locker room, you heard the lament you hear from most losing locker rooms, to wit: “We missed too many opportunities.”

They missed them because they weren’t as good as Stanford, which now is 8-4 and heading to a bowl game while Cal is 7-5, also heading to a bowl.

As you know, this one was supposed to be played two weeks ago but had to be postponed because of unhealthy air caused by the smoke from the fire in Butte County.

The delay most likely didn’t change the result. Stanford not only beat Cal, as usual, but UCLA as usual (11 in a row there) and USC, sweeping the state, as it were.

Cal ended up with more yards, 352 to 329. Missed opportunities are not found in the statistics columns

“It hurts bad,” said Justin Wilcox, Cal’s second-year coach. “Everyone feels kicked in the gut. They know they had chances, and we don’t need to relive all those things. They know they had opportunities, and that stings.”

And then he dropped a line that was a reminder that often what you are unable to do is what the other team won’t let you do: “Stanford is a heck of a program. They’ve been winning for a long time.”

A program that David Shaw has coached as close to perfection as an academic school — meaning Stanford, Cal, UCLA and other Pac-12 institutions — can be.

The Alabamas and Georgias and LSUs are in a different category. Knowing that, knowing that at Stanford and Cal the SATs are no less significant than TDs, then what Shaw and Stanford have achieved is particularly impressive.

“We needed our defense to pick us up,” said Shaw, “which they did. We got two red zone stops and forced them to kick two field goals early on.”

After Stanford had a touchdown and a field goal, and a 10-0 lead.

“The second half was all about defense,” said Shaw. “We got a lot of stops and stifled their running game. Paulson Adebo made two unbelievable interceptions.”

Both in the fourth quarter, one with one hand.

“I was just trying to make a play,” said Adebo. “Everybody talked about how highly emotional (the game) is, but you can’t understand until you’re actually in that situation.”

The situation for Cal is that it is closer to Stanford than in those years when the Cardinal scored five and six touchdowns, but it still isn’t close enough to stop the domination.

“We’ve grown this year,” agreed Wilcox, “but there’s not a lot you can tell (the players) to make them feel better; it’s the truth. Each and every week we are trying to improve, and that means winning. That’s what it’s all about. Winning. So when we don’t, it hurts.”

And against rival Stanford, after nine losses in a row, it’s especially painful.

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.

10:25AM

S.F. Examiner: Cal hopes newest hire ushers in era of tough football, beating rivals

By Art Spander
San Francisco Examiner

Berkeley isn’t Tuscaloosa, or Ann Arbor. Cal is known for academics, not athletics. Then again, so is Stanford, and therein lies the challenge for the new guy with the Golden Bears, Justin Wilcox.

To win a game now and then from the Cardinal, to restore a sense of respectability to the football program, maybe even — to dream — make it to Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

Read the full story here.

©2017 The San Francisco Examiner

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.