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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.

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.

7:22AM

Cal coach: Easier to beat Grambling than USC

By Art Spander

BERKELEY, Calif. — The man is wonderfully forthright, which is to be admired, even if the results of his team’s last three football games are not. Cal won its opening five, which was both leading and misleading.

Now it’s on a losing streak.

Now the opponents are tough. “It’s easier to beat Grambling than USC,” affirmed head coach Sonny Dykes.

And the Golden Bears, indeed, beat Grambling 73-14 in their first game this 2015 season, then San Diego State 35-7, then — and these games were against better schools — Texas, Washington and Washington State. Up in the national rankings. A sense of satisfaction. Followed by disappointment.

Three consecutive defeats. Utah, UCLA and Saturday at Memorial Stadium, USC, the virtually unbeatable Trojans, with all that talent on the field, with all those band members in the stands, irritating and relentless in both cases. Rat-a-rat, rat-a-tat.

USC won again Saturday, 27-21. Not a rout, like two years ago when the score in Dykes’ first season as Cal coach was 62-38. A good game maybe. A close game certainly. But a 12th straight loss for Cal for against USC and a first loss at home this season for the Bears.

Beautiful weather, a so-so crowd of 52,060, a rotten result for most. Again.

“We got all those turnovers earlier in the year,” reminded Dykes, who didn’t have to remind us that they came against lesser teams. “We just haven’t gotten them now. We couldn’t get USC’s offense off the field.”

There’s been chaos at USC this year: Steve Sarkisian removed as coach after reports of his drinking;  unhappiness with athletic director Pat Haden, who hired Sark, a 3-3 record after six games. But now that record is 5-3, the same as Cal’s, and with interim coach Clay Helton in control, the Trojans could run the table.

“They’ve got as good athletes,” said Dykes, “as anybody in the country.”

Those athletes bulled and powered and ran with spectacular efficiency at times Saturday. Trailing 7-0 in the opening minutes of the second quarter, second and nine at the Cal 13, USC did what any coach would love — blocked so well that literally no one touched Ronald Jones until he was into the end zone and the congratulatory pounding began. 

Those old NFL videos of Vince Lombardi talking about sealing off the defensive line? They came to life on this one.

Twelve in a row. There’s supposed to be a balance in college football. But USC-Cal is imbalanced. The team that started the season with takeaways, recovering fumbles and taking interceptions, on Saturday had all the giveaways, three turnovers (two Jared Goff interceptions and one fumble) to none for USC.

Dykes is an offensive specialist, but his offense Saturday hardly was special.

“I think we all are frustrated,” said Dykes. “We should be playing better.”

Oh yes, the shoulds and coulds and the might-haves, words of those who can’t quite get where they hoped to be. People look at how close they came to beating, say, Novak Djokovic or Jordan Spieth, or Ohio State or the Patriots or Warriors, and insist they should have done more. Dreamers.

As opposed to winners, who make the right play or the right shot or the big putt at the opportune time. Which USC did and Cal didn’t.

“We had them hemmed in third and one the end of the game,” Dykes said when USC had the ball on its own 42 with around two and a half minutes left. “I would have liked to have seen what would happen if we got them on the ground.”

But Tre Madden, seemingly trapped in his own backfield, broke free for 14 yards. First down. Last call. What he saw, what we saw, was Cal unable to stop USC when it was needed.

“I thought we played good defensively,” said Dykes. “They scored an offensive touchdown, and we let them get out on a couple of screens, but USC has some good players.

“Winning and losing has a lot to do with who you play. Our schedule has been backloaded the past two years. We have played some really good people this year, and we are trying to get to the point to where we can beat those really good people. Good teams are just harder to beat.”

Or as USC has been, impossible to beat.