Missed opportunities — lots and lots of missed opportunities.
Cal had its chances in Saturday’s Big Game, but the Bears were never able to capitalize on offense, and the team lost its ninth-straight game to Stanford, 23-13.
The Bears had plenty of heart and plenty of defense, but, for the first time in several games, they made more mistakes than the other team, and they never found enough offensive firepower to make up for the deficit. Cal’s lone touchdown came with 10 seconds left, as Stanford was giving up chunks of yardage on every play to avoid something over the top.
Saturday, Cal (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) just couldn’t get the little things right. The Bears turned the ball over three times (two interceptions and a fumble). An uncharacteristic roughing the passer penalty kept Stanford’s offense on the field and allowed the Cardinal (8-4, 6-3) to essentially run out the clock. And Greg Thomas missed a 36-yard field goal.
“That’s why it hurts so much,” redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Garbers said, “because we were there, and we just missed the opportunities.”
Garbers added that the team desperately wanted to get the win for the seniors, all of whom were designated captains for the game and who have never beaten Cal’s biggest rival — the last time the Bears took home the Axe was in 2009, when Garbers was 10 years old.
“It hurts a lot, just because you feel like you let your teammates down,” Garbers said.
Head coach Justin Wilcox said the loss is an especially tough one to swallow.
“Everyone is just kicked in the gut,” Wilcox said. “It hurts really bad, and it hurts because we had chances. … There’s not a ton you can tell them right now that is going to make anybody feel better.
“It’s going to be tough for the next 24 hours, for everybody.”
As Cal’s players made their way off the field at Memorial Stadium and into the team’s locker room after the loss, senior linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk, one of the team’s two captains and the heart of the defense, stayed, glancing around the nearly empty stadium. As his teammates walked past, each and every player hugged him, patted him on the back, and told him how proud they were of him. But he still didn’t move. Not until strength and conditioning coach Torre Becton came back out on the field did Kunaszyk head in.
“Just soaking up my last time playing in Memorial Stadium, just taking it all in,” Kunaszyk said. “I’m just so grateful for my experience here at Cal, my experiences I’ve had in Memorial Stadium, for the fans and the alumni who come and support us week-in and week-out. I wanted to take a step back and just be grateful for that and just thank God for the opportunity I got to play here at Cal, play at Memorial Stadium, for this university I love so much.”
Wilcox said, “It means as much to Jordan as it does anybody in our program because he puts so much into it. And he’s such a great leader for us, and he just cares, and (I) love him for it. I wish we could have done more to help him and the rest of the guys. … It sucks.”
Running back Patrick Laird, who had 116 yards on 19 carries, said it was tough for things to end the way they did, especially because he believes the team still hasn’t played its best football.
Laird, who made the team as a walk-on and who is now, as a redshirt senior, exiting as a captain and one of the team’s best players, added, “We didn’t accomplish everything we wanted to accomplish this season, but I love playing with the guys in that locker room. It’s just been a blessing, it’s been a great four-and-a-half years of my life, and I just absolutely love this university, I love Cal football, everything UC Berkeley stands for.”
The game got off to a rough start for Cal. The Bears’ defense struggled to get any sort of pressure on Stanford quarterback KJ Costello, and the Cardinal took an early — and easy — 10-0 lead. Cal’s defense then settled down and allowed just three points in the second quarter and shut out the team in the third quarter. Inside linebacker Evan Weaver tallied 15 tackles, moving him to 143 tackles this season and No. 4 on the team’s all-time single-season list for tackles.
In the fourth quarter, still down by just a touchdown, Weaver held up a runner while Kunaszyk stripped the ball, and Cal recovered at the Stanford 23-yard line. But the offense couldn’t get a first down and missed a 36-yard field goal that at least would have pulled the score to 13-9 with 10:50 to play. Thomas had previously made a 40-yarder and a 24-yarder.
That futile stretch pretty much summed up the day for the Bears’ offense. Garbers was often off-target — and when he was making good throws, his receivers were dropping the balls. H-back Malik McMorris fumbled the ball, and Garbers was intercepted twice, although both were impressive plays by cornerback Paulson Adebo. The first interception was a diving, one-handed catch in the endzone that was hard to believe, even with slow-motion replay. The second was on a pass that hit wideout Vic Wharton on the hands before Adebo nabbed it and returned the ball to the 1-yard line, setting up Stanford’s final touchdown.
For good (or bad) measure, when it looked like Cal was going to get the Cardinal off the field with eight minutes left in the game after a crucial third-down stop, outside linebacker Tevin Paul was called for a roughing the passer penalty. Stanford then ate up more than seven minutes on the clock and kicked a field goal that put the game out-of-reach at 16-6.
The Bears knows they have one more game left this season, one more chance to prove themselves, but they’ll ruminate on this loss.
“Unfortunately I won’t be here next year,” Kunaszyk said, “but I promise the Axe will be coming back to Berkeley soon.”
This article originally appeared here.