Each week the possibilities get a little bleaker for Cal, which could be looking at a winless season after Friday's 24-23 loss to Stanford in Berkeley dropped Cal to 0-3.
"It doesn't feel good," Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. "We put a lot into this. A lot of people do -- coaches, players, people in the program, and the fans put a lot into it. And it doesn't feel good."
So after coming close again and losing again, there is second guessing. Should Cal have gone for two points after its last touchdown, a question Wilcox addresses later in the story.
Lost amid the disappointment was the fact that Cal linebacker Kuony Deng had 14 tackles, including one for a loss, and freshman running back Damien Moore ran for 121 yards, which inluded runs of 54 and 29 yards. They would have been highlights if Cal had won, but they became meaningless numbers when a critical extra-point attempt was blocked.
Remember the optimism following the Bears' Redbox Bowl win last December? Cal fans were talking about a Pac-12 championship in 2020. The COVID-19 played havoc with Cal preparations, but the Bears were still picked to finish second in the Pac-12 North, giving credibility to the idea that Cal could reach the conference title game.
Then virus-testing issues caused the cancellation of the Washington game. Then the game against Arizona State was canceled because of virus-related problems at Arizona State, leading to slap-dash transition to a game in which Cal faced UCLA with the Bears behind in preparation. Cal played poorly in that game and lost, knocking its title hopes down a peg.
But the past two games have been particuarly hard to take. Even though Cal was without five starters in both games because of COVID-19 issues, the Bears piled up 171 more yards of offense and 12 more first downs in the games against Oregon State and Stanford combined.
Cal looked like the better team in both games, but lost both, primarily because of special-teams blunders.
The loss to Oregon State eliminated the Bears' shot at a conference title, and Friday's defeat wrested The Axe away from Cal after the Bears had ended its nine-game losing streak to the Cardinal in 2019. It also dropped Cal to 0-3, and the Bears have yet to play a team expected to contend for the conference title.
Cal presumably will be an underdog to Oregon (3-1) next Saturday despite the Ducks loss to Oregon State on Friday, and then comes a scheduled Dec. 12 road game in Pullman, Wash., against Washington State, a game Cal could lose -- if the game is played at all given the fact that the Cougars' past two games have been canceled for virus-related issues.
That would leave only the game the weekend of Dec. 18-19 against an undetermined opponent -- possibly Washington, possibly Utah, possibly Colorado and even possibly USC.
The possibility of a winning record in the regular season has been eliminated, and a scenario in which Cal finishes 0-5 or 0-6 is not out of the question.
This is not at all what 2020 seemed to have in store for Cal.
"It's obviously not what we wanted; we're 0-3," said Deng. "Obviously it's a different kind of year with different kind of circumstances, but it's going to be all about responding. That's what this entire year has been about."
**Cal linebacker Kuony Deng talks about being 0-3
A blocked punt and penalties on two long Cal returns doomed the Bears against Oregon State.
Against Stanford, two lost fumbles -- a muffed punt by Nikko Remigio that gave Stanford the ball at the Cal 16-yard line in the second quarter and a third-quarter fumble by Marcel Dancy that led to a Stanford touchdown -- and a blocked 32-yard Cal field-goal attempt pushed Cal to the brink of another disappointing loss.
But a late 90-yard Cal touchdown drive was ready to erase all the mistakes.
The use of running back Christopher Brown Jr. was critical in that drive, which began at the Cal 10-yard line with 4:28 left. Coach Justin Wilcox said Brown's lingering injury issues forced the Bears to be judicious with his use on Friday, and he did not enter the game until the fourth quarter. But his 15-yard run on a third-and-10 from the Stanford 19-yard line and his 3-yard, third-down touchdown run finished off the drive with 58 seconds left and reduced the Cal deficit to 24-23.
Wilcox then had to decide whether to go for one point and hope for overtime or try for two points to give the Bears the lead, knowing that one short field-goal attempt had already been blocked.
Wilcox provided a long explanation for why he chose to go from one point, but he concluded with this:
"Obviously, it was the wrong decision, and I own that 100 percent," he said.
**Wilcox explains his decision to go for one after the Bears' final touchdown
It was the wrong decision, because Thomas Booker (34) blocked Dario Longhetto's extra-point try, as seen in the photo below.
As result, Remigio's fumbled punt in the first half comes back into focus. Cal led 10-3 at the time that Remigio's muffed punt reception gave Stanford the ball at the Cal 16-yard line, leading to a game-tying touchdown in the second quarter when the Bears seemed to be in control of things,
"But at the end of the day,"Remigio said, "the mistakes shouldn't have been happening. It was a very elementary mistake, and everybody can see how one thing leads to another."
That one thing led to the momentum coming to Stanford, who did not commit any turnovers while getting its first win in three games.
It left Cal deflated that it had lost another game it probably should have won. It also left Cal with an 0-3 record with the best opponents still remaining on the schedule.
Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53
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