What looked like it could become the kind of Cal win that could turn the Bears’ season into something memorable turned into a crushing, 31-24 overtime loss to Washington, the kind of defeat that will be difficult to forget.
“I’m sure you can imagine it doesn’t feel good,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “It’s painful.”
Wilcox takes losses hard, and his postgame demeanor told you this one was particularly tough for him to swallow.
A number of Cal accomplishments that would have been highlighted as potential season-changing events if the Bears had pulled out the win in their Pac-12 opener will now be forgotten as meaningless details because of one memorable play:
On first down from the Washington 2-yard line, with Cal trailing 31-24 and needing a touchdown to send the game into a second overtime, Bears running back Damien Moore plowed off right tackle, trying to burrow his way into the end zone for a game-tying touchdown.
Washington linebacker Jacob Sirmon, the son of Cal defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon, and Huskies defensive back Cameron Williams slammed the door on Moore at the 1-yard line, the hard hit knocking the ball out of Moore’s hands and stunning Moore to the extent that he struggled to get up afterward. Meanwhile, the ball trickled into the end zone and was recovered by Washington’s Ryan Bowman.
A game that seemed like it would be headed for at least one more overtime, and possibly two or three more, was suddenly over.
What will be dismissed as insignificant as a result is that Cal overcame a 24-10 third-quarter deficit to send Saturday night’s road game into overtime, tying the score with 2:51 left in the fourth quarter on a clutch 62-yard touchdown drive.
Also forgotten will be the last-minute Bears possession, when Cal nearly won it on the final play of regulation when Dario Longhetto’s 55-yard field goal try was on line but fell just short.
Chase Garbers threw two interceptions that he won’t be proud of, but otherwise he had a strong game. He had directed that game-tying touchdown drive and the late drive that gave Longhetto a chance to win it.
He completed 30-of-41 passes for 319 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, and also led the team in rushing with 71 yards on 16 carries.
But his performance will be a mere afterthought because of that fumble.
“Kind of like a lot of our stories go,” Cal defensive lineman Luc Bequette said. “There’s just kind of those several plays here and there that if we get those we can win the game.”
The fact that the Bears’ defense finally came to life, limiting the Huskies to three second-half points and none in the fourth quarter, won’t get much attention. Neither will the fact that Cal outgained Washington 457-326 and had 21 first downs to the Huskies’ 18. Kekoa Crawford’s 107 receiving yards on eight receptions and another promising game by redshirt freshman Jeremiah Hunter (six receptions, 77 yards) would have been front and center if Cal had won.
Instead it’s the game-deciding fumble that will stick in everyone’s mind and will be linked to the fact that the Bears turned the ball over three times and forced just one Washington turnover.
You could make the case that Cal should be – or at least could be – 4-0 at this point, having lost close games to Nevada and TCU, with opportunities to win both. But the fact is, Washington is 2-2 overall and 1-0 in the Pac-12 while Cal is 1-3 for the second year in a row and 0-1 in the Pac-12.
And how damaging is it to title hopes to lose the Pac-12 opener?
Never in the 10 years of the Pac-12’s existence has a team that lost its conference opener gone on to win the conference title.
Taking it further, only twice in the past 35 years of the Pac-12 and Pac-10 has a team lost its first conference game and finished alone in first place. And the two exceptions were USC in 2008, when the Trojans went on to finish ranked No. 3 in the country, and 2003, when Cal stunned USC in the conference opener before the Trojans went on to capture a share of the national championship.
A win would have brightened Cal’s bowl prospects considerably, but now the Bears must win five of their final eight games to be eligible for a postseason game.
And the injuries Cal incurred could make next week’s game against Washington State more challenging.
Wide receiver/punt returner Nikko Remigio took a hit that knocked him out of the game in the fourth quarter. Nose guard Stanley McKenzie limped off in the fourth quarter. Tight end Jake Tonges, who had four receptions, had to be helped off in the overtime with apparent leg injury. Outside linebacker Kuony Deng missed his second straight game and there’s no indication if or when he will return, and DeCarlos Brooks did not play either because an unspecified injury.
And who knows if Moore is OK, because he got up awfully slowly after the hit on the game’s final play.
On the previous play Moore had run for 8 yards to set the Bears up with that first down at the 2, and it made sense to have him run it again, assuming the Bears would match the 2-yard scoring run by Sean McGrew on Washington’s earlier overtime possession.
Bequette and several other Cal players thought McGrew was stopped short of the goal-line on his third-down run, but Bequette acknowledged there were too many bodies involved in the play for review officials to overrule the call on the field.
Moore’s fumble was also reviewed, but it was clear he lost the ball before he went down and before he crossed the goal-line.
Cover photo of Washington's Ryan Bowman displaying the fumble he recovered is by Stephen Brashear, USA TODAY Sports
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