Bottom line: Just two games into the 2020 season Cal's chances of winning a Pac-12 title were virtually eliminated with Saturday's 31-27 loss to Oregon State in Corvallis, Oregon.
That's a tough pill to swallow after there were such high hopes by Cal players and fans that this might be the first season since 1958 that Cal would capture a conference championship (Cal tied for first place in 2006, but did not go to the Rose Bowl). The Bears were picked to finish second in the Pac-12 North this season, suggesting that a conference title was within reach.
But everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, the final unfortunate blow being a tipped pass that resulted in an Oregon State interception when Cal was at the Beavers' 10-yard line with 1:05 left.
"It's a very frustrating loss," Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. "It's frustrating for everyone."
Frustrating because the Bears nearly overcame the absence of six starters to get a road victory. Frustrating because the Cal offense showed dramatic improvement -- at least in the first half -- from its first-game struggles. Frustrating because the Bears were in position to win the game before a blocked punt that led to the Beavers' go-ahead score and the killer interception ruined the effort.
The excuses are many.
The absence of Cal's defensive linemen because of contact-tracing issues contributed to the Bears' poor performance in the 34-10 loss to UCLA in the opener.
And the cards were stacked gainst the Bears on Saturday with six starters unavailable. Starting running back Christopher Brown Jr. was held out because of injury, and five other starters -- tight end Collin Moore, outside linebacker Braxten Croteau and starting offensive linemen Will Craig, Jake Curhan and Valentino Daltoso -- were also unavailable, presumably for virus-related issues.
Wilcox said he found out Friday that several players would be unavailable because of the virus issues, and the team decided just before the game that Brown would not be able to go. Then center Michael Saffell left the game in the second quarter with an apparent leg injury, leaving Cal without its starters at four of the five officive line spots.
And still the Bears had a chance to win. With the new offensive linemen performing well, the Bears' offense was significantly better in the first half Saturday than it had been against UCLA. After collecting just 176 yards of total offense against the Bruins, Cal amassed 317 yards and 20 points in the first half against Oregon State, allowing Cal to take a 20-14 halftime lead, thanks to Dario Longhetto's 52-yard field goal on the final play of the second quarter.
"Offensively, really in the firt half, I thought there was good rhythm," Wilcox said, "and we moved the ball down the field really each time we had it."
It seemed the high hopes everyone had for the new NFL-style offense that new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave had installed was taking shape.
**Wilcox discusses the Bears' offensive effort:
But then, for no apparent reason, the offense failed in the second half.
The Bears managed just 34 yards in the third quarter and 122 yards in the second half, when it managed just seven points.
Chase Garbers, who struggled against UCLA, was 28-of-42 for 315 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, including that tipped ball at the end. And wide receiver Kekoa Crawford had by far his best game since arriving at Cal, catching 10 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown.
Oregon State running back Jermar Jefferson finished with 196 yards on 18 carries, but most of his yardage came on two plays -- a 75-yard touchdown run on the game's first play from a scrimmage and a 65-yard run when the Beavers were running out the clock following the interception.
It was that interception that ruined Cal's day.
Special-teams problems had a lot to do with Cal's downfall, especially a blocked punt that gave Oregon State the ball at the Cal 14-yard line and led to a touchdown that gave Oregon State a 31-27 lead with 5:28 left.
However, Cal seemed to have the answer when it marched to the Oregon State 10-yard line where it had a first down with 1:11 left. That's when Garbers' quick pass against an all-out blitz was tipped at the line of scrimmage and flew 20 feet in the air, seeming to be in the air forever, before Oregon State's John McCartan came down with it.
"Very unfortunate play," Garbers said. "Defensive back came free off the edge, I tried to throw our hot route to Tre Clark, tipped it straight up in the air, hoping it would just go backward or off to the side, but worst-case scenario, it went straight up in the air."
**Garbers talks about second-half struggles and fateful interception:
And just like that a galant effort that could have resulted in an invigorating win turnned into a loss that ended Cal's hopes of a conference title.
Technically, Cal is not eliminated for the title hunt, but the best Cal can do is be 3-2 when the Pac-12 title-game participants are selected. For Cal to sneak in, Washington and Oregon would each have to lose twice, and that would include a Cal victory over the Duks in two weeks. And the Bears do not seem to be in a good position right now.
It is unlikely that the Cal players held out because of COVID-19 contact-tracing will be able to practice this week or be back for next Friday's game against Stanford, which has an extra week of rest and preparation because its game with Washington State was canceled this week.
Cover photo of Kekoa Crawford by Soobum Im, USA Today
Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53
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