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Cal's 1-5 Start Seems Like a Long Time Ago After Rout of Stanford

Bears are playing their best football of the season and bowl is still possible

It's not often that a team's fans storms the field in its opponent's home stadium, but it was a sea of celebrating Blue and Gold fans covering the Stanford Stadium field after Cal beat the Cardinal 41-11 on Saturday in the 124th Big Game.

The Cal euphoria blanketed the stadium.

"If you could feel the energy on the field with the players and the alumni, students, fans and then in this locker room -- there's no doubt about it, it's a hard feeling to describe to somebody," Cal coach Justin Wilcox said afterward.

Cal (4-6, 3-4 Pac-12) is playing its best football of the season and the bowl hopes that appeared to be dead when the Bears were 1-5 seem within reach now. Cal rolled up a Big Game-record 636 yards of offense, including 352 on the ground, albeit against a  Cardinal team that has struggled on defense and has now lost six in a row since its victory over Oregon.

The Bears have won three of their past four games, the only loss in that span being a 10-3 setback against Arizona when 24 Cal players, including quarterback Chase Garbers and nine other starters, were unavailable because of COVID issues.

And in the three games with most of its full roster available, the Bears were dominant.

"It was a lot of fun to watch them compete because they had that kind of won't-be-denied attitude," Wilcox said.

This is not the same Cal team that kept falling shot earlier in the season, failing to make the big play at the pivotal moments.

"The results weren't what were expecting during that time," said Wilcox, "but it never felt like we were far off. We were a play off here or there, and the guys never lost confidence . . . as opposed to guys folding up shop and cashing it in."

The Bears are radically better when Garbers is at the helm, as he was again on Saturday. He was outstanding when Cal beat the Cardinal at Stanford Stadium two years ago, and he was nearly perfect again this time. Those are Cal's only two wins in the Bears past 12 games against Stanford, but only Saturday's game seemed to matter to the Cal fans, who lingered on the Stanford Stadium field for more than 20 minutes after the game.

"Chase is playing his best football since he's been here, and its' not even close," Wilcox said.

His statistics -- 17-for-26 for 249 yards, 246 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and 59 rushing yards -- only tell part of the story of the way he controlled the game from the quarterback spot.

Suddenly Cal and its fans don't want to see the season end, a dramatic change from the feeling after six games into the season when an end to season would seemed like a blessing.

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The Bill Musgrave offense that everyone was expecting when the former NFL offensive coordinator was hired after the 2019 season is now showing up.  A team virtually never produced a big play before Musgrave arrived as the offensive coordinator had three plays of 75 yards or more against the Cardinal.

Christopher Brooks, who seems to be getting strong as the season wears on, had 131 rushing yards in 13 carries as Cal averaged 10.35 yards per rushing attempt compared with Stanford's 1.65 yards per carry.

This offensive show might not have been possible were it not for two goal-line stands by Cal early in the game.

The Bears stopped Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee one yard short of the goal-line on a fourth-and-goal play from the 3-yard line with 10:18 left in the fourth quarter. And McKee threw an incompletion on a fourth-and-goal play from the 5-yard line early in the second period with the game still scoreless.

Stanford coach David Shaw will get some criticism for not kicking field goals on either opportunity, but scoring no points in those two possessions virtually doomed the Cardinal (3-8, 2-7 Pac-12).  

"That changed the dynamic," Wilcox said.

It change everything, when, four plays after McKee's fourth-down incompletion, Garbers completed an 84-yard touchdown pass to Trevon Clark for the first score of the game.  It's was the longest touchdown pass in Big Game history, and Clark finished with 135 receiving yards on just three catches.

The question now, of course, is whether Cal can be as effective next week against UCLA and the following week against USC as it was against the Cardinal. 

Was Saturday's production merely an indication of how ineffective Stanford is defensively or an omen of what Cal will show the rest of the season?

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Cover photo is by Stan Szeto, USA TODAY Sports

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Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53

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