A week ago, all Damien Moore wanted on his 19th birthday was a Cal victory in the 123rd Big Game.

The freshman running back didn’t get that despite the best game of his brief college football career as the Bears lost 24-23 to visiting Stanford.

For Moore, the outcome takes the shine off a 121-yard rushing performance that was the second best by a Cal freshman in the Big Game in at least 40 years.

The only freshman back since 1980 to gain more yards against the Cardinal was Marshawn Lynch, who had 122 in 2004. One more yard than Moore.

“Its an honor to be even mentioned with a legend like Marshawn Lynch,” said Moore, who was a week shy of 3 years old when Lynch helped Cal rout the Cardinal 41-6. “Yeah, I am a little happy about it, but at the same time we didn’t come out with the W so it doesn’t really matter.”

Two third-quarter plays from last week’s game gnaw at Moore.

The first was his career-long 54-yard burst that took him to the Stanford 12-yard line before being chased down from behind.

“I feel like I should have scored on that one,” said Moore, adding that he heard about it from his teammates “as soon as I got to the sidelines.”

That might have been a bit galling but the Bears scored a touchdown on the drive anyway, so no harm done.

On the Bears’ next possession, Moore got the ball on third-and-1 at the Cal. Stanford stopped him for no gain, and the Bears punted. Just a two-yard gain and the Bears could have kept the drive alive . . . and Moore would have had bragging rights on Lynch.

“He’ll be the first to say that he wanted more from that game, that he left some things out there he could have done better,” Cal running backs coach Aristotle Thompson said. “That’s one of the things you love when you have guys who want to do more for the team. He wasn’t walking around high-fiving himself.”

Moore’s first Big Game experience was unlike any other, with no week-long buildup and no fans in Memorial Stadium. Under normal circumstances, Moore would have returned to class on Monday to instant campus celebrity status.

Instead, while taking classes remotely during the pandemic, the response he got was in the form of text messages and phone calls from friends and family. “It was cool. It was a special moment,” he said.

And the love he received on social media “was really amazing to me.”

For most fans, Moore arrived here from Bishop Amat High in La Puente without great fanfare. Even Cal quarterback Chase Garbers, who helped host Moore on his recruiting visit, says he didn’t know much about him as a player.

“He came in in the summer, worked really hard, earned his stripes early. In fall camp you saw the potential he had,” Garbers said. “He has really good vision coming out of the backfield. It’s very rare to see that coming out of high school.

“What he’s done for us so far is truly amazing. The sky’s the limit for him. I think he just scratched the surface this past week against Stanford with what he can do running the ball.”

*** Thompson talks in detail in this video about Moore: 

Thompson said Moore is a self-motivated player with a productive approach to the position.

“He runs with a natural pad level. What I mean by that is he has a forward lean. He’s engaging guys with his pads, not taking a lot of unnecessary hits,” Thompson said. “And he has really good balance as well.”

Coach Justin Wilcox has been pleased.

“You’re never quite sure how the freshmen will transition. He’s done a really good job,” Wilcox said. “Each rep he gets, every time he touches the ball he seems to get a little bit better. He’s a natural runner, patient, sees things well, gets positive yards. I thought he did a really good job in there and I think he’ll continue to get better the more he plays.”

Cal suddenly has multiple options in the backfield. Junior Christopher Brown Jr., the starter, apparently is healthier after being banged up for a couple weeks. Senior Marcel Dancy provides versatility as a runner and pass catcher.

*** Garbers like the versatility in Cal's running back room:

It will be up to offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave to mix and match the backs to the Bears’ best advantage. With Oregon on the calendar Saturday evening, Moore seems to have earned himself more chances to carry the ball.

But don’t ask Thompson or Musgrave to project Moore’s long-term arc.

“I’m a one day at a time guy. I want to see him have a great practice tomorrow and then a great practice the next day and then we’ll go from there,” Thompson said this week. “As coach Musgrave says, the hay is never in the barn.”

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Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo

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