Cal Football: Bears Lose Heartbreaker to UCLA, Miss Bowl Eligibility

PASADENA, CA - NOVEMBER 24: Brandon Stephens
PASADENA, CA - NOVEMBER 24: Brandon Stephens /

With a bowl berth on the line, Cal football couldn’t come through with a win to seal another game, dropping a heartbreaker to UCLA.

Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox, nearing the end of his first season at the helm, made it clear early in the week that the Bears were treating this like a playoff game. In a sense, he was right. It was a win-or-go-home situation for the Bears and the UCLA Bruins, who both entered the game with 5-6 records. Win, and you play one more game during bowl season. Lose, and you go home and start preparing for 2018.

Cal is headed home and can start preparing for the 2018 season. With their bowl hopes down to the final week, the Bears couldn’t beat the Bruins to earn a 13th game.

The Bears’ first offensive drive started well enough, with Laird gaining 31 yards on five carries, but a holding call backed them up and they couldn’t recover. Kicker Matt Anderson couldn’t convert from 46 yards out, putting the defense on the field.

Cal’s defense put on a strong effort on the first drive, dropping opposing quarterback Josh Rosen for two sacks and coming up with another big tackle for loss. On the first defensive play of the game, Raymond Davison sacked Rosen for a 12-yard loss before Darius Allensworth blew up a trick play a little later for another 12-yard step back. Alex Funches ended the drive with another sack.

The offense couldn’t respond, going three-and-out, but the defense gave them the ball back with great field position. Davison punched the ball away from UCLA running back Bolu Olurunfunmi and Kunaszyk jumped on it to give his offense the ball at the 17. Unfortunately, Olurunfunmi appeared to re-aggravate a leg injury and wouldn’t get back on the field until more than 10 minutes had elapsed in the second half.

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This time, Anderson would nail his attempt from 32 yards out to put Cal ahead 3-0 late in the first quarter. For Anderson, the make marked his 57th career successful field goal try, breaking Doug Brien’s school record. Anderson also became the school’s all-time leading scorer last week.

UCLA responded to the deficit emphatically. Rosen marched them down the field, needing only six play and two minutes to chew up 75 yards and find the endzone.

On the next drive, Laird did more of the heavy lifting. The final play of the first quarter was Laird breaking through the defense for 13 yards, bringing him to 53 on the day and across the century mark on the season. He became Cal’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Daniel Lasco in 2014 after entering the season with 11 carries and 65 yards in his college career. The drive would stall again, however, and the team would have to settle for another field goal.

After Cal failed to find the endzone again, UCLA would start to take over in the rest in the first half. They added to their lead with another field goal before Rosen would throw his second touchdown of the day, finding Jordan Lasley on a fade to make it a 17-6 lead. Anderson made his third field goal with about a minute left before the break, and the teams went into the locker room with the score 17-9.

Rosen had a strong first half, completing 13 of 18 for 202 yards and two scores, but was noticeably absent from UCLA huddle to start the second half. He appeared to be injured on a hit by Funches late in the first half, and stayed in the locker room as his team took the half-opening kickoff.

Led by redshirt freshman Devon Modster under center, UCLA could only manage three-and-outs on their first two drives of the half. On the other side, Laird crossed the 100-yard mark for the fifth time on the season with a 29-yard scamper.

Laird converted fourth down later in the drive, showing some nifty moves to shake and even hurdle the defense, taking it 19 yards down to UCLA’s two. The next play saw Ross Bowers fool the defense with a great play-fake before taking it himself for the Bears’ first touchdown of the night. The two-point attempt to tie the game was good with Laird catching a pass from Bowers, and it was back to level.

After the game was tied, Rosen was shown on the sideline, out of pads with the team’s trainer to signal that his night was officially over. On the next drive, Modster did his best Rosen impression. He put his team in Cal territory with a 37-yard strike to Lasley before running back Brandon Stephens punched it in from two yards out to take the lead back. UCLA added another field goal to make it a 10-point lead.

Facing the deficit, Bowers led the Bears down the field with his best drive of the day. He threw for 53 yards and ran for 14 more, but yet again, the Bears could not break through to the endzone. Another Anderson field goal brought it back to a one-score game, and put the pressure on the defense.

The defense responded, forcing a punt and giving the Bears the ball back with about six minute to play. They picked up one first down then another, and got help from a UCLA holding call to keep the drive alive. A completion to Kanawai Noa, who came alive late in the game, put them at the nine-yard line with the endzone in sight. On second down, Jordan Veasy caught a pass over a UCLA defender to tie the game again with about two minutes to play.

Cal’s defense was put to another test, trying to keep the game tied this time, but couldn’t come through. UCLA marched down the field in less than two minutes, giving kicker J.J. Molson a chance to drill a 37-yard, game-winning field goal.

Cal’s consistent inability to make big plays offensively and find the endzone has hurt them a lot this season, and that was the story on Friday night. They’ve dearly missed wide receiver Demetris Robertson, their most dangerous receiving threat who has the ability to take the top off the defense and catch a deep ball. Vic Wharton and Kanawai Noa were both great options for quarterback Ross Bowers, but are more possession-type receivers, good pass catchers and route-runners but don’t quite have the speed to beat the defense over the top.

Their dink-and-dunk, run first offense didn’t do them any favors as they continued to play catch up with UCLA leading. They also couldn’t slow down UCLA’s star receiver Lasley. He caught 12 passes for 227 yards and a score, and kept the game-winning drive alive with a big 18-yard reception to convert a third down.

Laird finished his surprising, breakout season in a big way. He carried the ball 32 times for 178 yards, going over the century mark for the third straight game. During that three-game stretch, Laird racked up 545 yards. Despite entering the season as the team’s third-string back, the former walk-on became the team’s biggest offensive threat. He ran for 1,127 yards, and caught 45 passes for 322 yards.

UCLA becomes bowl eligible on the strength of their home record. The Bruins lost all six road games, but didn’t take a single defeat as the home team to keep their final regular season record at 6-6. Cal, on the other hand, continues to take their lumps on the road in the conference. The Bears opened the season with a road win against North Carolina, but have lost 13 straight away games with the Pac-12. Their last win came on September 26th, 2015, when they beat the Washingon Huskies in Seattle.

Next: Cal Falls to Stanford in Big Game Again

It will be a long offseason, but coach Wilcox has put the Bears in a good position. Despite consistently being outmatched from a talent standpoint, the team never stopped fighting throughout the season. With his first recruiting class on the way, Wilcox has the team in a good place after his first season. Knowing coach Wilcox, his goals will be lofty moving forward.