Sometimes, good teams must suffer heartbreak before reaching the next level. The hope that is that the experience California took away from a tough loss Saturday night in Salt Lake City against the Utah Utes will help them take those next steps. In a matchup of the last two undefeated teams in Pac-12 play, Cal’s offense imploded in the first half with five stunning turnovers, yet the Golden Bears managed to lose by just a single score, 30-24.
A worthy opponent
There’s no shame in losing to Utah. Utah has put together the most impressive body of work in the Pac-12 thus far, with wins over an equally surging Michigan program and a blowout victory at Oregon. Utah has been firing on all cylinders and looks to be the best team in the Pac-12 South, if not the entire conference, and perhaps the nation. Cal still has a good path to travel, and if everything goes well, there could be a chance for redemption against the Utes down the line in the Pac-12 Championship Game. It still looks as though Cal should be planning to go to a postseason bowl game, and now they should know just how close they may be to being the Pac-12’s best.
Bad day for Cal’s offense
The Bears learned this lesson having played one of their worst games, at least on offense. Its star quarterback, Jared Goff, was picked off an unthinkable five times. The running game struggled to put together 127 rushing yards and Cal converted just five of their 12 third-down conversion attempts.
Still, Cal put up 467 yards of offense on a very good Utah defense. Utah needed every one of the six turnovers it forced on Cal in order to hold on for the win, with an interception on Cal’s next-to-last possession and a fourth-down stop from the Utah 21-yard line with 26 seconds to play. Despite its sloppiest performance on offense, Cal nearly won a hard-fought and gritty game in one of the Pac-12’s toughest places to win on the road.
Cal can’t run out of steam now
There are two ways Cal’s season can go from here. It can be a learning lesson and serve as inspiration and a confidence booster to remind Cal just how close they are and fuel them to earn a chance to face Utah again. Or, the steam can be let out of the season right now and Cal can slug its way through the remainder of the schedule with key games to play against the likes of Oregon and Stanford. The players on this team and head coach Sonny Dykes have come too far, fallen just short more than enough times and put in too much work to allow Scenario B to play out.
Cal managed to gain respect from the pollsters. Despite being a fringe Top 25 team heading into the week and losing the football six times, the voters in each of the major polls kept Cal among the top 25 teams in the nation. That right there should prove this Cal team has earned respect around the nation. Now, what will they do next to prove that was not a mistake for the voters? Watch out Pac-12. Cal still has some work to do.
Game Ball: Utah RB Devontae Booker
Cal seemed to handle Utah quarterback Travis Wilson well enough, but there was simply no stopping Utah’s running back. Booker ripped through Cal’s improved defense for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Utah should feel very confident any time Booker gets to carry the football, which he did 34 times against Cal Saturday night.
Around the Pac-12 North
The weekend got off to a good start for the Pac-12 North when Washington traveled down to USC and upset the Trojans last Thursday night. Chris Petersen and the Huskies were strong defensively and hung on for a 17-12 victory over previously No. 17 USC. The rest of the weekend did not go quite as well though, as Cal lost and Oregon State took a loss on the road against Arizona. The Beavers were flattened by the Wildcats, 44-7.
The biggest stunner of the weekend, or at least the latest in a series of shocking developments, came Saturday night in Eugene. Oregon dropped its third game of the season after failing to take care of visiting Washington State in double overtime. Mike Leach and the Cougars celebrated a 45-38 victory over the Ducks, who were forced to go with a walk-on quarterback as a starter. Oregon is now in serious danger of not reaching the postseason for first time in over a decade, with a challenging schedule still in front of them, including games against Cal, Stanford and USC.
Cal gets a well-deserved week off this week to prepare for its next game. Cal visits UCLA on Thursday, October 22 for a primetime matchup. Cal has lost the last two meetings with the Bruins but has won four of the last seven meetings. Last season saw UCLA edge Cal by a final score of 36-34. The last time Cal won at UCLA was 2009, with a 45-26 victory over their hosts in the historic Rose Bowl Stadium. UCLA is off to a 4-1 start and will face Stanford this weekend, which means Cal will have the extra time to prepare for the game.
Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on Examiner.com.