BY XAVIER JOHNSON
It was a tough ending to another lackluster Cal Golden Bears season (4-8, 2-7) with a late fumble cementing a 35-28 loss to the #17 UCLA Bruins at Memorial Stadium Friday afternoon.
Cal put up a fight entering the fourth quarter with a 28-27 lead, however the dominant running game of the Bruins would put the game away. In the middle of the fourth quarter, UCLA drove 73 yards down the field to score on a five yard run by Zach Charbonnet and converted a two-point conversion for what would prove to be the final score.
After a quick Cal three-and-out, UCLA bled the clock down for five minutes before turning it over on downs. The effective clock management, enabled by a heavy run attack, put Cal in a two-minute drill down by seven. The sequence ended with a fumble off a reception by Jaydn Ott, who otherwise had a strong outing. Ott was a threat all over the field with 106 total yards and a receiving touchdown.
UCLA (9-3, 6-3) entered the matchup on a two-game skid after dropping games against #7 USC and the Arizona Wildcats. Cal came into the game riding a high after defeating the Stanford Cardinals 27-20, breaking the team’s six-game losing streak. The Bears offense provided a decent punch highlighted by quarterback Jack Plummer’s best game of the season, throwing for 294 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. Receiver Jerimiah Hunter also had a stellar performance notching two touchdowns for 153 yards with a memorable 38-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter.
The team’s offense is inconsistent, but the game showed the potential that the Golden Bears offense could have. According to Hunter in the post-game press conference, the team has the potential to push the pace and put up points, but the real sticking point is finding consistency. “We had sparks and that was frustrating because we weren’t so consistent, but I think the last two weeks we were consistent. We just got to build on that and move forward next season,” Hunter said.
While the offense kept pace with UCLA in the passing game, the massive discrepancy in rushing stats told the story of the game. Last week’s 100+ yard rushing game against Stanford proved to be an anomaly as the team continued to be plagued by issues on the ground, only earning 67 yards compared to the Bruins overwhelming 352 rushing yards. It was a high-scoring game, but UCLA running a hole through Cal’s defense was the deciding factor as they controlled the ball for almost 37 minutes of play.
The Bruins didn’t just do this with one dominant player, but with a multipronged attack that saw three players, running backs Zach Charbonnet, TJ Harden, and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson all with over 80 yards rushing. Charbonnet led the team with 119 yards and a touchdown. As a team they averaged 5.5 yards per attempt, contributing to UCLA converting 7-17 third downs and 2-3 fourth downs. Thompson-Robinson got it done in a variety of ways, finishing the game with 189 passing yards and 88 rushing to account for three touchdowns, two rushing and one passing.
The conversion discrepancy was pointed out by Golden Bears coach Justin Wilcox after the game. Cal converted 3-10 third downs and only earned 15 first downs to UCLA’s 33. The focus was on winning the conversion battle and getting stops on defense, both of which failed to happen. “Everyone could have done something a little better,” Wilcox said.
As the season comes to an end it marks the beginning of a transitionary program for the program. A major point of uncertainty is whether Plummer will return to Cal next season. The former Purdue quarterback had his most productive year as a member of the Golden Bears, throwing for 3,095 yards with 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Plummer has not committed to whether he’ll return to Cal or explore other options through the transfer portal and according to him, the decision won’t be coming imminently. “Have some conversations and tough decisions to make going forward about what I’m going to do with my future, probably a couple of weeks,” Plummer said.
Another player that Cal may not retain next year is linebacker Jackson Simon who said he’ll reevaluate his next move in the coming weeks as well. The team will also be losing veteran safety Daniel Scott who ended his career at the university with a strong individual game of 16 tackles and a forced fumble. Scott said he is eternally grateful for his time on the team and his development on and off the field. Scott described the season as “challenging,” but expressed hope that the team can reach its potential in the future. Wilcox echoes the sentiment as the Golden Bears are looking forward to its seventh season with him at the helm, earning a 30-36 record in his tenure.
“(Our) record’s not acceptable for the players or the program,” Wilcox said. “I know and have conviction of what we’re capable of doing. There’s going to be additions and there’s going to be changes as we move forward. I’m very very optimistic about what we can accomplish here doing it the right way.”
The loss in Cal’s final home game of the season came as the team celebrated the career of retiring broadcaster Joe Starkey, who spent 48 years as the voice of Cal football. The hall-of-fame broadcaster has been on the call for many of the Golden Bears biggest moments, most notable being “The Play” in 1982.
Cal’s 2023 schedule kicks off on September 2nd with a road game against the North Texas Mean Green followed by their home opener against the Auburn Tigers on September 9th. The Idaho Vandals, ASU, Oregon State, Washington State and USC are also scheduled to visit Memorial Stadium with dates to be announced.