On the last Saturday in September, I was in Eugene, Oregon to watch Cal take on the Oregon Ducks. The game was tight see-saw battle between two immensely talented and well-coached teams. However, despite the tough opponent and the intimidating home crowd, the Bears never got down, never buckled under pressure. It wasn’t just blind optimism; there was real confidence backing it. So every time the Bears fell behind, they went out and marched right back down the field. The offense put up just enough points and the defense made just enough plays, and they were rewarded with a hard-earned victory. That day in Eugene, I swear that Cal team could’ve beaten anyone in the country.
Fast-forward a month later, and the Bears, once national title front-runners, have gone oh-for-the month of October, falling out of the national title race, the conference race, and the top 25. It’s been a soul-trying journey, and during Saturday’s loss, you could visibly see the changes that had overcome this team. Where the Bears were once confident even while coming from behind, they now looked shaky and uncertain with the lead. Even as the Bears took a 20-7 lead late in the 2nd quarter, even as I cheered at DeSean Jackson’s latest spectacular touchdown grab, I remember thinking, "That’s not nearly enough, not by a longshot." Every play was just a struggle to hold on, a fight to not give in to what began to seem inevitable. As I watched Cal drive in the third quarter, I began to expect a fumble every time a Sun Devil made a hard tackle on a Bear. It didn’t used to be this way, but this team looked beaten long before the final seconds ticked off the clock.
There are lots of reasons for this. Two consecutive heartbreaking losses will shake the confidence of any man, as two consecutive fourth-quarter comebacks came tantalizingly close only to fall improbably, even cruelly, short. Physically, these men were tired and beaten. Injuries have continued to take their toll this season, and when the offense couldn’t hold onto the ball in the 2nd half against ASU, the defense, gassed as they were, had to trot back onto the field. Our quarterback just doesn’t look right throwing the ball, and our offensive line doesn’t seem to hold the line like they used to. Players get sloppy, missing easy tackles and committing stupid penalties. This team has had its goals and aspirations shattered, and they need to regroup in the worst way.
So with the Rose Bowl out of the picture, what do you play for? Well, despite the losses, there’s still the possibility of a 10-win season. It can still be a bowl season. There’s still the matter of retaining the axe, and there’s still a dangerous, though similarly wounded USC looming ahead in two weeks. There’s lots left to play. But it starts this Saturday against Washington State, a team that just drilled UCLA at home. These guys need a win badly, and they need their home crowd cheering them on. They need to rediscover what it takes to win, what it takes to make the 4th quarter ‘ours’. This is where the Bears have to take a stand to save their season, because if they don’t, it’s going to very quickly sink into oblivion.