Barber: Cal still looking up at rival after Stanford’s 23-13 win

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The tree fell Saturday. But not The Tree.

Sometime during the first half of the Cal-Stanford football game, there was a slight commotion to my left in the Memorial Stadium press box. A few writers for the Daily Californian, Cal’s student newspaper, were pointing and looking beyond the seats across the field, to the slope of Tightwad Hill, where a smattering of Golden Bears fans gather to watch football games for free. It seems a tall tree had spontaneously cracked in half, the top portion crashing to the ground, close enough to spook some of the spectators.

Alas, metaphors have their limits.

On the field of play, Cal was unable to take down the Stanford Tree, falling 23-13 in the final Pac-12 game of the season — a contest that was postponed two weeks because of unhealthy air quality due to the Camp fire in Butte County.

“We wanted it really badly. These seniors obviously haven’t beat Stanford,” Cal quarterback Chase Garbers said after the game. “So our goal was to send them out with that W, and us underclassmen, we failed in that aspect. It hurts a lot.”

But it’s nothing new around here.

This ancient and hallowed series tends to go through cycles. Cal dominated the Cardinal between 2002 and 2009, during Jeff Teford’s heyday in Berkeley, beating Stanford seven times in eight years, by an average of 18.6 points. Then Jim Harbaugh arrived in Palo Alto, and when he left for the 49ers, the program remained in the capable hands of David Shaw. Stanford had beaten the Golden Bears eight consecutive times heading into Saturday’s game, with an average margin of victory of 19.5 points.

There have been signs that the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction. Stanford has looked vulnerable this season, while Cal qualified for its first bowl game in four years. Cal beat Washington 12-10 on Oct. 27, for example, a week before Stanford lost to the Huskies in Seattle. Each team went into Saturday’s game with a 7-4 record. If the Bears won, they would finish tied with their Bay Area rival in the Pac-12 standings at 5-4, ending Stanford’s one-upmanship.

“I felt like we had a great opportunity today to change that, and to be the team to get the axe back,” Cal linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk said, referring to the trophy that resides with the annual winner of this series. “We’ve seen that gap close. I think they knew that this is a different Cal team, and obviously we know the culture’s changed here, too.”

As Cal fullback Malik McMorris said: “The fifth-year guys, they’re gonna leave it better than they found it. The older guys, we know this place is going in the right direction.”

But it hasn’t reached its preferred destination.

In the end, Cal-Stanford parity was a mirage. Yes, the former is on the rise under coach Justin Wilcox, and the latter has lost a bit of its ability to manhandle opponents. But Saturday proved that the Golden Bears are not yet at Stanford’s level. They just aren’t. The Cardinal are bigger, stronger and more explosive.

Wilcox knows it, and Shaw knows it, too.

Shaw’s confidence was apparent in his third-down calls against the Golden Bears. Seven times, the Stanford offense faced third down and 10 or more yards to go. Shaw elected to run the ball on four of those occasions. Three of those were in Cardinal territory. They weren’t tricky misdirection runs, either. They were simple handoffs, and none of them came close to the first-down line.

For Stanford fans, these conservative calls must have been maddening. But I don’t think Shaw was expressing risk-aversion, or lack of faith in his quarterback, K.J. Costello. On the contrary, I think he was supremely confident in the ability of his defense to throttle Cal’s offense. And indeed, those three conciliatory third-and-long handoffs led to just three points by the Golden Bears.

Shaw knew he was playing with house money, because the Cal offense is distinctly lacking in firepower.

The Bears are doing a lot of things well. Their defense led the Pac-12 in passing yards allowed (187.1 per game), interceptions (17) and defensive touchdowns (5), and was third in both total defense (319.4 yards per game) and scoring defense (21.3). The running game is solid, led by senior Patrick Laird, who added 116 yards on 19 carries against Stanford.

But the Cal passing game is kind of a jalopy. Garbers, who secured the starting QB job after an extended competition with Brandon McIlwain, is a tough kid who often chooses to fight for the extra yard rather than sliding. But he doesn’t have Costello’s consistency. Each of Cal’s two second-quarter field goals came after Garbers threw high and incomplete to the end zone on third down.

And when Garbers is on target, his receivers don’t always oblige by catching the ball. Sophomore Jeremiah Hawkins dropped a wide-open pass on third down early in the third quarter.

So that’s the next piece of the puzzle for Wilcox and his offensive coordinator, Beau Baldwin, to solve. Until they do, Cal won’t take that next leap — the one that will restore the program to Tedford levels.

Sometime after noon today, the Golden Bears will learn of their bowl destination. It’s an exciting day for a deserving team. But beating Stanford is always one of the mileposts here, and it hasn’t happened in nine years now.

“At the end of day, it’s about winning,” Wilcox said. “That what this is all about. That’s why we do everything we do, is to win. And so when we don’t, it hurts. You look at each performance, and you look at the good and you look at the things that you need to improve upon, and you take stock in both. We’ve got to continue to grow as a team, I think it’s pretty obvious. But I’m … excited to get back to work and keep coaching these guys through the bowl game.”

Meanwhile, Cal creeps closer to its rival, still waiting for the team that will get the axe back.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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