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Mailbag Monday: Cal's luckiest wins and unluckiest losses of the decade
An exercise that also leads to the discovery of which random Pac-12 team has caused more than their fair share of our misery.
Hey everybody! Before we return to our fun-but-unimportant off-season content roulette, I’m going to put in one last plug to donate to the following East bay charities in need, as described in last week’s post:
Marshawn Lynch’s Fam1st Foundation, which focuses on the underserved youth of Oakland by providing sports and other support services.
Marcel Dancy in partnership with Burckhalter Elementary and the Intuitive Foundation, which will provide food to families in need and impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
People’s Breakfast Oakland, a grassroots organization which provides a variety of resources for the local community, including feeding the homeless and raising bail for black protesters.
Bay Area Black Owned Business Relief Fund, which is working to help businesses rebuild from any protest-related damages.
Thanks and Go (donate!) Bears!
A fun topic this week from Terry via Spencer Hall, and one that feeds into two common traits in Cal fans: number obsession and fatalism:
While this topic naturally leads us to focus on games in which Cal dominated statistically but still lost, I’m going to start with the opposite for something a bit cheerier. But first, methodology:
I used the archives at cfbstats.com and looked at the yards/play log of every single game over the last decade, focusing primarily on games decided by single digits (it’s pretty hard to be unlucky in a 21 point defeat. Games in which one team performed better on a per-play basis and lost were actually relatively few and far between for our Bears, but enough games filtered through the cracks:
Cal’s luckiest wins of the decade
Cal 24, North Carolina 17 in 2018
This is going to be a controversial choice, and I hesitate to say that Cal was actually lucky to win this game. After all, they were ahead 24-3 in the 4th quarter before an entirely cosmetic UNC rally. The reality is that there weren’t actually many games this decade that Cal was actually lucky to win (lol us). Ultimately you must ask how lucky Cal was to win the turnover battle 4-0, and whether or not Cal’s offense COULD have done something if they had HAD to do something. Because UNC outgained Cal in total yardage and averaged nearly a yard/play more than the Bears . . . and lost pretty badly because their QBs kept throwing it to Cal defenders.
The other game I considered for this spot? North Texas 2019, which was a virtually identical game. Cal builds up a solid-but-not-insurmountable lead, completely shuts down the offense for more than half the game, then holds on in spite of themselves. I don’t think I’d call either game lucky, but I know I didn’t enjoy watching most of both games.
Cal 36, Colorado 33 in 2011
Here’s the deal: I remember almost nothing about this game, except for two awesome Keenan Allen catches in overtime. One was a catch that got Cal a first down on 1st and 30, and the other was an endzone fade that ended the game. In some sense, Cal was perhaps unlucky to even have to win in OT, considering that the Bears missed an extra point in regulation.
But consider that Colorado gained 212 more yards, averaged 1.5 more yards/play, and won the turnover battle 1-0 . . . and I just don’t understand how Cal won this game. The only two things I can point to is that Bryan Anger had an awesome day punting and Colorado settled for four field goals while Cal converted in the red zone.
You don’t win friends with field goals!
Cal 45, Texas 44 in 2015
Winning on a missed extra point is a big part of this one, but it’s worth noting that Texas outgained Cal by nearly a yard/play and 100 yards total, so it wasn’t just the special teams screw up.
Cal 60, WSU 59 in 2014
Cal was only narrowly outperformed on a per-play basis in this legendary game, but the Bears were outgained by 223 total yards and won thanks to a missed field goal that was shorter than an extra point. To be fair, returning two kickoffs for a touchdown meant that Cal’s offense lost out on two possessions that probably would’ve racked up plenty of yards. But the fact remains:
Cal won on the day that their opponent set the record (since broken) for most passing yards in a game. If that doesn’t count as lucky, I don’t know what does.
Cal 37, Portland St. 30 in 2013
It still boggles my mind: Portland St. averaged 8.1 yards/play to Cal’s 6.5, on a day that Cal allowed 553 yards to a team that would go 3-5 in the Big Sky that year. Thankfully the Vikings turned the ball over multiple times via interception, fumble, and downs, leading to wasted long drives or good field position for the Bears, which allowed Cal to narrowly earn what ended up being their only win of the season.
Cal’s unluckiest defeats of the decade
USC 27, Cal 21 in 2015
Again, it’s hard to find five candidates, and I hesitate to call this one unlucky. But Cal did outgain USC by nearly a yard/play and stayed within a score despite being -2 in the turnover column. But this game was essentially decided by one play - Jared Goff, under duress, airmailing a throw to nobody that was returned for a touchdown by Adoree’ Jackson. Maybe in another universe that pass falls incomplete and Cal ends the streak three years earlier, but that play didn’t feel unlucky.
TCU 10, Cal 7 in 2018
In the game that neither team deserved to win, random chance was going to condemn the loser. Cal lost a game despite allowing 3.6 yards/play, and TCU won despite throwing an interception on an illegal forward pass TWICE. Cal was technically the better team on a per play basis, but the truly lucky ones were the neutral fans who could enjoy this game without a rooting interest.
Utah 30, Cal 24 in 2015
Now we’re getting into actual cruelty. Cal’s biggest game in years saw the Bears outgain Utah by 42 yards and more than half a yard/play, but a -3 in the turnover column gave Utah the win in College Gameday’s game of the week. Two of Goff’s interceptions were weird tips that fell into the hands of defenders, killing Cal’s undefeated season and top 25 ranking in one fell swoop.
Arizona 49, Cal 45 in 2014
This game is actually a good example of the value of efficiency vs. explosiveness. Cal had a TON of big plays in this game, racing up and down the field with ease, averaging an absurd 8 yards/play. Arizona was much more methodical, averaging a good-but-not-dominant 5.9/play. Still, Cal was the obviously better team for 55 minutes, and when Cal scored to go up 15 points with 5:21 left in the game, we were all pretty damned confident.
And then Sonny Dykes’ game management abilities reared their ugly head, Arizona recovered an onside kick, and then the Hill Mary happened.
Arizona 24, Cal 17 in 2018
How is this game higher than a game in which the opponent needed an onside kick AND a hail mary to win? Because of this singular play (go the the 55-second mark in the video):
Brandon McIlwain threw the ball much higher than he needed to, but he still touched his receiver’s hands. Of course the deflection goes right to a safety. But Cal punches the ball away from that safety! Of course the ball takes a perfect bounce right into the arms of another player.
It’s the single unluckiest touchdown I’ve ever seen Cal give up, and it turned a Cal scoring opportunity into a touchdown in a game Cal lost by 7. In a game that Cal dominated (476 yards to 265, 25 first downs to 13, 6.18 yards/play to 4.49) it was largely the deciding factor.
Arizona is the worst
By a pretty significant margin, Cal’s two unluckiest losses of the entire decade came against Arizona. And so, without intentionally trying, we’ve answered an entirely different question:
For Cal fans, that team is clearly Arizona. Beyond the two games listed above, the Wildcats also handed Cal a painful defeat in 2017, when Cal missed a late two point conversion attempt that would have won the game. Cal’s loss to Arizona in 2010 was a bizarre 10-9 defeat, which came just four years after a wildly unlucky loss in 2006 that ended up keeping Cal out of the Rose Bowl. Cal is 2-7 against Arizona since 2006, and even Cal’s wins in that time period have been dumb.
In summary, I move that we expel Arizona (and, I guess, ASU?) from the Pac-12 and never play them ever again.