Cal was a big play or two away from clinching a .500 regular-season record, and thus ensuring its bowl eligibility.
Instead, rival Stanford avoided the upset with a 57-yard touchdown run from Bryce Love to outlast the Bears, 17-14, at Stanford Stadium. Now, the Golden Bears host unranked UCLA Friday night at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley with a chance at six wins and a .500 on the line.
Truth be told, Cal has a high enough Academic Progress Rating (APR) that even with a loss and a 5-7 record there could still be a chance for a bowl game. Across the Bay Area, San Jose State played in a bowl game at 5-7 in the 2015 season.
But that's not good enough for Cal, which has shown flashes of brilliance, including a 3-0 start, hanging tough with Stanford and smashing Pac-12 championship hopeful Washington State (37-3) earlier this season.
"We just needed another play here or there," first-year Golden Bears coach Justin Wilcox said after the loss to Stanford. "We didn't quite have it."
UCLA is a team in turmoil, as head coach Jim Mora has been dismissed entering the final week of the season. Mora led UCLA for six seasons but the program never turned into the perennial Pac-12 contender it once seemed destined for. The Bruins, formerly ranked in the top 25, are 5-6 overall and 3-5 in the Pac-12.
Cal (5-6, 2-6 Pac-12) established a reliable running game against Stanford as Patrick Laird, a former walk-on, took 20 carries for 153 yards (long of 47) and a touchdown. Sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers, in his first "Big Game" performance, went 20 of 29, but for just 182 yards with no touchdowns and one interception (to Stanford's Ben Edwards).
Stanford ran for roughly 5 yards per carry against Cal, but that's partially because of Love's 57-yard touchdown run.
"We were prepared, physically and emotionally, to play this game," said Wilcox, formerly Wisconsin's defensive coordinator. "We played extremely hard, and we had our opportunities. That's why this one hurts so much."
The Golden Bears have now dropped eight straight to the Cardinal, but don't have time to dwell on what could've been. UCLA hasn't been a world beater this season, but has one of the most heralded NFL prospect quarterbacks in the nation.
That's Josh Rosen, who's third in the nation with 3,515 passing yards. Rosen will occasionally be over-aggressive and make a mistake, as he has 10 interceptions, but he also has 24 touchdown passes. Rosen, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound junior, has 9,100 yards, 57 touchdowns and 26 picks in his nearly three full years of college football.
Cal has players who can trouble Rosen, including defensive back Darius Allensworth, who intercepted Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello last time out. There's also blossoming linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk, who had a team-high eight tackles against the Cardinal.
Should Cal win and make a bowl game, it would be the second time in three years that the Golden Bears reach the postseason. Cal beat Air Force in the Armed Force Bowl after the 2015 season when current Los Angeles Rams starter Jared Goff was at quarterback.