BERKELEY — The road ahead got tougher for Cal after it reverted to a chronic problem of recent years in a 14-10 defeat to Auburn before 44,141 fans at Memorial Stadium and an ESPN national audience on Saturday night.
The Bears cannot win the close ones.
They have lost 19 games since the start of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and 13 of those defeats have come by margins of seven points or fewer.
“There’s not a lot of silver linings,” coach Justin Wilcox said after this one. “We had plenty of chances and we didn’t get it done.”
The Bears head into this week unsure of the status of star running back Jaydn Ott, who tried leaping over a defender and hit the ground hard late in the third quarter, staying there for at least two minutes before walking off. He did not return.
“He was talking to us, trying to get us riled up,” quarterback Sam Jackson V said. “But you could kind of feel the shift in the game and the momentum and it just kind of went downhill from there.”
Cal closes its non-conference season at home next Saturday against FCS-level Idaho before beginning play in the Pac-12, where the gauntlet includes five opponents currently ranked in the top-16 of the AP Top-25.
The Bears (1-1) need five more wins to become bowl eligible, and they feel like they threw one back after hooking it Saturday night.
Cal missed three field goals, turned the ball over three times and lost the game despite having more yards than the Tigers (273-230), more plays (78-55), more first downs (19-12) and fewer turnovers (4-3). And they still couldn’t get it done.
“We’re all just sick right now that we let a game like that slip away from us when we know we should have beat that team easily,” senior safety Craig Woodson said.
OTT’S INJURY: Ott rushed for 78 yards and scored Cal’s only touchdown on a 14-yard dash up the middle, giving the Bears a 10-7 lead with 4:47 left in the first half.
Wilcox said he had no report on Ott’s injury or his status going forward. Jackson’s guess: “I think he’s going to be fine.”
QUARTERBACK PICTURE: Ben Finley got the start against Auburn because he played well off the bench in the Bears’ 58-21 win at North Texas and because Jackson was limited in practice, especially early in the week, after injuring his left (non-throwing) arm.
But with Cal trailing 7-3 midway through the second quarter, Jackson got the call. “I was just looking to give the team a spark,” Jackson said.
He did that, leading a six-play, 65-yard drive that resulted in Ott’s touchdown. The TCU transfer finished 14 for 27 for 126 yards with two interceptions, one of them on a Hail Mary play ending the first half but the other on a fourth-down play from the Auburn 19 in the final 2 minutes.
KICKING WOES: Sophomore Michael Luckhurst, the son of Cal Hall of Famer Mick Luckhurst, continues to struggle. He made a 39-yard field goal but missed from 42, 42 and 44 yards, while also having a 51-yarder wiped out by a penalty. He is 2 for 7 on field goals through two games.
“I think Michael’s a talented young man,” Wilcox said. “We’ll see where that goes this week.”
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CINDRIC IS DONE: Sixth-year starting center Matthew Cindric, who returned after overcoming a torn biceps muscle that cost him the second half of last season, is out for the year due to an upper-body injury he suffered last week.
“The guy’s battled through a lot and he’s one of our best players,” Wilcox said. “My heart breaks for him.”
GRADING THE DEFENSE: The Bears squeezed four turnovers out of the Tigers and held them to 142 yards through the first three quarters. But they allowed Auburn to convert a third-and-17 play midway through the fourth quarter, leading to Payton Thorne’s go-ahead 5-yard TD pass to Rivaldo Fairweather with 6:31 left.
NEXT UP: Idaho on Saturday at home was supposed to be a soft spot in the schedule, but the Vandals of the Big Sky Conference are 2-0 after a 33-6 road victory over Nevada, an FBS team.