California coach Sonny Dykes hopes his players took more than a loss from their recent trip to Utah.
He’s counting on the Golden Bears having learned a lesson on how to deal with the big stage of college football after years of being at the bottom of the Pac-12.
The 20th-ranked Bears (5-1, 2-1) get their first chance to prove that this week when they return to the spotlight with a Thursday night game against rival UCLA (4-2, 1-2) that still has plenty on the line.
“I think our guys will handle this better,” Dykes said. “At least I hope we will. You have to go through something like that to learn from it. As coaches we can talk about it and try to prepare our players as best that we can. But it’s something completely different when you go through it. They went through it.”
And they almost came out on top despite a mistake-filled performance. Even with usually reliable quarterback Jared Goff throwing five interceptions and the Bears losing an additional fumble, they were in position late to beat then-No. 5 Utah before falling on the road 30-24 in the Oct. 10 game that had all the hoopla of a matchup between undefeated teams with “College GameDay” on hand.
With 11 days off before the game at the Rose Bowl against the Bruins, the Bears have had plenty of time to get past that loss and move on to the rest of their season.
“When I look back, we had a terrible game offensively and we were one possession away from beating the No. 5 team in the nation,” receiver Stephen Anderson said. “It’s bad that we lost but there are a lot of positives we can take coming into this week.”
The one player who had almost no positives from that game was Goff, who came into it being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy contender and possible No. 1-overall draft pick only to throw the five interceptions. He also tied a season low with only two touchdown passes.
Goff said he moved on quickly from the loss and took advantage of the time off to clear his mind and freshen up his body for the second half of the season.
“Knowing Jared, seeing Jared these last couple of years I think it’s a fluke,” Anderson said. “It happened. A lot of people like to say the lights were too bright for him or something like that. I don’t think the lights were too bright for him. He just had a bad game.”
Even with the loss, there is plenty on the line for the Bears, who are once again a contender in the Pac-12 after winning just nine games overall the previous three seasons.
A win Thursday would make them bowl eligible for the first time since 2011, give them their first win at UCLA in 2009 and give Dykes his first win against one of Cal’s three in-state conference rivals.
“There’s a lot of reasons we want this game and becoming bowl eligible is one of them,” safety Stefan McClure said. “Since it’s here right now that’s something we can think about. … There’s stuff riding on this game. Getting a sixth win, beating UCLA, which we haven’t down there in a few years. That type of stuff. There’s some extra stuff to think about. That’s one of the goals to get six wins and become bowl eligible. The sooner we can get that out of the way the better we’ll be.”
The Bears had three shots at that elusive sixth win last year only to lose to USC, Stanford and BYU to end the season. They missed out again on the sixth win against Utah.
Now they get another chance. They will be the underdog despite having a better record and higher ranking than the banged-up Bruins, who have allowed 94 points in back-to-back losses to Arizona State and Stanford.
“That kind of bothers me,” Anderson said. “I feel like we haven’t gotten the respect that we deserve to this point. In order to get that, you just have to keep winning. This is a game that everybody will be looking at.”