COLUMBUS, Ohio — Hope is a funny thing.
It’s certainly a good thing, maybe even one of the best of things. And even after the Cal football team’s 35-28 loss at Ohio State on Saturday, that hope won’t die.
Despite playing the No. 12 team in the country on its own turf, the Bears held their own. Despite losing their season opener to a Mountain West team and struggling against an FCS school, the Bears gave fans a reason to believe.
Despite being 17.5-point underdogs, the Bears took the lead in the fourth quarter. Cal could have — and perhaps should have — won.
Few expected Cal to beat the Buckeyes at the Horseshoe; yet it was a tie game with eight minutes to go. Maybe that’s why the bitter taste in the Bears’ mouths has a tinge of sweetness. Or maybe it’s because this Cal squad doesn’t seem so bad after making the Buckeyes sweat in a squeaker.
Behind third-string running back Brendan Bigelow’s 160 yards, the Bears outgained Ohio State by 100 yards. That ineffective Cal quarterback? Zach Maynard completed 26 passes for 280 yards, both numbers which exceed those of Braxton Miller. Those 40 penalty yards that seemed to plague the Bears? The Buckeyes were tagged with 11 penalties for 101 yards.
While the experienced Cal fan could have predicted a loss in heartbreaking fashion — one that tugged at the soul before crumbling at the sight of Maynard’s game-sealing interception — the Bears’ valiant effort on both sides of the ball was a sight for sore eyes.
There are no moral victories. Don’t think the squad is content with just challenging a top team: Cal came to win, and the squad came as close as anyone could have expected.
“(People) know we can play and have a lot of heart,” said cornerback Steve Williams. “But we got to finish games.”
But despite the finish, the game — the performance, the experience, even the result — shows Cal’s potential.
The Bears persevered after Miller ran for a 55-yard touchdown to put his team on top 10 minutes into the first quarter. They came back from a 13-point halftime deficit. And even with three missed field goals, 3:26 left on the clock and 75 yards of field ahead to tie the game, Cal had a chance.
The way previous games and seasons have gone, that’s all a fan can ask for. By giving Ohio State a run for its money, Cal — a team that at several points during this fledgling season appeared hopeless — presented fans with one of the greatest gifts of all.
Last week’s feeble showing against Southern Utah left fans wondering how the Bears would fare against top-12 and Pac-12 teams. Now that Cal has proved it can play with elite teams, how will the rest of the conference fare?
A third straight Big Game loss does not seem like a sure thing anymore. A repeat of last year’s whopping by UCLA might not be a Homecoming reality. The Pac-12 knows what it’s up against.
We don’t know if Saturday’s momentum will carry on to next week, when the Bears head south to take on No. 13 USC. But faith will persevere.
So will pride.
It doesn’t matter that Cal hasn’t beaten the Trojans since 2003. It doesn’t matter that few of those games were close. It’s an even fight at the opening kickoff.
Cal fans need not have blind faith when the team just gave them the grounds to believe and the justification to hope. A 1-2 start — even a 1-3 start — is not a coup de grace for the Bears. Because the team just got busy living.