Through every triumph and every letdown, there is a middle ground. The seemingly inexplicable things that happen within a college football program are experienced by every person who lives in the gauntlet of being a college football fan. Today, the California Golden Bears end a losing streak that has followed us for 15 years. They end a streak that has lasted a vast majority of my life as a Cal football fan.
College football is crazy. But the main question every fan should ask is: “Do I believe in the process”? From day one, I have been a firm believer in the culture that Cal head coach Justin Wilcox strives to build. The character of the players on this team is second to none and Coach Wilcox is a man I would love to know in my own life. Through every struggle and every triumph, the crazy world of college football is all about finding a coach you want to stick with. Justin Wilcox is the right guy for Cal. There are still some question marks. The poor performance by our offense this season is concerning, but his initial decision to hire Beau Baldwin as OC was the right one. Baldwin has not done a great job this year and the staff’s decision to play Brandon McIlwain has cost us at least one win. Another concern is Baldwin’s recruiting ability and currently this is the least-talented cast of skill players I have seen from a Cal team in a long time.
Despite all of that, Justin Wilcox has brought a level of toughness that other programs dream of establishing. His teams do not come to Los Angeles to lose. They come to fight—on both sides of the ball. It is highly likely that the USC Trojans fire Clay Helton at the end of the season. USC needs to finally hire an established winning head coach (something they have not done despite having the resources to do so). But after tonight, I would bet any Trojan fan would tell you that they wish their program had the culture the Cal Bears have right now.
How did it happen? It was a grind. This felt like every typical Cal road loss to USC in the first half when Cal went down 14–0. There was not much hope. Defensively, USC wanted to do exactly what every team does against the Bears. They wanted to stack the box to stop the run, put pressure on Cal QB Chase Garbers, and trust that our WRs could not beat them deep.
It was a sound game plan and Cal had difficulty moving the ball. USC’s defensive coordinator, Clancy Pendergast, is someone whom Cal fans know very well as he was Jeff Tedford’s defensive coordinator in Berkeley from 2010–2012. He has done a decent job at USC but is dealing with some unexpected inexperience in the back seven. They have taken some hits at safety and linebacker, but had both Cameron Smith and Marvell Tell III back for tonight’s game. Both played well, but Cal exploited their back-end youth on a few occasions to get the 15 points we needed to win this game.
Ultimately, it came down to Cal’s stellar defense. USC has an elite cast of WRs—one of the best groups they have ever had. Even without their top WR (Michael Pittman Jr.) tonight, this group is unbelievably talented with Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown leading the way. Cal’s secondary deserves an incredible amount of credit for limiting this group’s game-breaking potential. Camryn Bynum is the best cornerback Cal has had in a very long time. He has been incredible in 2018 and College Football Focus rates him as a top-ten CB in the country. The job DB coach Gerald Alexander has done with guys like nickelback Traveon Beck and safety Ashtyn Davis is admirable.
The reason USC needs to get rid of head coach Clay Helton is because they are not tough on the offensive line. There is no excuse for them to not be an imposing group at the point of attack, but once again they did not do a great job of winning at the line of scrimmage. Helton is a former OL coach, so one would think this would be a strength; however, the play of this group has held this offense back and put an unreasonable amount of pressure on true freshman QB JT Daniels. The Bears are solid on the interior defensively, but not stellar. Tonight they were stellar and Luc Bequette and Chris Palmer continued their strong seasons with awesome performances tonight. The Trojan run game was not as strong as they want it to be and it opened up opportunities for Cal to bring pressure at Daniels on third and long.
The flow of the game completely shifted with a Cal safety on a poor snap by USC center Toa Lobendahn. Lobendahn is an All-Conference OL, but has really struggled shifting from tackle to center this season. Cal capitalized on the ensuing drive with a big time connection between QV Chase Garbers and WR Vic Wharton III. Suddenly, it was 14–9 and the Bears were back in it. USC looked to answer, but Daniels threw an interception to Traveon Beck and Cal had a great drive led by Garbers and RB Patrick Laird, finding the end zone to jump ahead 15–14 after a failed two-point conversion try.
At this point in the game, Cal fans were excited, but skeptical. This team fights so hard to put itself in positions to win games, but the 15-game losing streak combined with a Trojan home crowd were reasons to think they would not pull this out.
The Cal defense had other plans and ILBs Jordan Kunaszyk and Evan Weaver led the charge. USC did nothing offensively in the second half and Cal did enough offensively to milk the 4:50 left in the game to end this 15-year streak of Tommy Trojan pushing us around.
The bottom line is that Cal is headed to the postseason and Cal knocked off USC in Justin Wilcox’s second year in Berkeley. Cal’s culture has changed. The kids on this team are winners on and off the field. Cal has a head coach who is still learning, but this guy is here for the long haul. It is about believing in the process. And I believe in his process. College football is a tidal wave of highs and lows, but Cal beat USC tonight and I want to ride the highs and lows with Wilcox as my head coach.