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Cal is grinding their way to victories. Is it sustainable?

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It’s hard to tell.

NCAA Football: California at Brigham Young Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The California Golden Bears are getting the wins they need in whatever fashion they can find them. Whether it’s rotating three quarterbacks, or only using one running back, or playing prevent offense/defense late in-games, Cal is pulling every trick out of the book to leverage the talent they have. At 2-0, it’s working so far!

Can they keep it up?

On the bright side (and as you’d expect from a Justin Wilcox and Tim DeRuyter squad), Cal’s defense has far exceeded expectations.

Even with Cameron Goode out, the Cal unit kept BYU out of the end zone on offense until the final seconds. Evan Weaver stepped up and became Cal’s best player in literally a seven-day span. The flexibility of the defense to respond to new pressures and shut down any halftime adjustments has been an impressive hallmark.

And the results are reflected on the statsheet. Cal has conceded six points on defense through the first, second and third quarters this season. Yes, it’s North Carolina and BYU, two teams that are likely to have more 20-point losses than wins on their schedule. But the degree of dominance the defense exhibited appeared to allow Wilcox the confidence to play field position, game manage, and pull out wins with a relative degree of comfort, final scoring margin aside.

Performance like that is probably going to regress against better competition, but even if the defense plays at 80% of their capacity, it throws a lot of games back on the table for the Bears, independent of all other issues.

On the flip side, the Cal offense is still barely functional.

The movement was a bit improved from last week (with three meaningful scoring drives through the length of the field). A two quarterback system provided enough flexibility for points, with Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain looking more fluid in their roles within in a two quarterback system. Cal got one or two clever touchdowns thanks to intricate play design, a welcome reminder that Beau Baldwin can make the most of his limited resources.

Unfortunately, no explosiveness from playmakers appears to be forthcoming. With many good defenses forthcoming on the latter half of the schedule, this offense could hit a wall very quickly. The Bears squeaked their way to 21 points this week, but you get the feeling that this will be on the higher side of peak performance offense-wise this season.

So the Bears have entirely flipped the script from two years ago, with Cal now confidently ensconced within a defense-first mentality. Given the lack of playmakers for the Bears and the schematic precision of the defensive coaches, this feels like the right strategy. Most of the successful programs in the Pac-12 know how important it is to have a defense-first mindset. It puts every game in play.

That being said, flipping the switch entirely doesn’t mean progress will always be positive. Cal’s offense is currently on pace for the national cellar. Offenses that can be stopped this early usually get stopped more often late. Development is critical here. It needs to keep getting better, faster.

Wins are precious at this early juncture for the Bears. Cal has a very winnable first half of the season and it has never been more important to lock down bowl eligibility. There will be plenty of opportunities for wins: The Pac-12 is tilting sideways, and it’s hard to tell who exactly will be on superior footing besides our two or three toughest foes near the end of the slate.

For Cal, it’s critical for the wins to come early to keep the offense cycling, because a misstep or two could lead to a repeat of 2017—an impressive start quickly undone. Cal needs to take a step forward to lay that foundation, because as we’re well aware of by now, 2-0 (likely 3-0) doesn’t come close to projecting bowl eligibility. Progress cannot stall as it has in year’s past. Garbers, Weaver, Jordan Duncan, the Cal defensive line—they all need to find ways to get better to keep things moving the right way.

Roll on!