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Cal football is running out of options in 2019

Justin Wilcox needs to make his stand now.

California V Utah Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

The Cal defense has been holding the Bears together for the last seven games. Saturday night in Utah, they finally got their reckoning.

The Cal defense getting clocked has been in the making for awhile. The dominant unit that erased Washington twice and terrorized offenses last year doesn’t appear to be emerging. The talent deficiencies that are needed to produce an elite unit are getting exploited, and Utah found them all to batter the Bears into submission Saturday night.

Why is Cal’s defense stepping back? A few reasons, all of them cascading.

  • Cal does not have a true every-down defensive tackle. The best options for Cal right now at the nose is Brett Johnson. Brett Johnson is a true freshman. No true frosh is ready to play nose this early in their career. Aaron Maldonado came into the season late and has played sparingly. That means a lot of Luc Bequette in the middle, and Bequette is just not big enough to handle interior double-teams. When Utah attempted seal blocking on the edge, they were usually able to pick up an easy three-to-four yards per play without being touched.
  • Cal’s defensive line depth issues stretches a linebacker unit beyond its capacity. Cal did try out four linemen rotations with Lone Toailoa, but the success they enjoyed was limited as they could not generate pass rush. Often it was Ben Schrider and Cameron Goode moving further up to the line to maintain the edge. That means Evan Weaver and Kuony Deng have to play clean-up just to avoid the Utes breaking loose. Weaver’s one opportunity at making a play on Saturday led to Zack Moss breaking loose for his 68-yard open field scamper.
  • Cal does not have an athletic pass rusher. Just like losing Chris Palmer at the nose unlocked a lot of Cal defensive terror last season, Alex Funches was a huge loss for a Bears team that needed at least one pure havoc player who could come in and cause cascading effects on an offensive line. That player does not exist this season.
  • Cal’s pass defense is playing a lot more man coverage this season. With the Bears now needing to play more of their front seven closer to the line, and forcing Evan Weaver and Kuony Deng to cover much of the field, the secondary is now forced into 1-on-1 plays. Camryn Bynum made one mistake in his coverage and Utah let loose.

All these cascading effects led the Bears to be vulnerable to a complete unit like Utah. Utah is the worst matchup for this Cal defense. They have a great offensive line, a great running back, and a quarterback who barely makes any mistakes.

The synopsis was simple. The Utah offensive line opened up big gaps against Cal’s base defense, and Moss’s instincts got him the extra yards to keep drives going.

When Cal brought up extra pressure and forced the secondary to play man-to-man, Huntley found the mismatch, usually on a LB, with crossing routes, targeting the safety valve, or hitting the outside. Here is Bynum biting for a second on 3rd and short, and that moment is all Huntley needs.

Utah had a 99-yard touchdown drive and a 90-yard touchdown drive making plays like these.

But the Cal defense giving up 35 isn’t just on them. They were practically on the field for the entire game. With an offense unable to support them at all, a blowout like this was going to be inevitable at some point.

Is it frustrating to get blanked? Yes, but it’s not surprising. Cal trotted out a second-string and often third-string offense against a top 15 defense. Here were the Cal starters in Utah on Saturday night.

  • QB: Spencer Brasch
  • RB: Chris Brown Jr.
  • WR: Ben Skinner, Jordan Duncan, Trevon Clark
  • TE: Jake Tonges
  • OL: Valentino Daltoso, Erick Nisich, Matthew Cindric, McKade Mettauer, Jake Curhan

If you’re counting, there are only THREE preseason starters left playing in their natural position. Curhan, Duncan and Brown. Daltoso has moved from guard to tackle, Cindric from guard to center.

The offensive line isn’t the only unit playing with duct tape. Cal played four wide receivers on Saturday: Skinner, Duncan, Clark and Makai Polk. Ashtyn Davis took a snap at wide receiver. Kekoa Crawford, Jeremiah Hawkins, Ricky Walker did not travel. Nikko Remigio was not really available. Talk about a depleted unit.

The results were predictable. Cal picked up its second first down by non-penalty, non-QB scramble with 4 minutes left in the third quarter. Cal had five first downs at that point and finished with six.

When it comes to Beau Baldwin, he threw out a nice gameplan to try and get the ball moving against Utah to start, but given the talent deficiency, it quickly stalled. And the bigger question: Where was that gameplan against Oregon State, a team the Bears HAD to beat? Where were the half-rollouts and counters to negate the inevitable pressure Cal would face against a bottom-dweller Beaver offense? Utah would be able to adjust and negate all that, but why not use it with the games that are the most winnable?

Luckily for Cal, this is the last top 40 defense left they have to face. The question is whether a unit like this can produce any results against any team left. It’s not looking great.

If you want to examine the state of the Cal offense, Cal offensive lineman Erick Nisich started & took practically all the snaps at LG yesterday.

Who is Erick Nisich? He’s a walk-on defensive end who converted to offensive lineman as the Bears continue to seek out bodies to offset their unlucky injuries.

So, if you’re counting Cal was playing on their interior O-line…

  • A converted walk-on defensive lineman at LG
  • A redshift freshman offensive guard at C
  • A true freshman at RG

There are few formulas for success with that inexperience level on the interior line vs. a team like Utah. Once the Utes realized Cal was pushing the run game to the outside, they adjusted with wider fits, and the run game quickly stalled. Ditto the Cal offense and their half-rollouts—Utah was content to play man and safe coverage, knowing Brasch would not be able to identify options on the opposite side of the field with any regularity.

A lot has been made to the injury to Chase Garbers, but not enough ado has been made to the injury to Michael Saffell. There are few things more disastrous than losing your starting center.

Cal lost its starting center twice in the last six years. Chris Adcock in 2013, Michael Saffell in 2019. Cal’s offense nosedived each time & the Bears went 0-10 without them.

The good news for Cal is Michael Saffell was participating in warmups and was moving okay. Think he’s close to returning. I expect he’ll be playing in November, and the Cal offense should look better. His return moves a lot of offensive linemen back into their natural positions and you can trot out a formation of...


It’s hardly great, but it won’t be the disaster Cal has had to endure the last three games.

So sometimes, there are just no good answers. Sometimes, the other team is just better.

The Utah Utes are a superior football team to the California Golden Bears, and they proved it for 60 dominant minutes. They have a better defense and a far superior offense. The Utes are dealing with no serious injuries outside of Britain Covey, while the Bears offense resembles a World War I medical tent. The Utah senior quarterback doesn’t make mistakes and their senior running back might be the best player in the conference.

It’s surprising how easily Utah dispatched the Cal defense, but even that isn’t too shocking given how the Utes have dissected most of their opponents this season. What Utah did to Cal defensively is what they’ve done for most of the past month behind Zack Moss and Tyler Huntley. Moss played like the best player in the conference on Saturday night, making moves like this.

Utah has allowed one TD in its last 14 quarters of Pac-12 play, and that touchdown was from an Oregon State team that was 52-0 in the hole. Utah has outscored its last four Pac-12 opponents 136-23, and 125-10 in the last 14 quarters. The one time Utah has tripped up is when Moss got injured at USC and the Utes couldn’t finish drives.

Utah is playing the best football in the Pac-12 and does not control its destiny. That lands in the hands of three-loss USC and 3-5 UCLA. Time to play spoiler, right?

There is a very worrisome moniker going around. Is Justin Wilcox just the reverse Sonny Dykes? Is Wilcox a coach who cares very much about his defense and what they can do, but has trouble calibrating himself to address the struggles of his offense?

It’s been nearly two years of good to great defense negated by terrible offense. Cal has had a top 25 defense for a stretch of 21 games and gone 11-10. On the flip side, with Dykes, that defense was brutally bad a few years back and producing the same results on the field with a top 25 offense.

It’s been two different teams with the same overall results. Dykes’s teams lost by more because bad defense will lead to more blowouts, but Wilcox’s teams often go quarters without putting points on the board. Both are huge issues. Not scoring points is not much better than conceding all the points. Regardless of poor injuries or youth or transfers, Cal’s offense just has not shown the spark needed to engender long-term trust.

After rallying strong to finish 2018, Cal seems to be getting worse by the week in 2019. The loss to Oregon State was demoralizing, the defeat to Utah was emasculating. Future opponents like Washington State, USC, UCLA and Stanford are starting to round into form. The inability to produce a functional offense has left the Bears adrift, at 4-4, with a defense running low on morale and a fanbase running low on patience.

As we approach the second bye week there is nothing new to rehash about the coaching staff that we didn’t know. The Oregon State loss told us more about the deficiencies of the Bears, and what changes need to be made. All the adjustments this year have led to an offense that cannot give the defense anything beyond token support.

In the grand scheme of things, there seems to be no better solution but time. The Bears need players to get healthy in a hurry. The offensive line and receiving corps are barely functional. Players like Crawford, Hawkins, Saffell, and Devon Modster need to return in a hurry to get the Bears back to some sort of functional shape. This is barely an FBS offense Cal is throwing out there, and with the defense taking one step back, they need to produce. Now.

It’s doable for Cal to course correct. The finishing stretch is winnable. But it’s also very much easy to see the Bears not winning again. The offense has been that bad, and the defense cannot carry this team the way they used to. The teams they face to finish the season are flawed in their own ways—Wazzu has a bad defense, USC has been a bad road team with Helton, Stanford is flawed in many departments, UCLA is UCLA—but none of those flawed units are worse than a Cal offense that can be counted on for three possessions a game at most.

If Cal bottoms out, loses Big Game, and the Bears miss out on a bowl game after a 4-0 start, then all the goodwill Wilcox has earned vanishes, and he’ll basically have to start from scratch with winning the Cal fans back, turning his five-year window into one or two. Clearing out the offensive staff won’t be enough to win them back instantly, because Wilcox had the chance to make the call last year and chose not to do anything but rotate. Too many people know that at this point. Results would have to be instantaneous rather than gradual. That would be extremely tough.

No, for his sake and for the sake of Cal football, Wilcox has to make his stand now and turn things around. Time to dig deep Bears. The long-term future of the program depends heavily on the home stretch.