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Cal football finally plays to its potential. Can they sustain that performance level?

These games are needed every week to close the season right.

Washington State v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Here is the record for the California Golden Bears this decade against Pac-12 opponents, also looking at average point differential.

  • Stanford: 0-9, -18.4 points
  • Arizona: 0-5 (ugh), -3.6
  • Oregon: 1-9, -19.1
  • USC: 1-8, -16.6
  • Washington: 3-7, -12.8
  • UCLA: 3-6, -0.6
  • Utah: 2-3, -6.8
  • ASU: 3-3, +2.8
  • OSU: 5-5, +0.2
  • Colorado 4-2, +5 (this shrinks to 2-2 if you take out the two games Cal played Colorado as non-conference foes).

That’s a lot of misery and mediocrity, right? How has Cal not been the outright doormat of this conference?

Well, wait for it...wait for it...

  • Washington State: 7-3, +3.5

Aside from two hiccups in 2013 and 2016, Cal has brought their best for Wazzu and the Cougars have brought something that was not their best. Whether it’s a mixture of playing a coach familiar with the scheme in Sonny Dykes, or facing off against a defensive-minded coach like Justin Wilcox who has figured out how to defend the Air Raid effectively in the red zone, or something weird like a 3rd and 36 gets converted or a kicker misses a 19 yard field goal, Washington State goes onto the field with Cal and it does not end well.

What we can say for certainty is Wilcox has pretty much had the leg up on Leach. Wilcox is now 4-2 vs. Leach and has not allowed a Washington State offense to pass 20 points in his last five meetings (even though Washington State hit 20, six of those points came in garbage time and the other two came off an extra point). Washington State has brought its explosive Air Raid out against Cal and managed four touchdowns in three games.

As a Cal fan, thank goodness for the Washington State Cougars. They’ve made this decade extremely entertaining at the very least.

So looking at these trends, it begs the question: Is Saturday’s game a promising sign? Or just a matter of Cal facing their perfect foil?

Cal did score five touchdowns, which is the most they’ve produced the season. But Cal only needed to drive an average of 33 yards to score 21 of those 35 points. It helps that this Washington State defense is not particularly good—the Cougars have surrendered 30 points or more in all but one Pac-12 game this season, and have proven they are vulnerable against the right playcalling.

It’s safe to say Beau Baldwin feels just as comfortable coaching against Washington State—he beat them at Eastern Washington and has pushed past 30 points in two of his three performances against the Cougars. Baldwin called a variety of off-tackle runs, screens, constraint plays, attacked holes in the Wazzu zone, and gave Devon Modster a plan to work with that avoided interceptions and provided an explosiveness this unit has lacked. It was a good game for a coordinator who needed one.

Cal returned starting center Michael Saffell and the offensive line immediately played its best game in weeks. Kekoa Crawford returned and helped stretch the field vertically. Christopher Brown and DeShawn Collins provided an excellent one-two punch. Makai Polk came in and provided a glimpse of what Cal might be capable of next year with almost the entire offense returning—the potential to make big plays after the catch. Despite a handful of critical drops and mistakes, the Bears offense generally had their way moving the football.

However, the win does not exclude the learnings of the past month, and the trends that scream Saturday’s performance is more an irregularity than a sign of things to come. The offense is still a unit in development, and it has kept a defense capable of competing for the Pac-12 title from doing just that.

  • Cal did not score 30 points until game 9. Cal hasn’t scored 30 points since they got two pick-sixes against Colorado last November. We shouldn’t be waiting a full season for these performances.
  • Cal did not score a 4th quarter touchdown until game 9. They are now up to 19 points in the 4th quarter this season, tripling their mark from 0.75 points per 4th quarter to 2.1 points per 4th quarter.
  • Cal has averaged 3+ yards per rush (which would be bottom-five in FBS) in two Pac-12 games this season (the Washingtons)
  • Cal has averaged 4+ yards per play (which would be bottom-TWO in FBS) in two FBS games this season (the Washingtons).
  • Cal has managed a passer rating above 115 (which would be bottom-20 in FBS) twice in FBS play (Ole Miss and Washington State).

Those trends in the aggregate are not good. Even with all the injuries, you’d expect more flash in the pan moments outside of two games.

The Pac-12’s middle class is fairly mediocre this season, so the Bears have avoided falling completely into the cellar. But Cal simply needs these performances more than once every two months.

Saturday was the second above-average performance out of nine for the Cal offense. If Cal can keep the momentum going and turn it around with a healthy unit, then maybe we can start talking about retention, but it’s just too early to forecast whether the Bears can replicate these results.

The offense has three big games ahead against gettable defenses (USC has surrendered 26+ on the road in all five games, Stanford is hot and cold, UCLA is improving but still looking for consistency) to prove the turnaround is real, or discover it was just one last hurrah before the cold reality check.

The good news is a Bears team running out of options in Salt Lake City got three of their important players back and looked like a functional unit rather than a man running into rakes. For now, that might just be enough to squeak out a happier finish to this season.

Cal has a few major weaknesses on defense, and they were exploited at various points during the four-game losing streak. Preventing short-yardage situations. Stopping teams with good running backs from plowing it down the field. Maintaining consistent pass rush. Shutting down a dual-threat quarterback who decides to run a handful of times.

Washington State did not have any of those things. The Cal defense was able to get back into their element and feast.

That’s not to say the Cougars had any trouble moving down the field. They did! Wazzu put up 423 yards, with admittedly the last 81 coming on a garbage drive. But Washington State’s offense stifled itself early, with 83 yards on its first six drives.

But when the Cougars got to the red zone, they couldn’t grind out the middle yards with any run game, and Cal’s defense clamped down. In their first four red zone trips, Washington State went field goal, touchdown, field goal, turnover on downs. Average net of a field goal per drive.

That’s all you can ask for this defense to do against an offense of Wazzu’s caliber. Evan Weaver had ten tackles, but that’s because everyone else was able to share the load. Kuony Deng roved the middle and broke up two big passes. Josh Drayden stepped in for the injured Traveon Beck and made huge open-field tackles to prevent running backs from getting extra yards. Tevin Paul and Ben Hawk Schrider ended Cal drives with big sacks. Jaylinn Hawkins was the taker this week, forcing a fumble and grabbing an interception.

So, how does the Cal defense matchup with its final three opponents?

  • USC has the most skill talent by far, and their wide receivers will be a nightmare for the Cal secondary to try and defend against. But their running back depth is not great and I’m not exactly certain who is suiting up on the offense on Saturday.
  • Stanford is a bit of an enigma. They put up 41 on hapless Arizona one week, only to come back the next week and lay 13 against bottom-feeder Colorado. KJ Costello is probably the best pure passer left for Cal to face, but who is he throwing to that will burn the Cal secondary? It feels like a conservative Shaw approach would get the Bears a win.
  • UCLA has all the tools to cause havoc against the Cal defense. Great speedy skill players and a dual-threat quarterback in Dorian Thompson-Robinson, plus Chip Kelly has had his way with Justin Wilcox defenses over the year. I’d be worried about this one.

It feels favorable. The Cal defense should give the Cal offense an opportunity to win each of these games. Can the Bears capitalize?

Now, the stretch run. Is Cal capable of sweeping the California schools for the first time in 60 years (and yes, Cal hasn’t swept the California schools since they last went to the Rose Bowl)?

The answer, as always with Cal, is yes and no. It’s always complicated. I can definitely tell you that Cal will compete and we’ll have a chance to win all of these. That’s just the MO with these Bears if fairly healthy.

Yes, Cal does have the potential to run the table. This is by far the weakest slate of USC, Stanford and UCLA Cal will ever face in the modern-era.

USC is a house of cards, with a lame duck head coach, ready to topple on the next Urban Meyer rumor. The Trojans are down to their last-string running back, their second-string quarterback and a host of backups at key positions going into Saturday’s game—and then another host of them got hurt against Arizona State.

Stanford is a mess. The Cardinal lost to a bad Colorado team, and with Notre Dame looming as their season-ender, they basically have to win their two remaining Pac-12 games to hope for bowl eligibility. It’s a stunning fall for David Shaw, and it couldn’t have happened any later (did we really need a decade of this?). Cardinal morale is at an all-time low. Bear Territory is pretty united in the quest for an Axe at this point.

Oddly, it’s 4-5 UCLA that looks like the best of the three. But UCLA hasn’t exactly beaten anyone outside of a quickly declining Arizona State, with their other three wins coming against the Pac-12 teams with losing records. There is a world in which UCLA is competing for the Pac-12 championship, but with road trips to SC and Utah upcoming, there is also many other likely worlds that see 4-7 UCLA with nothing to play for playing in a mausoleum on Thanksgiving Saturday.

On the flip side, USC and UCLA still could win the Pac-12 South, and both could have something to play for depending on the result of Utah-UCLA on Saturday afternoon. Stanford plays much better in Palo Alto, and it’s hard to end a streak that wild.

And this is Cal, a team that has had winnable chances against all three teams at lower points and didn’t close. Cal is 1-5 against the California rivals under Wilcox and 4-23 this decade. The Bears will not be treated seriously until they reverse this history.

A sweep of California would wipe out the bad taste of October pretty quickly. It would set Cal back on the path toward relevancy, and build the Bears up as a dark horse Pac-12 North contender in 2020 when Chase Garbers is back and the major conference powers reset. Even 2-1 would be a nice finish for a program that seemed to be stepping backwards.

Getting a winning season is the first step. Getting two winning seasons establishes a trend for bigger things ahead.

Likewise, going 1-2 or getting swept the other way (and finishing 5-7 AGAIN) would be gravely disappointing, and a big mark against the Wilcox regime. The moves would have to come quickly to prevent trust from completely eroding.

A lot is on the line for a lot of moving pieces, with regards to whether coaches come back, whether players return, whether recruits stay committed or intend to commit, whether fans renew. So much is on the line these next three weeks for Wilcox, who could be facing significant structural rebuild at the end of it, or could end up hitting the 2020s finding his stride.

One game at a time though. Beat SC.