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Cal football faces a harsh reality: Competing for the Pac-12 will require major changes

The program has a long way to go.

USC v California Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Under Justin Wilcox, the California Golden Bears have focused on playing close, competitive games. With a defensive rebuild needed, and an offensive identity in flux, it made sense for Cal to readjust and realign. Play slower, reduce variance, give the Bears a chance to win every game. Strong defense, fluid offense, that would be the formula to victory.

And for a few years, it appeared to be working. Cal slowed down the pace. The games became more winnable. The offense had the ability to score quickly. Cal upset Pac-12 title contenders, they beat USC, they finally came close to beating Stanford, and suddenly it seemed like the Bears were back on the right track. With Cal standing at 4-0, it seemed like the vision was finally being realized.

Six games later, all those archetypes have evaporated pretty quickly. The competitive Bears have now been carved up. The Cal defense has given up game-winning 4th quarter drives. The Cal offense has scored more than 17 points once since September. And the weekly competitive Bears have now been blown out twice in three weeks, with the last one coming against a USC coaching staff likely on the verge of departure in two weeks.

Between Cal’s first touchdown and Cal’s last garbage-time touchdown, USC outgained Cal 442-85 in the span of 40+ minutes. If that sounds familiar, it’s nearly identical to Cal’s entire performance against Utah, where they were outgained 473-83. Those are two complete emasculations in one season. These are easily Cal’s two worst performances in the Wilcox era—no competitiveness, significant coaching adjustment mistakes and player mishaps, and a concerted lack of focus.

Utah is understandable. They’ve been doing this to everyone in Salt Lake all year. To get dressed down by a Trojan team on both sides with a coaching staff that is likely out the door in eight days is disappointing, talent gaps or not.

Cal rolled over on Saturday night in a fairly full house at Berkeley. It’s an inexcusable effort.

Enough has been said about the Cal offense. Just run through all the major stats and you see an offense that rivals powerhouses like Northwestern, Rutgers and Michigan State.

Here are the 2019 numbers for Cal against the Pac-12.

  • 5.5 yards/pass (T-121 in FBS)
  • 147 pass yds/game (117)
  • 50.8 comp % (115)
  • 265 yds/game (123)
  • 4.39 yds/play (122)
  • 3.52 yds/rush (100)
  • 118 rush yds/game (103)
  • 29 sacks allowed (T-125)
  • 15.9 points/game (119)

Since the start of the 2018 season, Cal has shown an inability to pass the football for more than two or three successful drives. Cal produced 200 passing yards or more once in its last 12 Pac-12 games. Cal has produced 150 passing yards or more three times in Pac-12 play this year.

Cal had an aim of getting to 30 points to ensure victory. They have achieved that formula once this season. Cal has made only 22 red zone trips in 2019, tied for second-worst in the nation with Georgia Tech.

Heck, Cal would be happy to get to TWENTY points. The Cal offense has scored 20 points or more twice in its seven 2019 Pac-12 games. The Cal offense has scored 20 points or more four times in its last 15 Pac-12 games.

The Bears trotted out an offensive gameplan after going up 7-0 that had very little chance of succeeding. After showing success with the run on the first drive, they attempted six straight passes and went three-and-out twice. They ran tons of deep four verticals with one of the worst deep passing teams in college football and a very shaky offensive line; the results were sacks, scrambles, and tons of rushed footballs. There were no quick hitting plays to stretch the defense.

Cal wide receivers and tight ends alike dropped pass after pass after pass. Cal quarterbacks lacked the timing with their receiving options, throwing nice footballs that might’ve been caught if released a second later. Cal running backs continue to lack the explosiveness to break free for major yardage. And the Cal offensive line followed up a solid performance against Wazzu with one of its worst, getting beat up by the backup USC front seven.

Injuries obviously play a role. Last night, Cal lost Christopher Brown on the first drive due to a USC targeting penalty, and Chase Garbers got banged up early in the second quarter (and I’m still struggling to understand why our oft-injured quarterback was out and in the field), so the Bears had their backup QB and RBs on the field for the rest of the game. While USC can afford a host of injuries, as recent results have shown, the Cal offense most definitely cannot.

But to have no secondary options ready to go falls on the coaching staff. Teams get injured. Eventually, you have to adapt, you have to recruit, you have to develop the talent behind the frontline to execute.

Cal is currently good at nothing on offense. They’re not even close to mediocre. This is a bottom-30 unit in college football, and a bottom-10 offense in the Power 5. They scheme their way to 17 points, and then hit the ceiling. That is a formula that is simply not good enough to compete in the Pac-12, even in its down years.

Similar to Mark Dantonio at Michigan State, Justin Wilcox perplexingly retained his entire offensive coaching staff back from a unit that suffered extremely similar deficiencies last season.

A year later, there has been no uptick in performance. Now, Wilcox will have to face the consequences, dealing with an extremely annoyed fanbase in danger of churning again, and a growing perception of a Cal team that doesn’t care about offense.

Cal finally has a very good offensive recruiting class, and Wilcox might have to make serious changes to his staff that will affect that class. Those cascading effects could greatly reduce the ability for this offense to improve in the next two years. That, coupled with a defense that is certainly going to step back, leaves Cal in a tough spot to improve for at least a few more seasons—and it’ll be hard to sell Bears fans on six to seven wins a season and innumerable Pac-12 losses rather than eight or nine.

So be it though. This has to change.

Of more worry is the other side of the football. After being one of the best units in college football for a season and a quarter, the Cal defense is fading.

After its third uninspiring performance in four games, Cal’s defense has dropped out of the top 40 in SP+ for the first time since 2017. The Bears faced four elite offenses in a row, couldn’t stop one of them when it mattered, and couldn’t stop the other two for the rest of the game.

Obviously, the offense is the worse unit, but the Cal defense was expected to be the bedrock, coming up big when the offense fell short. That hasn’t been the case in months.

Simply, Cal is an excellent team defense that has maxed out its abilities. There are no standout talents, no elite athletes who can change a single game. Evan Weaver is fantastic, but he can’t win a game against USC on his own. The beat-up USC offense a much more complete Cal defense stole a win from last season is a far cry from a unit that can trot out four NFL-caliber wide receivers in a scheme suited for their talents.

The Cal defensive line has big bodies that cannot rush the passer consistently or maintain run discipline. The Cal linebackers are quick to plug gaps but have a harder time handling pass coverage duties. These front seven deficiencies make it difficult for the Bears secondary to play zone or man effectively. USC eventually recognized they were going to get opportunities downfield and aired it out. Game, blouses.

These change in defensive philosophy have also neutered the game-changing ability the Bears defense enjoyed last season. Cal forced 20 interceptions in 2018, the 2nd-most in FBS. This year, Cal has forced 4, tied for 115th. Cal squeaked their way to many wins last year due to very fortunate turnovers (BYU, Colorado, USC, Washington were all wins that can be directly attributed to defensive playmaking). Due to all of the downstream defensive issues, they haven’t been able to do the same this season.

Cal’s defense has good players on it, but they cannot be asked to carry a team the way they were asked to last season. It’s just not fair. A college football team needs at least two units to be successful long-term. One is not enough.

And now, reality. The Bears aren’t ready to compete for the Pac-12 as presently constituted.

Oh, they can compete on every given night, and will score a big upset here and there. But the Bears do not have the talent level of a USC that can explode for big wins. They don’t have the relentless execution of a Utah that grinds its opponents to death on gameday. They lack the line talent of an Oregon to instill their will on a game. They cannot win recruiting battles in their own backyard with Stanford. And they are now finding themselves disturbingly outcoached by mid-level programs like Oregon State and Arizona State.

Cal now finishes a decade of mediocrity with another losing record in Pac-12 play (ten straight seasons and counting!), and are teetering on the danger of turning a 4-0 start into yet another 5-7 season. Even if Cal were to beat a pretty wretched Stanford squad (and it would be super sweet), all the momentum the Bears built up at the end of 2018 and facilitated through the start of 2019 has been relatively squandered.

Can things be fixed? Sure, but it needs targeted, structural changes.

  • It needs a reassessment of the development program. Why is it taking weeks for the backup offense to put together more than one or two good drives? Why do Cal offensive players seem more prone and susceptible to injury issues that hamper the offense even further? Can Cal figure out a way to get backups ready to play if needed? Injuries are going to be a way of life if the Bears intend on playing this more physical style of football. They cannot expect the team they start with on opening day will be the team they finish with come Thanksgiving.
  • It needs a better recruiting pipeline. Cal needs to start landing major prospects that reflect their overall philosophy. If Wilcox wants to be defense-first, it needs to be on the front seven. If they want to be the next Utah, they have to get line coaches who can reflect that strategy. If the Bears are going have trouble attracting top-tier offensive coaching, then they need a new influx of talent. The ceiling is only so high if the Bears aren’t able to outcoach teams on gameday. The Bears are finding commits but are losing battles to the Pac-12 powers for the more probable rising stars. Without depth in recruiting, any injury can sink the Bears
  • It needs Wilcox to find a real offensive staff that can work as a partner with his defense. It does not seem like there is any rhythm on the offensive side between units, and the defense has lacked harmony as of late. That has to get better. Also, this year has proven that having just good defense is not enough to ensure even competitiveness. At some point, a good college offense will find the mismatches and exploit.

As Big Game awaits with a chance to end another streak of futility, Justin Wilcox has to keep all these thoughts in mind heading into 2020. No matter how the season ends, things have to change. The current results Cal fans see on the field will not bring them any closer to a Rose Bowl. More should be expected.

Otherwise, Cal could be much closer to losing another 14 straight games to USC than they could be to pulling off another improbable win again.