It’s been a long time since we could sport our Cal hats with earnest pride outside the alcoves of the Bay Area.
Simply put, there wasn’t much to cheer for.
During the season, you’d get looks of pity, or a few “better luck next year” sentiments, or just get ignored. Stanford fans would take another Big Game victory in stride, or just forget that they’d won again. USC fans treated Cal on the schedule as a blip, sandwiched between bigger stake games with Utes and Trees. UCLA fans were too busy being ten times more miserable than Cal fans to even think about their big brothers.
It was a pretty rough time to root for the Bears, a team that did not get the most out of its talent, and often squandered it.
It’s been different this year.
Over the past season and a half, this Golden Bears team has banded together and produced some of the happiest moments our program has known in recent memory.
- They got the Axe back for the first time this decade.
- They ended a 14 year losing streak to USC.
- They got their 1st win on the road at UCLA in 10 years.
- They upset the Pac-12 champs Washington in 2018, then ended their 15-game home win streak the following year.
- They managed their first SEC road win in 40+ years.
- They finished with back-to-back winning season for the first time in a decade.
- They finished with a winning record on the road for the first time in a decade.
- They beat USC, UCLA and Stanford on the road in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 70 years.
- They recovered from another midseason stumble for the second year in a row to finish the season strong,x` winning three of its last four games, including beating two of its rivals.
- They finished second in the Pac-12 North for their highest finish ever (yes, yes, 4-5, but still).
- Did I mention they have the Axe?
The amount of baggage the Bears program was accumulating in their psyche was mostly erased in the last year and a half. Cal can start 2020 with a fresh slate and new eyes on what’s possible and what’s not possible.
What makes it more remarkable is that this Cal team doesn’t have many blue-chippers. This is mostly a group of unheralded three stars, transfers, walk-ons, cast-offs. There are no Keenan Allens or Jared Goffs you can say are guaranteed to last in the NFL for a decade. And yet they fought, scrapped, and battled their way to major program wins that a decade of Cal teams before them failed to do.
Have there been better Cal teams in the past? Of course.
Have there been more talented Cal teams? Most definitely.
Are they taking advantage of a downturn in the middle class of the Pac-12? Yes.
Is this practice sustainable without a deeper influx of talent? Highly uncertain.
Are changes probably needed to elevate the Bears to the next level? I think so.
But there’s one thing I think we can all agree on.
This is a Cal team to be proud of.
Cal was a superior team to UCLA on Saturday. And as it usually has the last two seasons, it started with the defense.
28-18 doesn’t look like particularly dominant on paper, but after the Bruins went up 7-0, it wasn’t particularly close. UCLA’s second touchdown came off of two bizarro Cal mistakes—an uncharacteristic Evan Weaver unsportsmanlike which I’m still confused by, and Cameron Goode not finishing the tackle that wasn’t a tackle. If Cal had finished their last drive, or UCLA doesn’t get that weird luck, the score would have been more indicative of how the game really went.
After a mildly disappointing season, the Cal defense shined as a unit in their final regular season game together. The linebackers led the way. Weaver led the team in tackles for I believe the 500th time this season. Kuony Deng broke up four passes. Cameron Goode notched two sacks. Tevin Paul was active off the edge.
Three members of the Cal defensive line—Brett Johnson, Aaron Maldonado, Lone Toailoa—got to Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and the unit quickly overwhelmed an injured an undermanned UCLA offensive line. Troubled most of the season, the Cal defensive line has quickly put together some solid performances to wrap up the year and elevate the defense back to more solid footing.
Ashtyn Davis stopped two UCLA 4th quarter drives with an interception and a stuff on 4th and goal. Traveon Beck got a crucial 4th down stop in open space that led to the Cal touchdown. Elijah Hicks, Chigozie Anusiem and Beck all broke up passes. Jaylinn Hawkins and Davis were second on the team in tackles, ensuring the zone read did not beat Cal yet again.
It was a fitting season finale for a Cal defense that has transformed in three years from hapless to relentless. The Bears were carried by their defense in 2018 to seven wins, holding opponents like Pac-12 champion Washington to 10 points and USC in the Coliseum to 14. This season, the defense stepped back, but still was plenty timely, stuffing opponents like Ole Miss, Washington, Stanford, Washington State, now UCLA when it mattered most.
It’s a credit to the coaching staff for turning this around. But it particularly belongs to these players who worked their butts off to get to this point. They are the main reason Cal is relevant again, and they deserve all the accolades for transforming their identity in such short order.
The Cal defense has conceded 30+ points 11 times in the Wilcox era. Only four times in the last two seasons.— Avinash Kunnath (@avinashkunnath) December 1, 2019
The Cal defense conceded 30+ points in all 12 games of Sonny’s first year at Cal.
Then 10 times in 2014. Then another 7 in 2015. Then 10 more in 2016. 39 of 49 games! https://t.co/Q2RBukY6AN
A Cal team that takes pride in its defense is one worth watching, week on week.
No one is going to be writing great tales about the 2019 Cal offense.
Sure, they had their moments. They upgraded a bit from being bad to being maddeningly inconsistent, while also somehow also showcasing extreme timeliness. Paired with a robust defense, it was just enough to get the Bears bowling.
But whether due to injury, execution, development, or other reasons, this was a unit that was full of maddening droughts that kept Cal from pulling away to decisive victory. They could’ve definitely been better.
That being said, by season’s end, the Bears offense appeared they might have the pieces to put something together—if placed in the right hands.
Cal didn’t even need Chase Garbers to be all that good on Saturday night. Garbers found a few holes in coverage on the outside, but the majority of the damage was done on simple routes where the wide receiver would catch and go. Makai Polk benefited on his touchdown, Nikko Remigio had some solid grabs in traffic, Gavin Reinwald seems to be figuring things out, and Marcel Dancy got free for a huge play.
Cal offensive line literally had one Bruin to block on the Polk touchdown because every UCLA defender bit pic.twitter.com/aCkyEX66Zg— Avinash Kunnath (@avinashkunnath) December 1, 2019
Christopher Brown Jr. benefited from wide open running lanes as the offensive line/run blocking group clicked for its best performance of the season. Mike Saffell, Jake Curhan, Matthew Cindric, Valentino Daltoso, McKade Mettauer all shone as an offensive line unit, particularly when Cal ran pure power and got help from their tight end group.
Curhan and Moore with the seal, Cindric with the pull block, Reinwald with the pancake, Brown with the turn and score.— Avinash Kunnath (@avinashkunnath) December 1, 2019
An outstanding performance from the Cal run game unit today. https://t.co/6QgkzevMoD
Cal even ran deep power with extra offensive linemen on one touchdown!
Cal skill players blew past a UCLA defense that lacked discipline and anticipation. There were solid options on every other play it felt like.
lol look at this running lane pic.twitter.com/4DflHRkZIS— Avinash Kunnath (@avinashkunnath) December 1, 2019
It’s hard to say how much of this November can be extrapolated from playing bad defenses. UCLA, Stanford and Washington State have seen their defense run off the field almost every week in November. Cal’s total against all those teams is still far below the mean for most performances against these teams—Stanford and UCLA gave up 40+ in most of their losses, Washington State 35+. The real defenses Cal played down the stretch buried the offense in a quagmire of three-and-outs.
Still, it is nice to see Cal put up 24+ points consistently and be rewarded with victory (Cal is 7-0 when the Bears hit 20 points). It’s a solid step up from where the offense was a year ago.
This Bears offense wasn’t great, but particularly behind Garbers, they proved to be more clutch than we could have possibly expected. At times, they were able to step up for a defense that needed more help than expected. And they helped launch some of the most satisfactory wins of the decade for Bears fans everywhere.
Chase Garbers, last five road starts:— Avinash Kunnath (@avinashkunnath) December 2, 2019
-Ended USC’s 14-game win streak vs Cal.
-Winning drive to end Washington’s 15-game home win streak.
-4 TD, 357 yard performance in SEC.
-One of the greatest Big Game performances ever to get the Axe.
-Ended a decade of UCLA road misery.
To see a Cal team come through in the clutch is an unexpectedly delightful feeling. With almost the entire offense coming back, hopefully we get to see more in the coming year.
By all statistical measurements, Cal should not have won seven games, much less be in position to win three more.
- Cal finished with a negative point differential of -24. They were outscored by 38 points in FBS competition.
- Cal scored 30 points once this season. They only hit 20 points seven times—all their wins.
- Cal’s SP+ rankings place them at 77th in the nation, below 4-8 Stanford and 5-7 Colorado. They rank only above UCLA and Arizona in the Pac-12 to conclude the regular season.
- Cal placed in the bottom 30 of all FBS offenses (100th) and the bottom 10 (120th) of all FBS special teams by SP+.
- Even the defense, the rock of this team last season, slipped back to the pack, just hanging onto a top 50 ranking. Cal’s defense gave up a consistent 17-21 points a game this year, giving the Bears no margin for error.
Those type of figures usually translate to a four to five-win team at the Power 5 level.
Cal got seven.
Despite no elite performances for much of the season—and on occasion, fairly bad ones—Cal managed seven wins. And the case for a healthy Cal team winning eight or nine isn’t far-fetched.
Every game was different.
- Cal slugged it out unimpressively against UC Davis. Seemed like same old, same old.
- Cal required a temper tantrum from Thor and six hours to defeat Washington, relying on an awesome defensive effort, a huge midgame from Chris Brown and Marcel Dancy, and an insane last minute game winning drive from Chase Garbers out of nowhere.
- Cal scored early and often on North Texas, then bottled. Enthusiasm tempered again.
- Garbers broke out for the best throwing game of his career against Ole Miss, wheeling and dealing in the South. This time it was the defense’s job to come up with the clutch stop.
- After the long losing streak, Cal found its perfect foil in Washington State, with the Bears issuing their most complete victory on the season and a rare offensive explosion with Devon Modster under center.
- Cal escaped a lot of baggage with timely clutch moments by almost every Golden Bear starter to win the Big Game, capped off by an epic performance from Garbers.
- An inspired Cal defense terrorized Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the Rose Bowl, and the Cal run game did most of the rest.
The formula was pretty consistent for the Bears—ride the defense, get timely offense, and hold on. Two times (Oregon State, Arizona State), the formula backfired. Three other times, (Stanford, Washington, Ole Miss) it paid off. Twice, the team put together mostly complete performances (Washington State and UCLA). Twice, it did the opposite (Utah and USC).
It definitely lowers the margin for error, as well as the ceiling for what can be accomplished with this type of team. Cal could’ve easily lost any of the games it won, and vice-versa. Without major changes, Cal is situated in that six to eight win range for the foreseeable future.
That’s hardly a bad thing though. Cal was opportunistic. They avoided turnovers. They kept games close. They got comfortable playing in tough environments. They rarely beat themselves, and always gave themselves a chance.
Cal makes the most of what they got. After a decade of seemingly doing the opposite, it’s a welcome relief.
We are still a long way from knowing whether Justin Wilcox is the one going forward for Cal.
Early results are promising. So far, we’ve seen consistency with two straight seven-win seasons. It isn’t far-fetched to say Cal could have easily pushed nine to ten wins on the season with better injury luck.
Now as Wilcox transitions from Sonny Dykes’s recruits to his own, the pressure is on to maintain that consistency. As great as the efforts have been, and as promising as the Bears have looked, there is still room for a ton of improvement. Important structural decisions need to be made about what type of team he wants going forward. We’re approaching the point in a Cal coaching lifecycle where tough decisions need to be made about future assistant staffing. The honeymoon period is at an end.
But one good sign in Wilcox’s favor is that I can say the following with confidence: This is a team that has deserved the support of all its Bears.
Cal has put out their best effort almost every week. Almost all the losses can be explained away due to injury, with a few still being tantalizingly within reach regardless. This is a program that, with the right modifications, good recruiting, and culture maintenance, isn’t far away from competing for the Pac-12.
The players play hard. The coaches put the players in a position to win. And fans can expect to see the Bears compete and give it their all for three hours plus every Saturday.
There’s still a lot of work to be done to get to the final goal that Cal has been climbing to reach for 60 years. But the players sure made this season worth watching. And they gave us wins worth remembering.
So wear your bear hats high through the bowl game and through this offseason! It’s been another solid year, and one that should lay the foundation for better seasons ahead.
We’re Cal fans, and we can be damned proud of it again.