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Cal football brings the storm

The view from the stands in Seattle.

California v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

One lightning strike after enough pummeled Husky Stadium. Cal had played approximately five minutes of football, and it was unclear if there would be anything else coming for the Bear fans who had travelled up to the Pacific Northwest.

Many locals commented that they hadn’t seen a storm like this in Seattle in 40 years. Lightning is uncommon in the state of Washington, which is used to light drizzles and constant gray. But that night electricity was crackling in the Pacific Northwest, and it lit up the skies.

For those who weren’t there, a quick overview:

  • A masse of individuals akin to a Outside Lands crowd bumped and ricocheted around the concourse in search of meaning and purpose. Hell is more purple than you might think.
  • The Washington PA announcer provided 10-minute updates of the same update, leaving thousands captive to the potential promise of a football game that might be played.
  • Many stranded spectators watched Stanford-USC on the TVs around the stadium, confused about who they hated more.
  • Some huddled under the stands for the cover as the Husky loudspeakers blared the Spotify “In Case of Thunderstorm” soundtrack. (Thunderstruck! Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head! Blame it on the Rain!)

Oblivious to all the chaos, inside the Cal locker room, the real storm was brewing.

After Week 1, belief was not strong in Bear Territory that the California Golden Bears could pull this off. The Washington Huskies came in with real national title aspirations after (in the eyes of many at the Dawg Pound) stumbling their way to the Rose Bowl. Cal had been tied with UC Davis early in the second half. Washington had replaced their main weak link in Jake with Jake. Cal enjoyed 20 minute stretches on opening week where the forward pass was about as effective as a punt.

As the rain persisted, one lightning flash followed another, the crowd thinned and stood and sat and sagged, a few of us began pondering. Wasn’t this the best possible situation for Cal?

  • The field was wet. This favored a ground-and-pound mentality and would probably cause a lot of issues for vertical passing.
  • Teams would be playing late. Chris Petersen hates Pac-12 After Dark. Just imagine him handling Pac-12 After Midnight.
  • The Washington fans were leaving in droves. The feared home field advantage was gone.
  • The Cal defensive coaching staff had gotten a glimpse of how Washington was planning to attack. Even if it wasn’t a lot, it was enough for the Bears to adjust appropriately and make first half adjustments rather than reacting in real-time.
  • No one plays their best football after lying down for three hours. Randomness can only propagate in such an anarchic environment.

All this made sense. But the most Cal scenario seemed to be approaching: A postponement until Sunday morning, with Cal having no place to sleep except some empty Washington dorms, and many Cal fans having Sunday morning flights. As 8 o’clock became 9 o’clock became 10 o’clock, the idea was picking up momentum, swallowing our optimism like the weather front consuming this stadium.

Meanwhile, the only people who truly believed that this was their night stayed loose, stayed ready, stayed focused. Doubt was nothing new for this squad. Cal had been counted out multiple times last season, and the Bears seemed to always find a way to bounce back and compete. A little doubt because of a mediocre season-opener couldn’t faze them.

When Petersen announced game on just around 10 pm, the real storm was let loose.

For most of this decade, Cal was a team that people did not fear to play. Opponents saw the Bears on the schedule and salivated at the opportunity to put 40 points up on the board. Cal would put up a fight, put up the points, but ultimately fall apart at the critical moments.

Now? Cal is just plain unpleasant. It’s a three hour torture-fest almost every week. The Bears aren’t just physically tough. The mental toughness is unrelenting.

Coaches see the Bears on the schedule and grimace. Petersen commented before the game that no one really realized how good the Cal defense was when they upset Washington last season, so he had to have been less than surprised with Saturday’s result.

The Bears aren’t just a team that makes games competitive though. With a few exceptions, they literally suffocate their opposition out of their comfort zone and take away the components most teams operate on. On their own, the Cal defense hasn’t allowed 30 points or more since the 2017 season (10 of UCLA’s 37 points were turnover driven, as were 14 of Oregon’s 42).

After Washington’s lone touchdown drive, Cal clamped down on the Husky pass game entirely. Washington could not throw the football down the field. Whether in fear of the Cal pass defense or not wanting to risk anymore turnovers, Jacob Eason generally turtled and the Washington wideouts began dropping a host of passes as the game grew tight. The Huskies had their opportunities and could not execute.

The Huskies would be spending the rest of Sunday morning dinking and dunking and running their way to first downs (and it worked) against a smallish Cal interior (Bill Connelly mentioned Cal’s front seven having a general profile of 6-5, 275 pounds and somehow making it work), but got to the red zone and settled for field goals on all three occasions. As Nick said, there is a formula against this defense, but how many teams have the discipline to execute on it, and how many other teams can punch it in all the way?

The Cal offense, searching for the past year for true identity, might have found it behind their run game. Steve Greatwood, known for producing top-10 running attacks annually at Oregon, had Cal’s offensive line (down 1.5 starters) churning in the 3rd quarter at an unbelievable rate. Pinpointing the exact weaknesses in Washington’s defense, the Bears called a succession of counter plays, cutbacks, and interior runs for Christopher Brown and Marcel Dancy that left the Huskies uncharacteristically off-balance. Third quarters have been the Cal offense’s best quarter for much of the last year, and the Bears were humming.

Then Chase Garbers, he of eight completed passes when the Bears got the ball back down two, executed one of the finest two-minute drills I’ve ever seen a Cal quarterback witness.

Every Bear contributed at every moment when they were most needed. It was astonishing, gritty, thrilling...a perfect storm.

It’s hard to extrapolate Cal’s win and suddenly project major success ahead. By its very nature, the circumstances surrounding Saturday night/Sunday morning were anomalous. Cal has similar competition of a similar caliber they will have to face this season—some with better offenses, some with potent defenses. Games like this figure to be a staple of our future.

Playing after three hours chilling in a locker room definitely evened the playing field--the Huskies were clearly not playing their best football. And Washington, one of the few programs that actually sells out a good chunk of their games, played in front of its first half-empty stadium since the early Sarkisian days. It wasn’t really a true home experience, although the Huskies disappointingly piped in noise to compensate--no way a stadium with that few people should have generated that decibel level at 1 am.

There is a formula to move the football on Cal’s defense--can they make opponents submit in the way they used to? There are still many many questions about whether this Cal offense can raise their game to an average level. Is 20 to 24 points the ceiling against good competition?

(Not to mention Cal won 20-19 in 2019, and it doesn’t come close to hitting the top 10 of weirdest things to transpire.)

But those worries can wait until Saturday. For now, Cal has not beaten a road team this good in 10 years. Last year’s USC win, while magical, was against literally the worst Trojan incarnation possible. Washington in 2015 was on the verge of breaking through, but was still a year away from finding their footing. ASU in 2011 was a team in free-fall. Every other opportunity this decade, the Bears fell short.

Under Justin Wilcox, the Bears keep on finding themselves in positions to win games like this. Wilcox has coached 27 games at Cal, and the Bears have had a realistic shot at winning 22 of them, including 18 of their last 20. More impressively, when Cal faces top-25 competition (USC 2018, WSU 2017-18, Stanford 2017-18, UW 2018-19), the Bears have been in it until near the bitter end.

The Bears, despite undergoing radical talent and scheme overhaul, are being put into positions to win more often than not. Sunday morning came another breakthrough--a complete team win, on all sides of the ball. It is arguably Cal’s finest performance of the decade, and it only took six hours to get there.

The lightning may be gone, but the storm is constant in Bear Territory. Even if they don’t get every win, Cal will be making life very unpleasant for almost every team they face this season. No delaying that.