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Cal football is building its foundation

It’s happening. Week by week.

California v Mississippi Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The last Cal team I really felt had good culture was 2008.

This was a team that struggled with clear deficiencies, particularly a passing game that regressed deeply without the 2006-07 receiving theatrics of Desean, Lavelle, RoJo and Stevens. They did not have the offensive explosiveness to overcome the best teams, and the coaching was starting to show signs of slippage.

But this was a group of hard-working individuals, coaches, and staff that was generally familiar with one another, trusted one another, and relied on an elite run game and great defense to pull out a nine-win season. This was a hard group of talented, blue-collar athletes that fit in perfectly into the Cal ecosystem, played well for one another, and was TOUGH. It’s the last season most Cal fans can look back on with general fondness of the good times, before the fissures began to crack.

The older you get, the more you enjoy those seasons. The more you realize the ingredients for success in a college football program can be found in seasons like that one.

The process of developing a program that can last isn’t just a new nifty system being installed, or a few great talents trying to lift a team up and above the rest of the conference, or upsetting the up-and-coming top-25 team. That type of process is unsustainable. A few years of recruiting whiffs and transfers can gut a team just as quickly as it was assembled. System installations can take years to work, and often backfire if the wrong person leads the charge. A team that runs high one week on adrenaline and hype can just as easily get knocked off by a bottom-dweller seven days later.

No, in general, good college football culture requires something more to sustain itself. At Cal, it definitely needs something different. It needs coaches who can figure out the small inefficiencies that can be all the difference between winning and losing. It needs players who can handle the academic rigor of Berkeley and still come out and run hill sprints at 5 am the next day.

And even after that, it still requires a core set of traits that are needed for any football team to be good. The Bears don’t quite possess all of them, and can’t summon them every game as of yet. But for the second huge road game in a row, Cal needed almost all of them to beat Ole Miss.

Adaptability. Ole Miss seemed like they were having their way for most of the first quarter, taking advantage of the absence of playmakers like Tevin Paul and Cameron Goode to score at will. Rich Rodriguez looked like he had the upper hand on a Cal defense yet again.

Cal made one evident adjustment (spying Evan Weaver onto Matt Corral), and Ole Miss got stuffed in the red zone and settled for three. A little bit more tinkering with the coverage, and suddenly the confidence of Ole Miss evaporated into a hodge-podge of costly errors. The Rebels scored only three more points for the next two-and-a-half quarters. Sometimes the obvious thing is the right thing.

Confidence. The face of Cal football is Evan Weaver. He is on the shortlist of being one of the most confident human beings on the planet. He guaranteed a win against Washington, then delivered with the best performance of the week by any player in college football. After the native-Californian Corral called out California players for being too soft, Weaver put Corral on blast afterward for his mediocre showing.

Weaver is currently on pace for 189 tackles in the regular season, which (if Cal were to make a bowl game) would put him on a record pace for most tackles—-ever. I would prefer for Weaver to have to do other things rather than tackle and other players to get into the mix so we’re not too one-person dependent, and the fine line between confidence and cockiness is always tough to ride. But there’s no denying his impact as a Golden Bear in setting a new culture of grit in Berkeley.

Patience. I don’t know if Beau Baldwin is the long-term answer at offensive coordinator for Cal. In the last year-and-a-half, he’s made a lot of decisions that were at best questionable, and still often does things in-game that are really frustrating.

But Saturday morning, Baldwin paid it back with an excellent gameplan that allowed Chase Garbers to thrive, converting crucial third down against a Rebel team determined to make the QB beat him. Another set of excellent adjustments had Ole Miss scrambling at the start of the 3rd quarter and dumped into a hole it took forever for them to try and climb out of.

Cal has now outscored its road foes 28-3 in the 3rd quarter. Baldwin has done very well to bring his best at the right time, and it’s proven to be just enough.

Trust. There was a lot of hand-wringing from a lot of Cal fans about Garbers the last three weeks. Outside of a clutch two-minute drive against Washington, he had not played well.

With Ole Miss stuffing the Cal rush attack, Garbers responded with not only his finest performance as a Golden Bear, but one of the best Cal passing performances of the decade. Garbers was 7-10 for 141 yards and a touchdown on 3rd down, and most of those were obvious passing downs. It was a mixture of many things—Baldwin putting Garbers in a position to succeed, the Cal wideouts like Jordan Duncan and Nikko Remigio making huge catches and adjustments, the offensive line generally giving Garbers the time to operate, etc.

But Garbers had to shake off his own hesitancies and deliver. He walked off being pretzeled by an Ole Miss defender and kept on running between the tackles. After four games, he might have found his stride. And it feels like the trust is there.

Perseverance. I talked about toughness in Cal’s win over Washington, as the Bears made the Huskies work, and work, and work for yards. It wasn’t glorious nor pretty, but Washington settled for field goal after field goal, increasing Cal’s chances of victory one stop after the next.

But there’s also mental toughness that’s needed, not just from the starters. It requires someone like linebacker Nick Alftin having to switch to tight end to find more depth on the receiving end last week, then having to switch back to linebacker when Cal’s ranks thinned. It required third-stringer Jake Tonges to step up after limited game snaps and score Cal’s first tight end touchdown of the season. It needed Trey Turner (the overlooked member of the Takers, as the Cal secondary calls itself) to step in and break up three big passes.

Everyone, starter to backup to bench player, needs to feel invested in the outcome. Organizations always perform better when everyone is working cohesively together and is involved. Cal has proven they will rely on anyone willing to plug and play, and those players have done their best in smaller, but hugely vital roles.

Self-reliance. Cal knows who they are. They know if they put up 20-30 points, they will usually win. They know the defense will slam the door shut on the opposition—or make them grind and claw for first down after first down. It doesn’t matter how many players they’re missing. The Bears missed four rotation defensive players, lost a few more in-game, and still didn’t stray too far from script.

For the first time in a decade, as Ole Miss’s backup quarterback started tearing up the Cal defense, there were definitely a ton of nerves and second-guessing of previous decisions, but the defense never wavered.

With 1st and goal at the 10, as they’d proven all game, Cal’s mental toughness won out over Ole Miss. The Landsharks made a bad decision on first down and the panic stayed with them for the remainder of the drive.

Cal didn’t flinch. Cal got the stop. Cal is 4-0.

Progress back to the top is gradual. It takes small steps, like pulling out a clutch two-minute drive in Seattle at 1 in the morning, or stuffing a young SEC team at the goal-line as time expires.

It’s not going to happen every week. Until the Bears hit another gear offensively on the regular (and as great as today was, these performances have been the aberration rather than the norm), Cal is most likely going to lose some of these games. Nothing is given with this team. The variance is low, so the opportunity to win is usually available, but so is the ceiling for fortune.

But infrastructure is being laid for something that will last beyond 2019. Because what Cal football needs isn’t just a flash in the pan high mark that slowly treads back to normalcy. They need games like this to keep happening, over and over. Structures take time to take its shape. Then suddenly, the steps from mediocre to good ascend from good to great.

Cal hasn’t found its final form under Wilcox, but it’s evolving for the third year in a row. The culture is there. Now it’s a matter of making it second-nature for everyone out on the field.

And just like any building, if a solid foundation is laid, the only path of creation left is up.