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Cal football has made mistakes, and Justin Wilcox will need to own them

A terrible result on Saturday leaves 2019 hanging in the balance.

Oregon State v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In 2013, Sonny Dykes came to the California Golden Bears with a clear vision—build an offense that could overrun the rest of the conference, utilizing a total offense approach that helped bring Louisiana Tech one WAC title and placed them on the verge of another.

Dykes just need to find the right defensive coordinator to ensure that his team would not have to play in constant track meets, but also knew how to recruit California effectively. He found Andy Buh, a one-time hire of Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and also of Nevada. Buh then hired Randy Stewart and Barry Sacks, and had to insert Dykes’s good friend Garret Chachere into the mix.

It was a fiasco. The schemes Cal ran seemed primarily suited to stop WAC defenses had no answer to teams simply running the ball up the middle. A Cal defense that had surrendered 40+ points nine times in the last four years surrendered 40+ points nine times in 2013. The pace of Cal running a high-tempo, fast-paced offense got many players injured in practice. A whole generation of Cal defenders recruited from some of the best classes in program history wore down and either transferred, graduated early, medically retired, or left the program.

By the time Buh, Stewart and Sacks were let go, the damage had been done. Cal went 1-11 in the most embarrassing year in program history. The Cal defense would have to rebuild within a larger program rebuild. A Golden Bears team that had a future number one draft pick in Jared Goff was now hamstrung by a defense that would be no better than mediocre in his time as a Bear.

Still, to his credit, Dykes did own his mistake early, and the second time around did put a more professional face on the defense with Art Kaufman. Hiring season vets like Greg Burns (now the USC secondary coach) and Fred Tate proved crucial, as they ended up recruiting the players who formed the best Cal defense known to date.

But ultimately, Dykes and his offensive coordinators wanted to keep running a fast-paced offense that scored a lot of points, and that could not jive with a rebuild, a defense starting over from ground up, or the patience of a fanbase wanting way more. Making that one critical misstep in the beginning ended up sinking his future before it had begun.

Six years later, Justin Wilcox is staring at his own critical staffing errors straight in the face. Here we go again.

As a first-time head coach, Wilcox had what seemed like a smart plan at the time—hire more head coaches around him to help guide him into becoming a better coach. He would have former Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter as his defensive coordinator. He would have Charlie Ragle (former Arizona high school head coach at Chaparral, recently of Arizona’s special teams with Rich-Rod) handling special teams. And Beau Baldwin (head coach of the most successful FCS program in the West in Eastern Washington) would run the offense.

Baldwin’s hire was an interesting one, and in the first year seemed like it was a decent risk. The Cal offense was rebuilding quite a bit with the graduation of Davis Webb, Chad Hansen, Khalfani Muhammad—and suffered a decent bit of attrition from Dykes’s Bear Raid recruits leaving the program, like Demetris Roberson and Melquise Stovall. Baldwin had an interesting hodge-podge of coaches in Nicholas Edwards, Marques Tuiasosopo, and Steve Greatwood. It seemed like it could all work together.

Early indications were promising. Cal won their season-opener with North Carolina thanks to some offensive fireworks, blew out Washington State, nearly bested Khalil Tate and Arizona in a shootout, and generally put up 20 to 30 points with a defense that was still transitioning from the wreckage of Dykes.

Then, suddenly in 2018, the Cal defense made a stunning turnaround. A unit that could not stop anyone two years prior was now stopping everyone—nine times the Cal defense would hold its opponents to under 20 points a game. All they needed was the offense to give them the points they needed to land wins.

But the Cal offense collapsed. A unit that had been one of the best in the nation for years had become barely functional. Ross Bowers mysteriously disappeared after the first game of the season. Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain were caught in one of the most inexplicable quarterback battles you can imagine. Patrick Laird had trouble producing in his senior season. The Cal offense was beset with a host of injuries. Cal could not produce any explosive plays at all.

So a Cal defense that did not allow 20 points* in nine of their 12 games against FBS competition ended up squeaking out a 7-6 season because the Cal offense could not break 20 points in seven of its final nine games. This all culminated in a Cheez-it Bowl where Cal would not score in the final 50 minutes of gametime.

Beau Baldwin, brought in to wizard his way to a semi-functional offense, could not develop any sort of gameplan that worked in the Pac-12. The Cal offense bottomed out to 118th in defensive S&P+, second-worst in FBS behind Rutgers. All the writing was on the wall. Changes had to be made.

They weren’t. Midway through 2019, Justin Wilcox is finally taking the heat.

Aside from six quarters of excellence from Chase Garbers and a running explosion in the third quarter in Seattle, the Cal offense is not noticeably different from year’s past. In other words, they are still one of the worst offenses in college football.

Cal spent most of the first half playing catch-up with UC Davis. Cal turtled against North Texas and managed three points in the final three quarters. Cal gained a total of 30 yards in its final five drives against Arizona State. Cal scored on its opening drive against Oregon, missed a makeable field goal on its next drive, then did not enter the red zone again.

Cal has produced six fourth quarter points and 13 second quarter points against FBS competition. The 13 points is bottom five in the nation. The six points is last in the nation.

There are signs that Baldwin is doing his job as a playcaller early on—Cal seems decently prepared with 3rd quarter adjustments (they’re top 25 in points per game in the 3rd quarter), and scores okay to start games (top 50, but as defenses adjust in each half, they get clamped.

But the lack of end-of-half results is galling. The Cal offense has no answers or countermeasures to counter what any FBS defense throws at them.

The answers are not coming to a team that had been resilient all September. Outside of a few good moments in a few minutes of a few games, Cal’s offense has usually been the culprit of our defeats. Changes have to be made.

Arguably, Cal is now dealing with worse injury luck than last season. Their starting quarterback is out. Devon Modster got hurt against Oregon State. Cal’s offensive line is a mixture of young freshmen and sixth-year seniors getting pushed into duty.

But Cal’s quarterbacks were going to be injury-prone if the best plays their offensive scheme can produce come off of quarterback scrambles and wide receivers drawing penalties. And Garbers got hurt digging for yards on a quarterback scramble. That will always be putting your offense in a position to fail.

Which leads us to Oregon State.

Oregon State is a bad defense. Their defensive line has been obliterated much of the season. Before yesterday, they had surrendered 30 or more points in everyone of their FBS contests.

Beau Baldwin’s strategy was to run up the middle a lot, but as slowly as humanly possible. The Beavers pounced, stopping a 2nd and 1, a 3rd and 1, a 4th and 2 on their first drive. That was a sign of how unprepared the Cal offense was for gameday. The offensive line got toasted and figured out how to make the stops needed.

How did Baldwin adjust from that point on? Tons of slow-developing plays! Oregon State had nine sacks going into this game against FBS teams. They ended up with nine sacks against Cal.

Did Cal attempt zone reads to try and stretch the defense with a mobile Modster? Nope! Aside from one or two moments, almost all of Modster’s scrambles came from him breaking the play and fleeing for his life. It was effective, but definitely not within the design of any gameplan.

Did Cal try and stretch the field horizontally, the way Oregon State’s offense did with counter-action to the weakside with the tight end and the running back? Nope. Four verticals with wide receivers who can’t stretch the field. No swing passes to force linebackers to guard most of the field. Tons of inside runs that led Oregon State’s interior gobble up Cal’s offensive line and allowed almost no breaks.

Cal finally showed out some of those adjustments in the 3rd quarter, moving at a bit more of a faster pace, moving to more quick-hitting plays and grabbing 14 points to recapture the lead. Surely you keep what’s working and do that to clinch the game, right? Nope. Back to the same doddering offense that goes nowhere. Oregon State rallies with the same off-balance strategy on offense and Cal again falters in the 4th.

This game was won with coaching. Jonathan Smith was the superior offensive mind to Baldwin on Saturday by miles.

So instead of being 5-2 and on the edge of a second straight bowl season, Cal faces the near certainty of dropping four straight after a 4-0 start. For a team with so much promise to wilt in the games it needed is just hard. There’s no coming back.

Justin Wilcox has to own this. He hired this offensive staff. He retained this same staff. He thought a reshuffling would make a huge difference. It has not.

Baldwin hasn’t proven to be able to handle the rigors of Pac-12 coaching when not given a full slate of talent the way he did at Eastern Washington. Baldwin has tendencies and they’re pretty easily sniffed out after a quarter. He can piece together a few minutes of good play followed by hours of nothingness. That’s not enough to win in this conference.

Baldwin and Greatwood just don’t seem to be meshing well—whatever plays that are called, the line just seems to not be in sync. Receivers continue to drop passes, particularly at tight end. The 2019 recruiting class on offense was a big whiff, so that’ll mean another year of talent depth causing problems for the Bears on offense if they’re afflicted with future injury bugs. And it’s looking like Cal will not have a 1000 yard rusher for the second year in a row.

It’s still a curiosity as to why Wilcox decided to give Baldwin another chance. Perhaps he felt he needed more quarterback depth and letting go of some of the offensive staff could mean losing Brasch and Devon Modster. Perhaps he wanted to maintain offensive continuity to build up rapport to get the caliber of recruits the program needed going forward. Perhaps he recognized the disadvantageous situation the offense had been put in last year because of attrition and injuries and thought Baldwin would do better given returning talent. Perhaps he just couldn’t find a better option out there—offensive coordinators seem to be harder to find these days.

Now, the decision gets much tougher going into this offseason. Cal is about to close on its best recruiting class on offense since Wilcox arrived, meaning the talent influx that the Bears have desperately needed is on its way. Changing this coaching staff will almost certainly mean a few defections and a diminished recruiting class. Cal will almost certainly be hurting.

This the price bad decisions can have on a program. It sunk Sonny Dykes at Cal. It’s not quite as dire for Wilcox yet because the defense has kept the Bears in most games and the in-game coaching and player development has been stronger.

But a top-25 defense is stuck playing .500 football. That’s just not good enough.

Cal could have been even better these past two seasons. And Wilcox has to put that on himself.

*Cal allowed 23 points to Stanford, but 7 of those points came off a fumble that set up an easy 1st and goal touchdown for Stanford. Cal allowed 24 points to Arizona, but two touchdowns came off of pick-sixes.