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Cal football is consistently competitive. Is that good enough for 2019?

Cal is piecing together identity, but they are fighting.

NCAA Football: California at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, as the California Golden Bears limped out of Homecoming to 3-3 after getting gashed and slashed by winless UCLA, the frustration finally let loose for many Bears fans, including myself. The offense was not working, and a quizzical quarterback change had made things far worse. The Justin Wilcox era appeared to be stuck in neutral, and a very good defense seemed to be on the verge of being wasted. The Bears didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Since that game, Cal hasn’t been blown out again.

Not in Autzen. Not in Husky Stadium. Not against top 25 teams. Not against Pac-12 champions.

Cal has played 52 straight quarters of competitive, tough-nosed, hard-assed football.

Cal is 8-5 in those games. The biggest margin of defeat for Cal has been 10.

Cal’s five losses have been by 6, 10, 3, 7, and 10 points. Going into the fourth quarter, Cal was tied in three of them, down by 3 in one, down by 7 in another.

For an entire season of football, Cal has put themselves in positions to win every game with one good fourth quarter drive (say at like 1 am in Seattle). That is no small feat.

Quick review of the decade (and for the sake of this game, let’s say a three-score defeat is a blowout).

  • 2009: Blown out against Oregon, USC, Oregon State, Washington.
  • 2010: Blown out against Nevada, USC, Oregon State, Stanford.
  • 2011: Blown out against Oregon, USC, UCLA.
  • 2012: Blown out against USC, Stanford, Utah, Oregon, Oregon State.
  • 2013: New phone, who dis?
  • 2014: Blown out against Washington, Oregon, Stanford.
  • 2015: No final blowouts, but garbage touchdowns against UCLA and Stanford make me classify these as technical blowouts.
  • 2016: Blown out against USC, Washington, Washington State, technical blowout against Stanford.
  • 2017: Blown out against Washington and Oregon, technical blowout against Colorado.
  • 2018: Blown out against Oregon and UCLA.

That’s a decade of expecting routs—compare that to the 2003-08 era, where Cal was blown out maybe two or three times.

They can’t always close at this point, but every game is there to be won for Cal. That is a huge step forward for a program that often went into difficult contests expecting defeat.

As Cal hits the midpoint of their 2019 campaign, playing with an offense in tatters and a defense left again to foot the bill, competitive might just have to be enough.

The question is: Is that going to be enough for Justin Wilcox?

There were major concerns about the Cal defense after the defeat to Arizona State. The dominant unit seemed to be at a bit of a crossroads after getting gashed for the game-winning drive.

Most of those fears were assuaged on Saturday. Cal’s defense played extreme bend but don’t break and got away with it. Oregon got the yards but found themselves stalling at all the wrong places. Ashtyn Davis had one of his best games on the backline stopping Oregon from breaking off the big play, plus stopped the Ducks from scoring on their first drive with the interception. Kuony Deng had his best game as a Bear, getting into space and eventually being a force in stopping the run. Luc Bequette made huge plays against the Oregon offensive line and was a huge force most of the game.

Camryn Bynum shut down one side of the field—whoever he guarded, Oregon didn’t bother targeting. Evan Weaver ended one drive on his own by shedding his blocker. Trey Turner forced a fumble. Jaylinn Hawkins and Elijah Hicks held up their side. The top performers are endless.

Oregon had nine meaningful drives in Cal territory and generated 17 points. Talk about being pushed to the limit. Immense game from the Cal defense.

Only after the Cal defense got put back on the field over and over again did the Ducks finally find enough holes in coverage. Justin Herbert, when given time to operate, is eventually going to find enough time to go through his reads and progress to make the right throw.

Is Cal’s defense back to 2018 form? No. The run defense still is extremely shaky, and until the nose tackles learn to occupy space, are going to continue to struggle against better offensive lines. They are not generating any pass rush. Oregon losing CJ Verdell also made a huge difference on their explosive run impact--the Ducks backup RBs were not nearly as effective, as Oregon regressed to under 5 yards per rush.

And coming up for Cal are actually the best offenses left on the schedule--Oregon State, Utah, Washington State, USC are all calibrated as top-20 units. Oregon’s offense is actually a tad worse than all those teams, so the Bears will have to learn .

But holding Oregon to just over 200 yards passing? Preventing the Ducks from scoring over and over again? Saturday night was a promising sign that the defense is closer to returning to final form than regressing backward.

Regardless of toughness and grit and all those great words, it has to be extremely difficult for Wilcox to watch his defense bare itself for four quarters, only to see the offense go out and do nothing with it. The Oregon Ducks are the best defense in the Pac-12, and by some metrics might be the best in the country. Regardless, Cal generating only seven points off a broken play has to be tough.

Even with an offense that went three-and-out five times in a row in the second half, Cal had their chances to beat Oregon. Two missed field goals, one inadvertent slide, a few dropped passes, and two more healthy offensive linemen...who knows how things go?

And Cal’s offensive attrition has been brutal.

  • Starting QB Chase Garbers is gone for who knows how long.
  • Backup RB Marcel Dancy did not play today.
  • Starting RB Chris Brown played, but has missed games and hasn’t looked 100% for weeks.
  • Starting WR Kekoa Crawford has missed two games in a row.
  • Starting TE McCallan Castles transferred.
  • Preseason starting LT Will Craig is out for the season.
  • Preseason starting LG Gentle Williams is out for the season.
  • Starting C Michael Saffell was carted off on Cal’s touchdown drive.
  • Replacement starting LT Valentino Daltoso got hurt for about the third time this year.

If you’re counting, that’s eight of 11 positions affected. For a Cal offense that was already struggling to find its way out of the basement, this is as bad a hand as you can possibly be dealt.

That being said, the last two weeks since Devon Modster have taken over have been extremely rough.

Cal has scored touchdowns on its first full drive with Modster in each game, and then has managed three points for the remainder of that game, with those three points coming off a 3-and-out field goal after a forced fumble. Modster hasn’t exactly had a fair shake due to all the offensive injuries and having to play perhaps the two best defenses in the Pac-12 back-to-back to begin his Cal career.

So that brings us to the Beau Baldwin situation. After a disappointing 2018 campaign that saw Cal dropped to being one of the worst offenses in Power 5, Baldwin hasn’t been much better to start 2019. It seemed things were course correcting against Ole Miss, plus some nice second half moments against Washington, but the Garbers injury has basically reset the Cal offense to 2018 levels. Pair that with playing Arizona State and Oregon.

Based on the injury list above, it’s hard to feel like Baldwin deserves complete responsibility for this season, and particularly yesterday’s contest. Losing two more offensive linemen against the best front seven in the conference is a recipe for catastrophe, particularly when trying out a new quarterback.

Baldwin has basically had to triage as much as he’s had to execute a coherent gameplan to cobble it all together. But the offense that the Bears were running in fall camp has to be drastically different from the one that they’re currently operating midseason.

In the aggregate though, it’s not good enough. It’s been almost two seasons of bottom-tier performance, with the Cal defense carrying the Bears to the majority of their victories. For a no-nonsense high-achiever like Wilcox, this has to be grating.

Ahead for Cal are three bottom-tier defenses (Oregon State, UCLA and Washington State) two average ones (USC and Stanford), and one good one (Utah). If the Cal offense cannot score, and ends up losing games they shouldn’t because of that lack of production, judgment will come quickly.

So I’m not going to be upset about a ten point loss in Autzen to an elite Oregon defense with the backup offense. It was a decidedly impossible hand.

Cal was dealt a difficult hand and played extremely well. If they keep playing like tonight, they have the potential to finish this season strong.

All I know is that when I go to a Cal game, the Bears are going to compete. They will be in it. They CAN win it.

And for now, with what Cal has got left, for this year, that might just have to be what we need to move forward.