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Cal football faces its moment of truth

How do they want this season to go?

NCAA Football: Arizona State at California Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, Cal entered their bye week 5-1. Bruised, battered, but hopeful. Cal had just finished a toe-to-toe battle with a Utah team that was just as capable as they were. The Bears turned the ball over again and again and again, yet somehow still found themselves mere yards away from a chance to pull off the biggest win of the past decade.

It felt like Cal under Sonny Dykes was finally taking the big leap. The Bears defense, much maligned, had found a decent enough balance to give Cal a shot at victory if the Bear Raid was capable of their usual explosiveness. Cal was facing a Pac-12 that was strong but not prohibitively so. The Bears had a shot to make a dent in a deep conference.

All of those hopes quickly evaporated in the span of a month. Cal went into the Rose Bowl on a Thursday night and got shellacked, trailing 23-3 in the first half and 40-16 midway in the 3rd quarter. Facing a beatable USC team, Cal managed 7 points in the first 40 minutes before rallying for the most ‘respectable’ loss of that miserable streak. After some promising notes early, the entire Cal team collapsed in Autzen in the second quarter, giving up 28 unanswered points. And then in the Big Game, Cal kicked three field goals on 4th and short in the red zone, falling behind 21-9 and always playing catchup.

Was it all on the coaching staff? No. Cal had a lot of issues—a strange four-headed running back committee that never seemed to find its balance or footing. Jared Goff had an excellent season, but due to the needs of the Cal offense was forced to throw a lot more errant interceptions than he’d ever had. The Pac-12 was very deep (seven teams won 8+ games in 2015; five teams won 9+!), so every loss was at least a quality one.

But it’s hard to look back at that season and feel nothing but mild happiness for the greatness of Goff, some satisfaction at winning in Texas (although that game deserves its own individual remembrance for all the tomfoolery), and think of the wasted opportunities. That Cal wasted two of Goff’s three years rebuilding, rebooting, and implementing a system that worked well—for one part of the football team. That Cal had to jettison an entire roster of defenders and replenish that unit with new ones. That not for more than a mere handful of games did Dykes field a team worth competing.

Opportunity wasted. It’s the story of Cal in a decade.

The moment of truth comes early for Cal in 2019, because of the uncertain status of Chase Garbers. The injury did not look good. The place where the injury occurred (his throwing shoulder) did not look good. It is looking like Devon Modster will be Cal’s quarterback for at least the Oregon game, if not longer. Suddenly, even the most optimistic outlooks the rest of the year feel like a weighted ceiling.

The flaws that had been showing the first trimester of the season finally broke through against Arizona State, and it was surprisingly the defense that got exploited. The Cal defense getting papercut to death has become a solid formula for opponents. Slow methodical runs, short 3rd downs, ball control. It fed right into the things an NFL lifer like Herm Edwards loves, and offensive coordinator Rob Likens never deviated. The ASU offensive line won them this game.

I don’t want to overanalyze the Cal offense, since the entire unit was placed in an unfortunate situation. It’s tough to pin blame on a career backup QB thrown into the fire vs a top 25 defense with a run game averaging about two yards a carry all night. He was bound to struggle in those circumstances.

In the last game and a half, Chase Garbers was becoming the QB that could lead Cal to big things. That’s what sucks the most about this.

Basically, the offensive ceiling (for now) looks very low if Chase Garbers is out. It just feels like Cal is going to have to learn to struggle bus their way yet again to victory.

2019, meet 2018.

Let’s review some of the big moments of truth in recent years.

2007: After Oregon State, Cal still had plenty of talent to overcome the loss and still make a good year out of what they had let. But for whatever reason, UCLA proved again to be a death knell. The Bruins bottled up Justin Forsett, the Cal offense faded after sparking early, and Nate Longshore’s ankle (which looked okay early) started to affect his play deep into the second half, and then the crucial errors were made. Good night, Cal’s Pac-10 title hopes. And from there the air was out of the balloon.

2008: Too many weirdo moment of truths to narrow it all the way down, but basically Cal would go on the road and lose a head scratcher, only to follow it back with a dominant home win. I give it up to the football team for navigating a curious two-headed quarterback duel between Longshore and Kevin Riley that was never really settled until the season ended. Every week was a moment of truth for that minefield.

2009: Cal had just come off of brutal defeats to Oregon (the new power) and USC (soon to be dethroned). The program seemed to be teetering on the point of oblivion. Then the Bears came into UCLA and Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen basically threw a party for three hours, ending a terrible streak in Pasadena. Cal had staved off the inevitable, and did it again when Best went down to injury a month later. As flawed and as fragile as this unit was, they had some special times.

2010: Cal’s last time in the top 25 under Jeff Tedford was in Reno, Nevada. Cal had a new defense that had been putting teams on lockdown for the first two games. But Clancy Pendergast wasn’t much of a college guy, so he had no idea what a Colin Kaepernick or a Pistol offense. Cal’s defense got lit up, and with an offense in constant flux, it would be a formula for consistent inconsistency.

2011: I’m not certain what to make of this weird baseball stadium season. There weren’t really a ton of expectations going in. So let’s go with Cal starting the season 3-0, everyone wondering if they could do it against the elite Pac-12 competition, and then Washington outschemed, Oregon outran, and USC outmuscled the Bears back to 3-3. Hello mediocrity.

2012: There are too many moments of truth this season that Cal failed, so let’s just start with the bizarre season opener against Nevada where Zach Maynard was benched for a quarter and Jeff Tedford told basically no one on the team until the day of the game. Nevada went up 14-0 and the curtains began closing on Coach.

2013: Sonny Dykes hires Andy Buh as defensive coordinator.

The move for Buh (and a defense that was not prepared for four hours of football) put Dykes behind the eight ball permanently for the remainder of his tenure. Cal would lose nearly their entire two-deep to defections and injuries in the span of a season. The Bears got better, but their potential felt (and proved to be) capped just as Jared Goff entered our lives.

2014: Cal had just come off of 60-59 and were starting to get some buzz as a potential sleeper to break out in the second half of the season. Then Shaq Thompson returned a touchdown 95+ yards, UCLA picked off a pretty rough Jared Goff throw, and Marcus Mariota blasted the Bears yet again, and Cal was suddenly 4-4 and scrambling for life. This was a team that had peaked early and had nothing left to give.

2016: Cal had just beaten an undefeated Utah team with the most bizarre goal-line stand any of us had ever seen. You know what time it is? Time to give up 474 yards of rushing to Oregon State! The Beavers passed for 85 yards in this game. Cal did not realized they were allowed to run the football until mid-third quarter. It was a perfect encapsulation of everything that Sonny Dykes.

You can see, in total, that the seasons where Cal failed its inflection points, the season either went south or sideways. From 2010 onward, there’s been a lot of failing.

When adversity strikes, Cal has historically turtled. You can see why the anxiety runs on high this weekend.

And that leads us into the Justin Wilcox era. If there’s any bigger plus for Cal’s current head coach, it’s how his teams handle adverse situations.

2017: Cal had just gone on the road and been predictably blasted by Oregon and Washington in consecutive weeks. The Bears were 3-3 and the season looked on its way to being lost quickly. Cal then proceeded to serve up one of the most bizarre victories of the entire season, routing Washington State and AQI 37-3 after the Cougars had beaten USC and Oregon handily in back to back weeks. Aside from a hiccup in Boulder, the Bears played fairly well the rest of the year, but just could not finish three winnable games. But that win against Washington State set the tone—Cal would not just be overrun anymore.

2018: After a similar faceplant to winless UCLA (coming on the heels of a frustrating defeat to Arizona), Cal took care of business against Oregon State, then shocked everyone by constricting eventual Pac-12 champion Washington 12-10. Cal survived a bottom 20 offense with one of the best defensive close-outs I’ve ever seen from a college football team.

So far, the Bears have handled their inflection points pretty superbly under Wilcox. But this feels like the toughest one yet.

If Garbers’s recovery takes longer, then the Bears have to reenter their 2018 selves and figure out how to navigate for awhile. Based on Modster’s first game back, It will take awhile for the Cal offense to find their footing. It’s hard to expect it in Autzen, but after a bye week, two games, and another bye week, followed by a not-so-hard closing slate? There’s time to make this work.

The Cal defense is not the same dominant unit it was at the end of 2018. The Bears miss the consistency of Jordan Kunaszyk in the middle and the pass rushing of Alex Funches. Cal’s 3-4 is starting to get beaten more up front as 3-4 depth is getting a bit exposd. And Cal is not forcing turnovers at the rate they were last season, as the Bears have only two interceptions on the season.

That being said, this is still a top-25 unit. Cal’s defense does not concede big plays and they still have not been responsible for more than 21 points in a game. But that might have to go down in the coming weeks. And I mean down to Cheez-it Bowl levels. While it doesn’t seem possible based on Friday’s performance, around this time last year, the 2018 Cal defense was good, but it was definitely not the monstrous force of nature they transformed into by end of season. There is time for transformation for this unit to go.

There are still many paths for Cal’s season to go. A team with a top 25 unit like the Bears defense isn’t just going to turtle in and drop eight straight games. The Pac-12 is not a forgiving conference, but it’s not the gauntlet that killed many a Cal season this past decade. Almost every game on the schedule is still very winnable, even on the worst day for the Bears. And this coaching staff has proven (for the most part) to be quick to adjust and make good decisions.

Cal is building its foundation, and Friday night definitely was a seismic shock to the system. But the Bears still have plenty to work with, and this unit has already proven before that they can manage with less offensively. This offense wasn’t functional at all for more than 20 minutes in Washington, and Cal won. It’s still doable. It’s just not going to be easy.

Cal’s moment of truth this year? Embracing the toughness yet again.