You learn a lot about a team when they win. You learn what they're good at. You learn who the biggest playmakers are. You learn what a staff's strengths are. You see what a team is capable of when they're all executing properly and doing the right things. You get a better feeling for the team's ceiling, and can grasp what they can be really good at when they're rolling and running.
But you learn a lot more about a team when they lose.
It's not so much the actual fundamentals of the game. More often when you lose, you probably did a lot of things wrong and the other team was just that much better. That happens. But you see what this team struggles at the most.
But what really is worth looking at are the psychological aspects. How does the team respond when they get hit in the mouth? Do they lie on the mat and wait for the bell? Or do they get up and keep on swinging?
During the final years of the Tedford era and the first year of the Dykes era, you'd see a regular theme in the majority of defeats: Overwhelmed. For the most part, when Cal went down, they went down meekly. Midway through the second quarter, with maybe one or two exceptions a year, when the Bears would go down two scores, you pretty much knew the game was over. There was no hope of coming back, just an utter resignation that Lady Defeat was here, and it was time to start hurting for another two hours and the rest of the weekend.
This is not a theme this season. Cal has scrapped and battled week and after week from snap to whistle in defeat, which has led to plenty of close calls. The Bears have had six great chances to win football games, capitalizing on four of them while missing out on two more chances.
Now, being involved in these coin-flip games is not necessarily a great thing, because it does show this team is far from being dominant against anyone. But come on, how many of us were expecting us to blow anyone out? After last season, we just wanted the opportunity to be close in games again, and apparently so do the players too.
But a theme is emerging this season: Resilience.
- The old version of Cal might have folded when Northwestern reeled off 17 unanswered points to give them a chance to win. The new version got the game-winning interception.
- The old version of Cal probably doesn't score once in the 36 point Arizona 4th quarter, but the Bears actually scored twice to try and again keep the Wildcats at arm's distance. Arizona was too much that night, but it's not like Cal cocooned themselves when things got bad. It was a game that came down to an improbable play, and 95% of the time Cal walks away with a win (just like 95% of the time Washington State beats Cal on a 19 yard field goal).
- The old version of Cal, battered after a brutal Arizona loss, might fold the tent when Colorado went up 21-7 after one period and 28-14 at the half, as they're seemingly poised to just run our defense off the field. We respond with an incredible 2nd half on offense and roll off 21 unanswered points to take the lead, engage in a shootout the rest of the game, and the maligned defense comes up with an incredible goal-line stand to seal the deal.
- The old version of Cal would almost certainly have been blown off the field (and gotten many coaches fired) if Connor Halliday had lit them up for 734 yards. These Bears respond with two consecutive kickoff return touchdowns, overcome being down double digits for most of the game, and outscore Washington State 19-7 in the 4th quarter to give themselves an improbable chance to win.
- The old version of Cal might have seen its defense throw in the tank when it was clear that Washington had control of the game early. The defense instead stepped up, made only one major mistake, and surrendered only 14 real points (the other 17 were turnover-based), and gave its offense every shot to get back into the game. (Okay, I'm stretching a bit here, but if this ends up being our worst performance of the season, I'll be dancing all over the world.)
- The old version of Cal would almost certainly have never been in the game if they were dominated in the line of scrimmage the way the Bruins did. But the Cal defense stepped up again, caused three turnovers that they turned 20 points, and gave the stumbling offense a chance to win the game.
Now, the Bears were absolutely overmatched by the speed, efficiency and talent of Oregon. The Ducks are always going to be a tough matchup for us, and they've been pretty much impossible to beat with Marcus Mariota at the helm. Our defense isn't quite good enough, our offensive line isn't quite equipped to handle the pressure, and the special teams are laughably overmatched. No matter how good the players we have are looking, a defense this inexperienced and undermanned isn't going to beat an Oregon that's on full tilt and riding high toward a College Football playoff berth.
That didn't stop Cal from trying, all four quarters long.
The Cal defense made plenty of mistakes, but they had their chances to take down Mariota; the man just makes people miss and he made five or six "wow" plays that kept drives alive and sank our chances. They also bottled up Royce Freeman for the most part and didn't get gashed by the big running play, which has been something that has plagued Cal all year. The Bears even tried to wipe out that 17 point lead before the halftime by forcing two turnovers. Almost the entire two deep (and occasionally three deep) is playing and learning on the job, and they're doing what they can in the limited amount of time they have to deal with the gauntlet that awaited them in the second half of the season.
The Cal offense threw out every trick in the book to put their 41 points on the board, throwing Luke Rubenzer out there to fluster Oregon's defenders. Expecting pass, Cal gave them a heavy dose of the running backs to try and move the football without having to get Jared Goff constrained in a collapsing pocket. Players got injured and came back (hopefully in good shape) to try and finish the game.
Cal went down by double digits multiple times against Oregon. They cut it to three once and responded with touchdowns late against the Ducks instead of totally folding the tent. This game was hardly close, but it wasn't a blowout, which is more than I can say for four of the last five times Cal has suited up against the Big Green Death machine.
The lunch-pail attitude, absent for so many years in Strawberry Canyon, seems to be coming back to Bear Territory. It's a "no quit, never say die" team, with a group of players relying more on talent on attitude. It's honestly inspiring to watch a team that had trouble tying its shoes last year give itself chances to win almost every game they've played in this season. They've come so far in such a short period of time.
Now this is where you can probably deride me for praising so-called "moral victories". It's a term that is derided for it's soccer mom-type attributes, the "everyone gets a trophy" attitude. It might seem like I'm trying to praise an 18-point defeat as a monumental success. It clearly isn't. Cal is still a bit away from being the team that can realistically contend for a conference crown, and another huge leap between next year and this year might be necessary to ensure that this group gets rewarded for effort. In the end, the Pac-12 championship is the goal, and we are not even close to knowing if Sonny Dykes and company are the group to take us there.
But when it comes to the players, "moral victories" are definitely what are needed. We are coming off a year where we had to watch our team degrade into maybe the worst squad in Cal football history (and we've had some baaaaad ones). That team didn't just forget how to win, they forgot how to play football. This year required that we wipe away every stench of that season. We need every moral victory we can get, every competitive effort we can get. Our team needs to not just put 2013 behind them and bury it; they need to start believing that last season never existed. They need to show that this year's team reflects the type of team they want to be in the future.
Don't quit Bears, you're way ahead of schedule for where you want to be. Keep at it the way you're going, and soon you'll be the ones doing the killing.
(All photos taken by Cary Edmondson of USA TODAY Sports)