Cal football plays the old hits

When's the new tape dropping?

(Hey all! Most of my posts—particularly football recaps—will be part of Write For California’s Premium subscription this year. This post is free, but the rest will not be. Please subscribe today to see every recap after this one!)

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time where Jeff Tedford’s era at Cal crossed over from the good times to the bad times.

Some say it’s our last game against Nevada, where Tedford started Allan Bridgford for a quarter and announced it to almost no one, leading to an hour of bewilderment followed by two hours of shock at what was happening in front of them. But the program was already in turmoil, it was just getting revealed piece by piece.

Some say it’s 2007. You all know the game. We don’t talk about that here. But Cal came back and went 17-7 in their next 24 games—a mark that we have definitely not hit in any 24-game stretch since. So I don’t think it was that.

So if I had to pick a moment where it was clear something wasn’t quite right anymore—and that the party was finally over in Berkeley, it was 2009, in Seattle.

Cal had come off a huge Big Game upset, in addition to another upset of Arizona. They were ranked again (19th, a position Cal would not reach for another decade), they were 8-3. There had been major hiccups against Oregon and USC and a rough Jahvid Best injury, but it seemed the ship had been righted and we could head into the offseason strong knowing that we had something to build on.

Then lowly Washington—4-7 Washington—teed off on Cal for four quarters of relentless battering. The offensive line collapsed, the secondary collapsed, most of the team essentially no-showed a game worth winning. The Poinsettia Bowl against Utah brought more of the same.

Something was off. The program had morphed into something else.

That was the inflection point for the Tedford era. For the next three years, Cal went from conference contender to also-rans. The creaky structure that had seemingly been renovated up to standard by the successes of the past decade came crashing down, in a wave of academic scandals, recruiting fiascoes and coaching, despite the Bears still having rosters filled with future NFL draft picks.

It’s a game many of us have probably buried from memory. But it was a sign of things to come.

***

For Sonny Dykes, the inflection points came early and often.

You probably could pick any game from 1-11. You could pick choosing a relentless system of tempo and pacing that sent half the team to the medical ward or the transfer portal. You could choose the four years of uncompetitive, uninteresting Big Games, which often felt like extended practice given our urgency level on the field. You could even take any one of our wins, which felt often like lucky escapes

The Dykes era was marked by crisis. The things we did right one week fell apart the subsequent week. Mark a team on our schedule that was going to a bowl game and we were generally down two touchdowns quickly and early.

At every point where Cal could’ve jumped ahead, Dykes’s teams fell short. It became a pattern that we simply had enough of after year four.

There was no real inflection point. The chaos was constant, beginning to end.

***

Handed a team that had a radically different identity than the one he wanted, Justin Wilcox held steady in his first season. But then potential inflection points came early, with mixed results.

His response was solid: With Cal sitting at 3-3 and 0-3 in the Pac-12, the Bears suddenly spilled out a top 10 national defense, won four of their last six Pac-12 games, upset the Pac-12 champions, ended the Streak with barely any vertical passing game worth speaking of. Cal found their identity in the trenches, clamping teams into submission holds for weeks on end.

In 2019, a similar scenario emerged with Cal’s slide back to 5-5—a Big Game hanging in the balance.

Wilcox has given Cal fans good memories. He’s handed the state of Washington their lunch. He’s beaten all three of our rivals (albeit only once). September for Cal has been marked with great work.

But every step forward is followed by a step backward.

And after being given every benefit of the doubt for two years of inertia and a joke of a 2020 season, the Bears were given the chance to show they’d stepped forward and produced…a rerun, and a particularly bad one.

Nam and Nick have gone over the deeper details, but the beats are the same.

  • A solid offensive start negated by long periods of offensive torpor.

  • A quarterback who struggles with the very basics.

  • A wide receiving corps incapable of getting separation from an average mid-major defense.

  • A gameplan that doesn’t seem to utilize vertical passing, or stretching defenses beyond their usual capabilities

  • A special teams unit that shows flashes only to putter out late.

  • A defense asked to shoulder the load for far too long.

  • A group of players playing hard but missing the talent of former players now in the NFL or fighting for practice spots.

The majority of those bullets were quite a staple of Beau Baldwin performance, but this was the first time since the Bear Raid days that “scheme dictating personnel” seemed to be holding the Bears back.

Seeing Chase Garbers isolated in the pocket for the majority of the game, not really attempting to leave the box much, or attempting to scramble, and instead focusing on throwing primarily quick bubble screens and four-yard outs was perplexing. It was the start of 2019 all over again, with slightly more efficiency. This time, the results were disastrous against a team with enough offense to counter.

Garbers is many things, but a traditional pro-style QB really hasn’t been his forte. When he’s been at his best at Cal, he’s been given room to operate in space and make players. Perhaps there’s a balance that needs to be struck that spares him from injury risk, but Garbers not choosing to run at all takes away a critical element of what makes him special.

Likewise, Cal’s emphasis on the short passing game took Nevada off the hook. Because Cal’s short passing game wasn’t even efficient, the Wolf Pack could crowd the box and stuff the run long enough for Musgrave to be swayed to stick to the air, despite performing well above expectations on the ground.

The formulas were slightly different from previous Cal offensive stuttering, but the result was the same—a confounding loss where the Bears had not enough ability to execute when needed. It’s the sort of thing that is hard to continue to recover from, particularly if the end result always lies in the same place.

Are we stuck playing the “First to 21” game against anyone and everyone?

***

Inflection points often come when you least expect them. They don’t come in big games against big opponents, when everyone usually shows up and bring their best. They come in moments where the plan goes awry, and suddenly bad trends become good or vice-versa.

Cal has now lost at home, again, to a team they should beat. They will now head on the road to do what they’ve been the most successful at in Wilcox’s tenure at Cal—win as an underdog against a non-conference Power 5 opponent. So it’s quite possible narratives flip again in five days and the ship is righted.

Or Cal could be 0-2 for the first time since 2001. We don’t like talking about 2001 here either.

The season isn’t over. Nevada seems to be good, although Kansas State could dissuade us pretty quickly of that. Even if Cal is considerably below our expectations, the Pac-12 North looks to have regressed in all corners, and even an average Bears team can make enough noise to stay afloat. Drawing Colorado and Arizona provides additional respite.

But the Wilcox question lingers as we hit a critical TCU matchup—is anything new coming? Is a corner ever going to be turned on offense? Or are we stuck flipping coins dependent on matchups, execution, and some fortunate randomness?

Is Nevada an inflection point for this incarnation of Cal football? Or do the next games give us the chance to turn the curve back upward?

Share