Cal Football 2010s in Review: Top Five Performances of the Decade

After ten years of collecting post-game ratings for the Bears, we sort through the data and find the best games of the decade.

Due to a series of factors outside the control of the Write for California staff, we are decidedly lacking in real-life sports to cover (great timing for this new website, right?!). Spring football was cut short after four practices. All spring sports are cancelled. And we may not even see college football return in the fall. So rather than look forward into a bleak, sports-free future, let’s look back at one of Cal football’s most bizarre decades, one that should coincidentally be quite familiar to you.

In a previous life, I collected reams of data from readers’ evaluations of Cal football performances. After each game, I had readers rate the Bears on a variety of offensive, defensive, and other categories. In a future article we will look more closely at how those specific categories changed over the course of the decade, but let’s start with some happy memories from the 2010s: the five most impressive performances of the decade.

To determine the five best games of the decade I calculated the average over all seven categories—passing offense, rushing offense, passing defense, rushing defense, special teams, coaching, and overall—for each of the 124 games played in the 2010s. Before we fondly recall each of those top five games, let’s look at how the whole decade fared.

In the figure below I show the distribution of scores for the entire decade of games. Each of the points represents a single game and the curve above shows how those points are distributed on the scale from 0 to 100. Places where the curve is higher reflect a larger number of games in that score range. For example, we see a peak around 70, indicating that scores around 70 were among the most common of the decade. Unfortunately, we had plenty of scores in the 20s, 30s, and 40s as well. We’ll highlight the most abysmal games of the decade in the next article of the series, but this is my first article on the new site and I’d rather not leave everyone tremendously depressed after reading it (unlike the 2013-2014 football seasons when I wrote grim previews about how the opposing offense would find new and exciting ways to put up 600 yards on our defense).

The average score across the whole decade was 53.6, but the performances varied remarkably from year to year. So let’s look at how the scores varied annually.

The following plot follows the same format as the prior one: points indicate scores and the curve above indicates the distribution. Things went well in seasons where more of the curve is to the right (2011, 2019) and things went quite poorly in seasons where the curve shifts to the left (2012, 2013).

While we can use the interocular percussion test to gauge which seasons were better than others, it’s fairly easy to rate them based on the average score from each year. For seasons where we lost the starting QB for an extended period of time, I put in parentheses the set of games when he was still healthy.

2010: 54.7 (62.3 before Riley’s injury)
2011: 59.8
2012: 40.1 (43.5 before Maynard’s injury)
2013: 33.8
2014: 54.7
2015: 61.3
2016: 47.4
2017: 59.1
2018: 61.8
2019: 60.8 (74.5 in games Garbers finished)

The decade starts off well enough before plummeting into oblivion in the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The Bears bounce back with a couple decent seasons in 2014 and 2015 before another nosedive in the final Sonny Dykes season. Once Wilcox arrives, scores remain pretty stable. Not spectacular, but decent. Of course, the 2019 season was a mix of strong scores when Garbers was healthy and unpleasant scores when he was not. If the team can complement its excellent defense with a healthy-Garbers-in-2019 level of production, the Bears soon ought to be able to reach heights not seen since the peak of the Tedford years. Before we get to that high point, however, let’s look back at the five best games of the 2010s.

#5. 9.04.2010: Cal opens the 2010 season with a 52-3 win over UC Davis

Although this was the first game of the 2010s and thus the game that took place longest ago (I know you read W4C for that kind of profound insight), the start of the 2010 season feels like it was much, much, much longer than ten years ago. The Bears were coming off their 8th consecutive winning season (!!!) and Jeff Tedford was on the cusp of becoming the all-time leader in wins among Cal head coaches. In 2010 Cal began a long, multi-year descent into the Pac-10’s basement with only brief flashes of success later in the decade. But 2010 certainly started off well.

The entire afternoon was a delightful romp in the sunshine. Kevin Riley threw touchdown passes to Shane Vereen, Marvin Jones, and a freshman named Keenan Allen, while Vereen and Allen added a few more scores on the ground. Clancy Pendergast had a fantastic debut as defensive coordinator as his defense held the Aggies to 96 total yards. Even Jeff Genyk’s special teams had a strong performance in his first game as special teams coordinator, as Bryan Anger boomed a few punts and Jeremy Ross had some strong punt returns. Alas, cracks began to show a couple games later thanks to a slippery quarterback named Colin Kaepernick. Later on in the season, Kevin Riley’s career-ending injury against Oregon State stifled the Cal offense and led to the first losing season in the Tedford era. But hey, 2010 started out well!

#4. 11.10.2018: Cal snaps a 14-year losing streak by defeating USC 15-14

14 years. 14 miserable years of losses. 14 years of that band playing the same song over and over and over and over. And it all came to an end on a delightful night in Los Angeles. And that’s not even enough to make it into the top-three?

The defense had a phenomenal day but an okay outing from the offense dragged down the overall scores, as we saw so many times in the 2018 season. While the product on the field was a bit uneven, this game had all the intangibles you could hope for: Vic Wharton’s revenge against a mouthy DB, Iman Marshall’s boneheaded penalty to turn a Cal 4th down into a 1st down with 4 minutes remaining, Justin Wilcox’s double fist pump, and so. Many. Sad. USC. Fans. It may have been a vintage 2018 rockfight, but it was the most gratifying rockfight we’ve seen.

#3. 11.23.2019: Cal regains the Axe for the first time in 9 years by defeating LSJU 24-20

The ‘00s were a pretty good decade for our rivalry as the Bears won 7 of the decade’s 10 games. But the ‘10s were grim. After losing every single game in the decade, the 2019 Bears were our final hope of avoiding a complete shutout. And they delivered.

Strong scores all around (except for special teams), bolstered by a resurgent Cal offense that was anchored by a finally-healthy Chase Garbers. His go-ahead TD in the waning minutes and Goode’s tackle on 4th down helped erase a decade of misery. And after the 2019 season, it’s pretty clear that both schools are on opposite trajectories. It’s nice to be back on top again.

#2. 10.20.2018: Cal defeats Oregon St. 49-7 in the most lopsided road win of the decade

This might be the least memorable game on this list. I distinctly remember the 2010 UC Davis game, another not-quite-as-memorable-game from this list, for being a season opener and a phenomenal debut for Keenan Allen. But this trip to Corvallis? Not so much.

This was a pivotal game in the 2018 season, however. The Bears were coming off a three-game losing streak, featuring the ridiculous loss to Arizona and the embarrassing blowout loss to a then-winless UCLA team. The Bears desperately needed to right the ship and they did with an exceptionally well rounded performance against the Beavs. This remains Cal’s best offensive performance of the Wilcox era in several categories: points (49), yards (539), yards per play (7.81), and rushing yards (305). And just in time, as this was arguably the turning point in the season. After this, Cal went home to beat Washington, snapped the USC losing streak two weeks later, and followed that up with a win over Colorado to guarantee the Bears’ third winning season of the decade.

So far we have looked at four games separated by a difference of only 1.5. Our top game of the decade is a whopping 5.03 ahead of #2. That’s a huge margin. Our final game of the decade had essentially no competition for that #1 spot. The UC Davis and Oregon State games represent exceptional performances on both sides of the ball, and the USC and LSJU wins were extremely gratifying and cathartic wins. But the #1 game was both an incredibly well rounded performance and exceptionally gratifying.

#1. 10.13.2017, Bowers flips out as Cal forces 7 turnovers and destroys #8 Washington State 37-3

As ash dimmed the sky and the AQI reached the 160s in the afternoon before the game, many thought the game should be postponed or cancelled. About three hours after kickoff, only the Wazzu faithful remained convinced that the game should have been cancelled.

Coming off consecutive wins over USC and Oregon, the Cougs were already in contention for a Pac-12 title. Meanwhile the Bears’ 0-3 start in conference play erased all the joy from an unexpected 3-0 start. Yet the Bears delivered one of the most spectacular beatdowns in Cal football history, especially given the quality of the opponent. 5 interceptions from a senior QB with over 10,000 career yards. 2 more Coug turnovers. A gutsy call to go for a TD with 3 seconds left in the first half. ROSS BOWERS! While we all recognized that the team couldn’t put in that kind of performance every week, it gave us a tantalizing taste of what Cal football could look like at its best under Justin Wilcox. And after watching the offense finally come together at the close of the 2019 season, I think we may see a few more games like this in the 2020s…

There you go—the pinnacle of Cal football in the 2010s. Our five best games according to our post-game ratings. Did we miss anything? Do the Davis and OSU games deserve their spots here? Take some time to ruminate on these fantastic wins, because things are going to get grim in the next article in this series. Up next, the five worst losses of the decade.