The Novel: Washington State Football (2021)

In which we won't talk about the game. Unless it's Squid Game, and you should watch that.

Late in the first half of Saturday’s game, Pac-12 Network showed Justin Wilcox limping along – crutchless, but limping – the Cal sideline. The Bears were only down by a score then, just a few hours before they’d end up losing by two, but I found myself in the aftermath drawn to what, quite frankly, might be the best visual metaphor of the program right now.

Just limping along, aimlessly.

The Bears are now 1-4, after being physically manhandled by the Cougar front 7 and otherwise playing them close on defense. It wasn’t enough, though, to hold Wazzu to 4.4 yards per play, because they were never able to turn any of their own chances into points, and another critical series of special teams mistakes – a first in my lifetime this week: a blocked punt that went for a first down -- surely didn’t help.

As Nick and myself both noted, this loss to the conference bottom-feeder has some parallels to the way Oregon State dominating the Bears was for the 2016 team: a silent acknowledgment that from even the most lukewarm, patient sects of the blogosphere, that time has run out on this era. When that decisive action comes – and remember, Sonny Dykes was set to return for 2017 even after all that – depends on the actions of a notoriously slow-moving athletic department and trying to predict the timeline for that body to act competently is a pretty useless endeavor. Regardless of whether that day is this off-season or next, the reality is that, after five years, albeit it with some slightly higher highs and some slightly less low lows, Cal has returned to the same place as they were then under Dykes: knowing the arc of the program has already peaked with the man currently in charge.

It is not hard to imagine the Bears playing out the string with Wilcox in the same way – letting him linger along until they are forced to act, but it certainly feels as though the fanbase at large has already decided to call it quits. There were reports of “fire Wilcox” being chanted through the student section on Saturday, and by the second half, most of them had already left; to say nothing of the fan discourse or empty seats everywhere else. That’s how quickly the goodwill has dissipated: from an overflow in SS for the opener against Nevada, to the dozens of student survivors left standing against Washington State; from a raucous Friday night crowd in 2019, to this.

Would you blame anyone who decided they should enjoy a precious weekend afternoon of California sunshine? This team is not who they expected to see -- all the messaging was about a group that, now no longer so pandemic-ravaged, was meant to and expected to compete this season, and there really isn’t even the glimpse of a Pac-12 challenging squad anywhere to be had. Give them back all the injured or retired starters, and that fact doesn’t change either; not when the people meant to lead them are busy correcting a different error each week.

It’s the right time for a bye, to say the least – if not to rest up, then certainly to take a step back and recharge, for all parties involved.

The bewildering thing is that coming out of it, the Bears still have a chance to make something out of the conference slate. That’s how down the Pac-12 is this season – yet another one of the infinite frustrations: being unable to take advantage of such a thing so far – to the point that a bowl still isn’t mathematically off the table.

Let’s say, in the best-case scenario, that the Bears rally out of the stretch and finish 5-2, or 6-1 to catch a postseason appearance of some kind, as we talked about in this space the last few weeks. If that’s the case, would I reverse course and jump back in the boat? Would most fans? I can’t sit here and say confidently either way -- but finding his way back to a bowl berth would definitely be another annoying thing to account for in interpreting his body of work, which already includes a year we wrote off because of the pandemic, a year we wrote off because Chase Garbers was injured for key stretches, to cap off a two-year period in which Wilcox’s signature unit has definitely started to decline.

In fact, there hasn’t yet been a stretch of games under Wilcox that we couldn’t find some way to write off because X, Y, or Z was missing, whether that was players, prep time, or otherwise. Getting back to a theoretical bowl would bring us back to the start of a very familiar cycle, in which we talk ourselves into all the pieces being aligned under him for contention, as it was in 2020, and again this pre-season.

That would be three consecutive years with the program in a holding pattern, espousing the same mottoes and the same expectations.

But this, and to an extent, last year already was supposed to be the competing team (which, to be fair, I definitely thought it was going to be also), and if 7-5 or 6-6 is what we get at season’s end, there is a ton of departing talent at the end of the year – impossible to project because of the available extra eligibilities – and the team will find itself awkwardly mid-rebuild heading into 2022. Would you bet on that project bearing immediate fruit?  

And with a more mid-range situation, Cal gets still close to a bowl – maybe 4, maybe 5 wins, because there are still some winnable ones ahead, as there were earlier with TCU, Nevada, both Washingtons – to…kick the can down the road again to 2022, hoping for again for a breakthrough in a year that, as we discussed above, may involve breaking in a new QB among other things. (We don’t need to devote any mental energy to discussing the 1-3 win scenarios, which, I hope the athletic department recognizes would have to result in his ouster.)

In either of those above cases, do you see them getting better than they were in 2019? With this staff at the helm?

I can’t answer that question for you.

Fandom is its own Rorschach test, and I don’t fault any of my remaining peers who are still hanging onto belief that a turnaround is happening, because I still desperately want such a thing too, even if I can’t convince myself that it’s in store.

I can, however, note wryly, that the Washington State game at home five years ago was the first glimpse of what Wilcox could bring to Berkeley. And that something feels…poetic, that they might have given the last glimpse, too.