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Cal football under Justin Wilcox fails to meet the moment again against Auburn
The California Golden Bears have very few chances to win over a fanbase every year, and unfortunately came up short again.
Cal fans, a disclaimer. There’s a long season ahead. Making judgments on how this season will go based on this one game is very tough for me to do.
That being said, we’ve been here before.
In the Justin Wilcox era, Cal, yet again, has a great shot in front of a lot of their fans to show that things have changed, they’ve turned a corner, and are ready to take that next step.
And they haven’t.
So it’s hard not to be immensely disappointed after that, especially given we’ve seen this show before.
Looking ahead at who lies ahead on Cal’s schedule, it’s hard to be encouraged that the answers are coming in time for a turnaround.
Let’s take a look back before we look at last night at similar moments in the past half-decade to show Cal fans they’ve arrived.
2018: Cal vs. Oregon. Cal is 3-0 with some hopes that they’ve made a mini-leap, grabbing a major Pac-12 After Dark slot to show what they’re made of. The Ducks run up 35 on Cal early in Berkeley in the 3rd quarter as Puddles does hundreds of pushups, and they don’t look back as Cal stumbles back to .500.
2019: Cal vs. Arizona State. Cal is 4-0 coming into a Friday night game with Arizona State. This one is tough to evaluate because of the Chase Garbers injury. But the Bears cannot recover and it sends them on a tailspin back to .500. More bad luck than bad performance, but we end up in the same place.
2021: Cal vs. Nevada. With many Cal fans returning home after COVID, this is a great opportunity to put the Bears on the right foot. Instead Cal blows a 14-0 lead and manages three points the rest of the way, as the Bears stumble their way to 1-5 and blow all momentum the program had going before the pandemic.
2022: Cal vs. Notre Dame. This is a major chance for Cal to land a marquee win in front of their national travelling alumni base on national TV to show that they can potentially turn the corner. They get jobbed by a few bad calls and then lose three times in the final minute against the Irish.
And yesterday. Oh, yesterday.
Auburn was the latest example of a team that had one element clicking (defense), another one occasionally making things happen but (offense) and another unit needing immediate therapy (special teams).
For Cal fans who weren’t lucky enough to experience the Cheez-it Bowl, this will never meet the art of that game, but the outcome was essentially the same, only with missed field goals rather than interceptions.
Cheez-it Bowl: Cal had 8 trips into TCU territory and produced 7 points
Auburn: Cal had 8 trips into Auburn territory and produced 10 points
That lack of finishing effort will overcome anything.
Auburn turning the ball over four times and putting up a grand six first downs in the first three quarters didn’t even matter. The Auburn offense did not drive the football on their own without turnover help past the Cal 35 until their final TD drive with 9 minutes left. Didn’t matter.
This game got us Jaydn Ott hurt for who knows how long. It produced two quarterbacking performances from Sam Jackson V and Ben Finley that heralded the inglorious times of the McIlwain vs. Garbers 2018 duel. It had an offensive line pushing two yards ahead against a physical Auburn front and getting no further. And it reduced poor Michael Luckhurst to tears after one of the toughest kicking performances I can remember.
For Cal to lose this many pivotal games, with all but one of them at home, is extremely damaging to the psyche of the fanbase. You cannot keep asking people to spend their Saturday nights getting hyped for underwhelming football like this and expect them to ever come back.
Even the fruitless Sonny Dykes era threw us a legendary Texas trip here or a Utah goal-line stand there. What will we remember from the last four years of Cal football other than demolishing two of the worst Stanford teams of our lives?
Has Cal had nice wins recently? Yes, but outside of Stanford, nearly all of the recent ones carried no stakes. (i.e. Upsetting Oregon State in 2021 is nice. Less exciting when you’re 2-5.)
Has Cal had memorable wins recently? The Bears have not had a come-from-behind last minute win since Chase Garbers strutted into Palo Alto in 2019 and got the Axe back. They’re 1-10 in Power 5 one-score games since. (That one-score win came when David Shaw kicked a field goal as time expired in the 2022 Big Game)
Has Cal had clutch wins recently? In situations with a chance to tie or take the lead in the final minutes in its last 10 games, Cal has scored once. (They lost that one too). 0-10.
Cal is 2-19 in these games in the Justin Wilcox era. They've scored 4 times.
These games are hard to win. But four scores in 23 attempts?
Cal fans remember everything. Until they choose to stop remembering it. Because who wants to remember all of that?
Time is running short for Justin Wilcox. A new conference beckons in 2024. Cal donors are putting time and effort into the NIL. Patience is wearing thin.
To win at Cal, you have to floor raise in as many aspects as possible. And sadly having a great defense is just not enough. The offense must execute. The special teams cannot put up below-average games. One of three units succeeding in their role is still a failing grade, whereever you are.
Justin Wilcox is by all accounts a great guy. He commands the respect of his players. He knows his way around Berkeley. He understands the challenges of this situation. After wins or losses, chemistry issues are addressed. The right players are brought in with the right mindset to succeed at Cal.
But it’s year seven. This is offense number three. And unless things change fast, Cal fans are looking at another middling season ahead and tuning out until another Big Game rolls around.
You have to meet the moment. Justin Wilcox is running out of moments.