Cal football never quit. They got better.
After two months of struggles, the California Golden Bears put it all together in dismantling the UCLA Bruins.
The California Golden Bears stood at 3-6 at the start of November.
They had just been mollywhopped by national title contenders Oregon. They had suffered one of the most brutal losses in the history of their rivalry to USC, and had the one that got away against Auburn. They were relatively not close to competing against Oregon State, Utah, and Washington. And their one conference win against Arizona State was gutted out in the most uninspiring way possible.
All signs indicated another season that would come up just short. It would be another wasted, lost year.
The players had other ideas. They wanted to keep playing.
So they got better.
And after a historic win in their final game against UCLA for awhile, they’ll play on.
This is for the Bears who made it all happen.
After losing his first four starts against a gauntlet of schedule, the earnest Fernando Mendoza called his shot weeks ago with one of the coldest lines in Cal football history.
“Burn the boats. Burn the trees. Burn the city [of LA].”
This level of confidence from Cal’s redshirt freshman quarterback, thrown into the fire midseason, was what the Bears needed, and it wasn’t just talk. Backs up against the wall, Mendoza delivered three wins.
Mendoza is far from a finished product. His two interceptions that nearly dragged UCLA back into it on Saturday were rookie mistakes. And he could not finish many of his drives—the two Cal offensive touchdowns were turnover assisted.
But when called upon, Mendoza delivered some signature throws. Jeremiah Hunter collected most of them, as Hunter maintained his long legacy of torturing the LA schools. Mendoza placed two touchdowns in a place perfectly for Hunter to give Cal the breathing room they needed.
If Mendoza keeps on this upward trajectory, he has a chance to become one of the truly special faces of Golden Bear football. He backs his talk with action. And he always is eager to respond to failure.
Mendoza was the sunshine this Cal fanbase needed. Here’s hoping 2024 allows it to fully burn more than just boats, trees and cities.
Jaydn Ott is fast approaching legend status in Berkeley.
Ott nearly beat USC by himself by marching past that beleaguered defense. With the entire running back room injured after Oregon, he carried the load through this three game win streak. He created a clutch touchdown drive solely comprised of handoffs to him. He authored a signature Big Game performance by carrying the rock 36 times in Palo Alto.
And with UCLA threatening to capture momentum with their lone lead of the game and the Bruins bottling up his run attack, Ott took the field for his only kick return of the season and housed it. The Bears never looked back.
It’s safe to say Cal would not be going bowling without Ott. Priority A, B, and C this offseason for the Bears has to be keeping him here. Everyone will come poaching, looking for that breakaway talent that can put them over the top.
But after a year-and-a-half plus of uncertainty, it seems clear from his words and actions that he wants to be the guy here. If the support his provided, he should be back. It’s on the coaches to ensure the infrastructure is in place for that next upstep, and the fans to keep donating to NIL to ensure that the foundation can be laid.
Everyone in Bear Territory already knows about what Ott is all about. He’s one Cal breakout campaign in the ACC from letting the whole world know what he’s about.
There are too many names and faces to talk about on a Cal offense that authored an impressive one season turnaround.
Cal senior center Matthew Cindric went down early, in what seemed like a devastating blow to an offensive line that could not afford losses. In stepped Brian Driscoll, making the switch from guard to Fitzmagic center, and the Bears offense had its best year in the Justin Wilcox era by miles.
TJ Session and Sioape Vatikani had very difficult first years at Cal. They made vast improvements this season and turned an unwatchable offense into a functional one. Bastian Swinney also continues to look like the next one up and will vie to outright start this season. This entire offensive line mash unit kept Mendoza upright most of the year (only 18 sacks allowed!) and provided enough holes for Ott and company to explode out of.
Walk-on Jack Endries thrived once Mendoza hit the field, and should be the de facto TE1 come the fall. Trond Grizzell exploded for the best Big Game performance since Geoff McArthur.
Nearly every transfer Cal picked from the portal on offense delivered at some point. Sam Jackson V led the Idaho comeback. Ben Finley was huge in relief in North Texas. Isaiah Ifanse had the critical Idaho game. Barrett Miller was a perfectly capable left tackle and Matthew Wykoff was needed at guard. Taj Davis was ever capable in the WR2 spot for a solid performance when needed. Justin Williams-Thomas churned out the clock in Pasadena.
It was a group effort. The Bears had their star and their quarterback, but a top-40 offense doesn’t happen without everyone chipping in, buying in, and committing to getting better everyday.
After putting 40 points on the board multiple times and not getting wins, the offense finally paid off their improvements these final months.
In aggregate, this was not a good year for the Cal defense and special teams There were too many games were they were caught flat-footed, turning competitive games into blowouts.
Something is not quite right there. Tinkering is needed.
But at least these last two weeks against our two major rivals, something started clicking.
Kaleb Elarms-Orr has been the breakout star, plugging gaps and holes as the gauntlet of Pac-12 offenses began rolling through an overmatched Cal defense. Elarms-Orr had a mostly unglamorous job of cleaning up the mess, grabbing some fumbles along the way. Easily Cal’s defensive player of the year.
True freshman Cade Uluave was pressed into action early after the injury to Jackson Sirmon, and in these last few games it’s clear the Bears have found themselves a player. After having the game of his life against Washington State, Uluave was everywhere against UCLA, sacking Dante Moore and picking him off.
The missing piece appeared to be David Reese, who went from nice rotation player to absolute menace during the last three games. Reese piled up 6.5 sacks in Cal’s three game winning streak and his presence had to be accounted for.
Xavier Carlton battled through injuries to finish out the season with an outstanding UCLA performance, breaking up passes, putting Moore on the ground once.
What the Bears couldn’t do on the aggregate, the made up for with big plays. Every key Cal defender seemed to have their moment in these three games. Patrick McMorris broke up Moore’s first pass for Craig Woodson to intercept. Nohl Williams had his huge fumble recovery that was the difference against Wazzu. Lu-Magia Hearns III broke up three Ashton Daniels passes in the Big Game. BRETT JOHNSON punctuated his Cal career with a fumble recovery to set up a quick Bears score. Hunter Barth punched out a kick return fumble to put the Cal win on ice.
But even the defense wasn’t the best unit on the field. Cal’s much maligned special teams unit was the one to put this away.
We’ve already mentioned Ott. After only being entrusted to kick four field goals in eight games, Mateen Bhagani nailed four field goals in Pasadena, including a 43-yarder to start the scoring. Lachlan Wilson boomed punts that placed UCLA at their 19, 12, and 5. The Bears then forced turnovers on all three possessions.
Even Michael Luckhurst got his redemption moment, recovering that last UCLA turnover to set up that final Cal touchdown.
With the offense not at its best in Pasadena, the defense and special teams came through, and made sure they slammed the door shut on UCLA to get Cal back to a bowl game.
We all have our opinions of Justin Wilcox.
For now, I will say this. This team never quits on him.
When Cal was rebuilding from scratch in 2017, they fought to the wire with far superior Stanford and UCLA teams and nearly managed bowl eligibility.
When Cal’s offense fell into the abyss in 2018, the defense ground out seven wins and upset the Pac-12 champs.
When Cal couldn’t seem to score more than four times a game in 2019, the Bears hugged out four one-score wins and got the Axe back.
When Cal went 1-5 in 2021, they battled back to the verge of bowl eligibility, beating up Stanford and USC along the way.
And now, this year. Somehow, after that horrendous October, facing a host of Pac-12 title contenders, it’s a bowl team.
The Bears under Wilcox always compete, they always play hard, and they put themselves in a place where they have a chance to win. If the other team isn’t fully there (like UCLA tonight), they will have a chance to pounce.
Is that enough for Wilcox to be proven as Cal’s coach for the long haul? Not at all. But the Bears will keep playing and producing under him game to game. They do not lose the plot. Which makes them worth watching, even as disappointment comes. The chance for something good happening isn’t remote either. There are worse places to be.
So this last month is why Cal fans hope. It’s why we keep watching.
Because we have these players.
Our amazing, frustrating, hardworking, beloved California Golden Bears.