The Novel: Cal vs USC Football (2021)
Among the many coping mechanisms for misery that covering the last ten years of Cal football has forced me to develop — alcohol; so much alcohol — there's also been this: the realization that you almost never get to choose the story you get to write, but you do get the choice of how to write it.
That Cal’s first win over USC at home in 17 years happened in front of a partly full stadium, a week after the regular season has already ended, for no postseason implications whatsoever, is not the one I, or any of us would choose. This type of night should have been worth gleefully taunting the Trojan fans in our lives about, conveniently ignoring any reminders we lost 16 of the previous 19 matchups; that it finally came in these conditions does, admittedly, take a bit of the shine off. The half-hearted field storming, in which the crowd and remaining students carefully filed their way onto the field minutes after the final whistle, felt the same: like we wanted the moment to be more than what it was, now that it was finally here again in Berkeley.
But that does not mean Saturday was meaningless, either — it would be dishonest to treat it as such.
It meant plenty to the seniors, many of whom chose to return for an extra season after COVID, and by beating Stanford and USC this year, they’ve accomplished something that has only occurred four times in the half century or so (1970, 1975, 2003, 2021). That’s not nothing. Even if they will be without bowl gifts, history is a nice consolation prize.
It certainly meant enough for the much-less-than-reported crowd of 42,076 who braved the insane kickoff hour of 8PM(!), knowing that they had only one more Saturday to share with their fall family this year, only one more chance to cheer for the players they so love.
This game can’t really be seen the same way as some of the previous wins, even though it doesn’t impact a bowl chase already long over — beating USC, in any condition, month, or circumstance, has to always be important; it’s been so historically infrequent that entire generations of students have walked the campus not knowing what it feels like being able to claim superiority over their southern rivals.
And that, is how I will choose to remember the story of this game:
Knowing that it was too rare to take for granted.
Trying to make it last.
Savoring that it existed at all, no matter how much more perfect I think it could be.
Making my way to the 50 anyway, not knowing when I will get to meet the shooting star a second time.
A palpable dread surrounds about the future of this Cal-USC matchup, now that Lincoln Riley has arrived. There are no sure things in hiring coaches, but the process has been as close to perfect as you could want for them: a proven recruiter with the cachet to energize their fan base, to say nothing of how he will immediately stop the bleeding of SoCal talent committing elsewhere (because he was one of its principle causes!). What an absolute coup it was for the Trojans, and I do not have enough words to tell you how much I absolutely hate acknowledging that.
Cal entered this game a slight favorite, which might be the last time for awhile, not entirely unlike their two score lead at half-time — the first of its kind since… 2003.
Because the Bears are a week late in ending their season, we probably won’t have a good idea on what next year’s team looks like — or what expectations to have of that team — for a little while longer. The main questions for me: two new safeties, assuming Scott is gone; who plays quarterback; and if there will be any changes made on the coaching staff. The portal also looks to be active too — it definitely will be on the incoming side, as the Bears look to fill needs left by slow recruiting momentum, and correct some general roster balance. Another quarterback to compete with Kai and Zach Johnson seems like a must, at minimum.
By now, though, bowl should be the minimum, and it’s hard to think that we’ll end up projecting (expecting?) any less at minimum for 2022.
A rough projection, at least for the moment(*— I am assuming no players with extra eligibility take it, which is easiest, so we all can be pleasantly surprised by returners):
QB: Kai Millner
RB: Chris Street, Damien Moore
WR: Jeremiah Hunter, Mavin Anderson, J. Michael Sturdivant (and then whoever breaks out of Justin Baker, Mason Mangum, Monroe Young, Tommy Christakos, and Aiden Lee; Jaiven Plummer if he’s ready)
OL: Will Craig, Ben Coleman, Matt Cindric, McKade Mettauer, new RT
TE: Keleki Latu, Jermaine Terry
DE: Ethan Saunders/Jaedon Roberts (Derek Wilkins, Akili Calhoun, Damonic Williams, plus freshmen depending on availability)
OLB: Orin Patu?,
ILB: Mo Iosefa, Nate Rutchena
ILB: Trey Paster, Moses Oladejo
OLB: Braxten Croteau?
CB: Collin Gamble, Isaiah Young, Lu Hearns
S: Craig Woodson, Ray Woodie, Myles Williams
Defensively, there’s some more flexibility; some names aren’t listed because they could still easily move around due to not playing this year yet, but the shell at ILB and CB seems pretty clear. There’s some real talent waiting to be maximized, and they won’t even all be at their best for another year after that. If there’s a Next Good Cal Team, I would expect 2023 to be that window.
This game — despite the late hour, a quickly paced one, played by at least one team that didn’t really want to be there — basically turned on a few places where USC didn’t execute, and Cal did:
An opening missed field goal by the Trojans from 51
A fumble returned for a touchdown in which Josh Drayden bravely took on an arcing tight end while holding his gap, so Elijah Hicks could get a clean shot on Darwin Barlow in the gap he is responsible for, and in turn, Trey Paster could scoop and score.
Another missed field goal by the Trojans from 43
A 4th down quick snap to Erik Krommenhoek that Femi Oladejo was alert enough to jump all over.
A forced fumble on Miller Moss, when the Trojans were driving and inside the red zone.
That was enough to account for the 10 point margin, on a night when USC outgained Cal by 144 total yards across 27 more plays as the Bears didn’t particularly play well themselves — on offense, they limped their way to barely 5.1 YPP, and finished 3 out of 10 on third downs — but they’ll gladly take it, the way they have for many of Justin Wilcox’s victories in his time here. Ugly, but just enough to get it done.
Chase Garbers’ numbers were solid on paper — 18 of 21 for 177 yards — and he generally found success against USC’s blitz-happy gameplan (16 of 21 pass attempts were blitzed, in which he went 14 of 16 for 103 yards), but still left something to be desired. Part of this, as we saw earlier in the year, was the inability to hit deeper down the field at 10-19 OR the 20+ ranges, which accounted for only 3 attempts on the evening.
Similar to Garbers -- and whether by injuries to London, Ingram, and otherwise; they brought only 65 players, as per the LA Times — both of Miller Moss and Jaxson Dart also had trouble pushing the ball down the field, with the Trojans mostly opting to throw wide receiver screens, or operate out of stack formations if they were throwing at all. Lu Hearns had a field day, breaking up two passes thrown his way, and the true freshman turned in a leaping, fall-away one handed interception that some receivers would not be able to make — suggesting he might even exceed the Takers no longer feels quite so farfetched.
This was a week where even though the Bears ran (they had more rushes than pass attempts in every quarter) they did also visibly struggle with the USC athletes and size — and that was with Drake Jackson not playing. Marcel Dancy made many of his carries happen simply through individual effort, while Chris Brooks chugged along to two more short yardage touchdowns. No Damien Moore or Chris Street on this evening, as both are set for more playing time next year.
Nikko Remigio, who walked on Saturday, turned in another hungry performance to end the season: the last three weeks have involved him performing special teams brilliance, and another touch that turned nothing into something on a 3rd and 17. He finally looks a little bit healthy, and his seniors around him also chipped in: Trevon Clark with 54 yards, Kekoa Crawford with 22, then Collin Moore and Jake Tonges combining for 53 between the two of them. No underclassmen saw the ball, for what it’s worth. It was a senior game, for sure.
Cal’s three most important defensive players this year have been Daniel Scott, Elijah Hicks, and Marqez Bimage — fittingly, each were showed up huge in their final games, with the safeties each forcing a turnover, and Bimage four hurries and a stop. At one point, Bimage ate a blocker and made the stop himself, showing some of the strength and violence he’s brought all year to the position.
Another note of appreciation for the seniors, who played through conditions none of them could have predicted or wanted over the last two years — they have shown tremendous perseverance despite it all, and represented the program wonderfully off the field in all that time also, whether that’s been Mike Saffell’s reading program, Drayden and Daltoso with We Are United, Marcel Dancy raising money for local elementary schools, or Elijah Hicks’ work with Intercept Poverty.
I’ve long been of the belief that whatever happens on the field, that it’s just as important that our student athletes carry on the mission of the university to make positive change in the world, because that is something that makes Berkeley, Berkeley. And I think this senior class has been really special in that regard. (It feels especially meaningful for the program to add Bryce Turner to the graduation graphic, as well, which is an amazing touch.)
The story of this season is over. The story of their lives they’ll continue to impact is just beginning.
As some of you may know already, this will be my last Novel and the end of my time covering the team, wrapping up what has been a decade’s worth of practice reports, recruit analysis, postgame…thought dumps, and inane tweets. (Okay, maybe not the inane tweets. Those will continue.)
Thinking about all that has transpired frequently overwhelms me, because one day, I showed up at the open practices, and never left — and throughout that time, you watched me grow into all of this, and have continued to all be exceptionally kind in reading, supporting, and spotting me out in suboptimal places like the floor of men’s room at Husky Stadium.
It has been one of the greatest joys of my life to share my thoughts on the program I love, winning or losing (and we lost a lot), for people who love it even more than me, let alone have so many of them become my family. I owe so much to Twist, Avi, Marc Tausend, Rob Hwang, and Trace Travers; and that is to leave out so many other people that have been a part of this space, characters in this story of Cal football I got to help tell.
To each, all, and you, I am eternally grateful.
Rob has been pondering in which scenarios I could be persuaded to return — “what if we're 10-0? How about the Pac-12 Championship Game? *Surely* you'll write something for the Rose Bowl,” he said at the retirement “birthday” tailgate yesterday — but for the foreseeable future, I plan on enjoying the luxury of silence; not needing to feel like I have to have an opinion on anything, not pressuring myself to calibrate “what it all means” with appropriate nuance. Ten years has a long enough time for me to be a part of this story. That baton is ready to belong to someone else.
And for anyone who has enjoyed my work in general — I know my writing about sports doesn’t entitle me to your interest in anything else — do know that I am not retiring from writing as a whole; I am simply beginning to tend to other gardens my prose has ignored for too long, so that the next Novel you read from me will be a real one.
Whether or not you will be joining me for any of that, thank you for the ones you did read, for as long as you have been doing it.
Go Bears, forever.
Thanks for all the time you've devoted to covering the team over the years, Nam. I've especially enjoyed The Novel series because you have such an eloquent way of capturing the ethos of a Cal fan: undying optimism amid a flood of disappointment and mediocrity (with occasional sprinkles of delight). This isn't the season any of us hoped for, but I'm glad you got to end it with a season in which the Bears reclaimed the Axe and beat USC again (side note: how wild is it that after a fourteen year losing streak to USC we've now won two of the last three against them?).
Although your time writing about Cal has come to an end, I'm glad you'll continue writing. You're an excellent writer and new audiences will be fortunate to hear your voice.
eloquent as ever, going to miss you on this front. Maybe as a door closes for you, one may open fr me writing here and I could hopefully articulate maybe 10% of the fandom you illustrated over the years.