Turning Point: Shades of the Takers vs. Sacramento State Football
The little (two-headed) engine that should
“This team goes how we go!”
In 2018, Cal football picked off opposing teams 21 times, the second most in all of the land. The maestro of a secondary featuring Ashtyn Davis, Jaylinn Hawkins, Cam Bynum, Traveon Beck and Elijah Hicks was none other than Gerald Alexander — one of the best in the business — and now the defensive backs coach for the Miami Dolphins.
Without a doubt, the DBs were the engine of the 2018 Cal defense, one that the blue and gold faithful had longed for. After a solid if not spectacular follow-up campaign in 2019, changes were pretty inevitable — GA got a well-deserved promotion to the next level, and in 2020, Tim DeRuyter departed for greener pastures at the University of Oregon, replaced by Peter Sirmon as the primary defensive coordinator.
On Saturday afternoon against a scrappy Sacramento State offense, it was clear that the secondary has taken a significant step back from where it was just 2-3 years ago. Gone are the likes of Davis, Hawkins and Bynum, all deserving of mid-round NFL draft selections. Beck, who didn’t surrender a single TD in coverage at Cal, deserves a shot at a professional roster.
In are a handful of developing players who haven’t pieced together a collectively solid performance this season so far. A combination of sixth-year nickelback Josh Drayden and Chigozie Anusiem — a pair of GA disciples — along with sophomore Collin Gamble and freshman Lu-Magia Hearns has emerged from the pack as the primary DB rotation under new position coach Tre Watson.
At the next level, the remaining remnants of the Alexander-led group are Hicks, a cornerback-turned-safety, and Daniel Scott — one of the more unheralded players on the roster. A natural safety, Scott has quietly been a key contributor for the past three seasons, filling in a role vacated by Hawkins and Davis at a superb level.
Both myself and Trace Travers of Cal Rivals had the privilege of joining the California Golden Bearcast podcast season preview, and found ourselves on the same wavelength, projecting Scott to lead the defense in interceptions this fall.
Lead Up: Through three contests, Scott has made good on that prediction — after nearly picking off Nevada’s Carson Strong in the fourth quarter of the season-opener, Scott waltzed into the endzone for his first career pick-six against TCU. He later would find his hands on the ball on the Frogs’ two-point conversion try in the second half.
And on Saturday, with several of the younger DBs struggling against the Hornets’ variety of looks, Scott stepped up yet again.
The defensive metrics won’t look great at all — the Bears surrendered nearly 500 yards of offense, notably 408 through the air. The Hornets converted on 9 of 18 third downs, with several conversions coming on defensive pass interference calls.
Here’s the kicker: Sacramento State had five possessions in the second half. It scored on four. And on the one time that the green and white didn’t score, it took this to keep the Hornets off the scoreboard.
If it’s possible to have an uncomfortable two-touchdown lead in football, this is a good case study: the Bears led 35-20 as the third quarter wound down. With Jake Dunniway having his way, and change-of-pace QB Asher O’Hara keeping the defense honest, it appeared as if the Hornets might get within one score entering the fourth.
On an eerily similar play that saw Miles Williams earn his first career interception against Nevada two weeks ago, Scott drifted over after receiver Pierre Williams earned a step against Hearns, originally on an island with the Hornets’ top receiver.
With a tad too much air under the ball, all Scott had to do was play center field:
Five straight runs and 80 yards later, the game was effectively over, as Garbers found his way into the endzone to cap off the sixth score for the offense. The end line is indisputably not ideal — Sacramento State put up a 30-spot on a defense and a secondary that prides itself on being the engine of the team. But for at least a moment, an experienced safety had the back of an inexperienced corner, turning the game in Cal’s favor and ensuring that the game would remain just out of reach.
Moving forward, the onus is on Hicks and Scott to be the heartbeat of the secondary.
Honorable Mention: Through two games, the Bears didn’t close out the first half and begin the second half very efficiently. Against the Hornets, they did — Jeremiah Hunter’s first career score on a beautiful throw from Garbers assured Cal a two-touchdown lead at the half. Taking into account the Hornets’ two makeable kicks that kicker Kyle Sentkowski missed, and we should have been talking about a much closer game heading into the break.
It was only a matter of time before Nikko Remigio would rattle off a signature explosive play on special teams. The Bears’ previous special teams return for a touchdown came on Sept. 15, 2018, an 89-yard return by Davis. Nearly three years to the date of Davis’ kickoff score, and 10 months after Remigio had two returns called back because of penalties against Oregon State, Nikko made things happen — a 99-yard return that gave Cal a healthy advantage.
It’s been a rough couple of seasons for Cal special teams. But it’s worth acknowledging that all six extra point attempts were executed without a hitch, on top of the team’s most successful return in three seasons. It may not be much, especially considering the opponent, but in the context of a two-score game, the Bears won the special teams advantage for the first time in a while.