Win lifts weight off Cal football’s shoulders

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As the clock showed zero and the Ryan Field scoreboard confirmed that no, this is not an optical illusion, it really was the first Cal football win in nearly a year, the players bounded ferociously toward the small Cal fan section in the northwest corner. Once there, they jumped, hooted, pointed, hollered, and pounded their chests in pride, and promptly made their way to the locker room, greeting a cadre of Bears’ fans on the other side.

The pure, uncompromised joy carried over to the postgame press conferences, where quarterback Jared Goff approached the stand with a look that could only be interpreted as “thank God.” Linebacker Jalen Jefferson’s face wore a similar countenance. This expression spread like a contagion to the parking lot outside the stadium, where players greeted their families and coaches embraced their wives and every single person wearing blue and gold lit up like kids on Christmas.

This is not your boilerplate postgame reaction. This is not how UCLA’s players and coaches reacted in Charlottesville, where the Bruins squeezed out a victory over Virginia. Nor is it how Oregon is reacting outside of Autzen, after dispatching South Dakota State. No, this was a unique type of elation — one of incredible relief.

Saturday’s victory over Northwestern marked the first time in Dykes’s tenure at Cal that he, his staff, and his players can truly, deep down, feel good following a game’s conclusion. The press conference of their only prior win, a nailbiter over Portland State, had the tonal feel of that one Larry David GIF, fundamentally unsure of how to reconcile the result of a victory with the process of a patsy.

No such ambiguity marked the Northwestern presser. I could see a visceral weight lift off the shoulders of this team. But that’s just one win, and the Bears have eleven more games to go. Dykes’ goal, undoubtedly, is to make sure the team’s postgame reaction going forward isn’t one of relief, but rather one of expected satisfaction. And as I touched on in my recap, sustained success won’t be Goff completing a 75-yard bomb game after game, but incremental improvements across the units that played atrociously in 2013.

Forgive my broad look at things here — this is the first game of the year, after all, and we’ll have all season to get into the minutiae of the Bears’ interior pass rush. Right now, practically the whole season waits on the horizon, and what better time to try to project what a decent Bears’ team might look like?

And so here is my brief, totally super expert opinion on what needs to continue for Cal to reach the tantalizing heights of a 6-6 finish. Obviously, they’ll need to take care of business in September — their next four games (Sacramento State, at Arizona, Colorado, at Washington State) represent the Bears’ four best shots at wins the rest of the year. That’s it. They won’t be within a touchdown on a Vegas line after that Wazzu game. Get off to a 4-1 start, and everything starts to look a lot rosier (not Rose-ier).

On the tactical side of things, the offensive line and secondary need to sustain the level of basic competency they demonstrated on Saturday. The Bears’ biggest problems last year weren’t a lack of talent or uniform subpar performance, but rather a disastrous performance from those two aforementioned units. If the O-line and defensive backs can even be average, this team’s going to have a chance to hang around in every game they play.

There are serious concerns and a legitimate reason to believe neither unit approaches that level on a game-to-game basis, but such criticism ought to be reserved for the future. Tonight, the future is limitless, the night  bursting with potential. Tonight, Sonny Dykes goes to sleep without a worry in the world.

Michael Rosen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @michaelrosen3.