Play to win

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I’m a fairly conservative sports viewer. I distrust score-first point guards, think that Yasiel Puig is making himself look like a clown when he bat flips after a base hit, and still maintain that Kevin Durant choosing to join the Warriors was a travesty and his ring “doesn’t count” (I don’t even know what that really means). But there’s one level of sports conservatism I will never stoop to. Football isn’t played in order to tie, it’s played in order to win, and anyone criticizing Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox’s decision to go for a two-point conversion against Arizona instead of tying it up in double overtime with an extra point is forgetting why the teams are there in the first place.

“I felt like it was the best chance for us to win the game,” Wilcox said after the game. “We had been doing good things offensively most of the night. … That was our best chance to win.”

The decision to go for the win when you control your own fate doesn’t require game specific explanations, but if you want them you can have them. Khalil Tate is unstoppable in any sort of short field-scenario, and heading into the third overtime where teams are required to go for two-point conversions, Wilcox likely knew his tiring defense was at a disadvantage.

Wilcox has shown a consistent trust in his players, whether that means going for aggressive fourth downs and two-point conversions, or simply sticking with players through some struggles and not overreacting to in-game mistakes. Case in point, quarterback Ross Bowers made a few horrid decisions in the first half, but Wilcox and offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin didn’t make their play calling any less aggressive in the second half, and Bowers rewarded them with some of his best play of the season. Without that kind of trust, the Bears wouldn’t have been in the position to pull of another highlight win over the Wildcats.

If Wilcox didn’t have this kind of trust in his defense, he and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter would have overreacted to Tate’s massive first half performance and made dramatic scheme adjustments in the second half. Instead, like in every week, his players upped their performance after halftime and looked like a different team, without Wilcox really having to do a thing.

A lesser, more conservative coach wouldn’t have had the Bears in overtime after it looked like Memorial Stadium would just be another stop on Tate’s tour of dominance. So after the Vic Enwere touchdown in double overtime when Cal lined up for the two point attempt instead of going for an extra point that would have tied up the game at 45, I wasn’t one bit surprised.

When Wilcox called a timeout and made it seem like it was a bluff, I was shocked. When they lined up again, I almost had to laugh at the audaciousness. Doubling down on putting the fate of the game in your own hands is the kind of move I can always get behind.

The emotional response of the team seems well calculated as well. There’s no question that the defense knows Wilcox has their back, so going for the two-point won’t come off as a vote of no-confidence in the defense as it may have been for an offensively minded coach. It seems the only cost may have been a small part of Bowers’ confidence after the quarterback gave a dejected press conference immediately following the play. But even he showed faith in the process of the call.

I have my issues with the playcall, I suppose. Going with five-wideouts and not forcing the defense to account for the run seems a bit unorthodox, but Bowers had been playing great with that personnel group all night, so I won’t go too far in second guessing.

Wilcox and Bowers were understandably not at their most eloquent moments after the game, but both were fiercely unapologetic for the decision, and that’s the way it should be. Wilcox has done an excellent job in rebuilding Cal football’s culture this season, and regardless of the result, this was another step on that path.

Andrew Wild is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.