What came first? Oregon State’s incompetent defensive line or Cal football’s impressive offensive line? Patrick Laird’s explosion into a true featured running back or a Beavers team that just can’t travel on the road? A resurgent effort from the Bears’ defense or a flustered Oregon State quarterback forced into action by injury?
Cal is in crunch time to prove that its win against Oregon State is the real deal as they head into the final stretch of their season needing a road win to become bowl-eligible. Justin Wilcox has been undoubtedly impressive thus far, but this is his biggest opportunity to truly show he change the direction of this program.
It’s been a Dr. Jekyl-Mr. Hyde season for the Bears playing in Memorial Stadium and on the road. Emphatic upsets over Ole Miss and Washington State are matched by Cal’s listless efforts against Washington, Oregon and Colorado on the road, and now they embark on a crucial season closing road trip against Stanford and UCLA.
This is not a new issue. Cal has dropped a stunning 13 straight Pac-12 road matches, difficult to do in a conference known for surprising late night results. Almost equally improbable and distressing for Cal fans should be their seven straight losses in the Big Game.
Wilcox has two momentous streaks to contend with, but in possession of a bye week to ready his team for the Cardinal, it’s fair to expect the Bears to seriously compete against a patchy Stanford squad.
This is far from the most dynamic team Stanford has fielded in many years, but they still bring the sort of physicality that will seriously test the Bears. Wilcox and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter have been largely successful in implementing a defensive culture after years of atrophy under Sonny Dykes, but Stanford is still the standard-bearer in that regard when it comes to the Pac-12. If the Cardinal simply out-body the Bears on their way to an eighth straight win, it’ll be an unfortunate road block on what seemed to be a speed rebuilding plan for Wilcox.
The Bears will have a second chance against the Bruins and head coach Jim Mora, who has inexplicably been allowed to guide UCLA through three straight disappointing seasons. Last year, the Bears beat up on a dejected Bruins crew in Memorial Stadium, but nothing is a given with Cal now playing the visitor and UCLA still clawing for bowl eligibility.
No one can doubt the huge strides the Bears have made on defense this year, but in every road game since the week one victory over UNC, at least one phase of the defense has collapsed on the road. Against Oregon and Washington, the front seven was gashed on the way to comical rushing totals from the opponents. Against Colorado, a replacement level quarterback picked apart a secondary that looked like they had never even been in the same room as the team that picked up the win over Washington State. Now coming up against UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, Wilcox can’t allow a weak link to break the chain.
Statement wins have been tough to come by in recent years. No doubt the 37-3 stomping of then No. 8 Washington State counts, but the well dries up quickly after that. Even during the relative halcyon days of Jared Goff’s tenure, crucial road games were still mostly debacles.
Riding high into a road matchup with Utah and holding a top-25 ranking, the 2015 Bears suffered a humiliating 30-24 loss because of five interceptions from the future No. 1 overall draft pick. If Wilcox can rid the team of the bad juju that led to games like that, Cal would do well to up his buyout and ensure he stays for the long term.