I was overjoyed — nay, I was in exultation after my tweet got 15 likes after Cal’s 24-17 win over UNC. I straightened my shoulders, cocked my head up high and sassy-walked in my heels after my score prediction, 28-17, was only off by a mere four points.
Sure, my guess wasn’t perfect, but neither was Cal’s play.
The Cal players deservingly got to exit California Memorial Stadium with that same pompousness — they were 1-0 after Saturday’s game. It wasn’t a picture-perfect win — there were some bumps and bruises, but even the ugliest of wins are prettier than a loss.
The three biggest takeaways from the Bears’ season opener are as follows: 1) Cal does not have a definitive and trustworthy starting quarterback. 2) Despite having unmatched depth at the running back position, Patrick Laird is going to act like a one-man show. 3) Cal’s defense looked a heck of a lot better than its offense.
Cal’s lack of a leading presence in the passing game is going to affect its offensive scheme. A clear-cut example — the deep ball never felt like a threat when Cal played UNC. The Bears’ leading receiver for the game, Jordan Duncan, finished the afternoon with an uninspiring 34 yards.
When Ross Bowers and Brandon McIlwain did attempt a pass, it likely wasn’t going to be more than 10 yards. Chase Garbers, who has the strongest arm of the three, is the closest thing Cal has to a deep-ball quarterback, still, offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin was quick to have his gunslinger hand the ball off. This takes us to matter No. 2.
Cal’s running back situation is startlingly similar to when Christian McCaffrey was the heart and soul of the Stanford Cardinal’s offense, and the simple reaction to then-Joe Shmoe running back Bryce Love being in was — ‘Where’s McCaffrey?’
The bottom line is, as good as the other running backs have the potential to be — Marcel Dancy, Derrick Clark, Christopher Brown Jr., Alex Netherda — I don’t see any of them making the leap to get to a point where they would actually see significant reps this year.
Two years ago, if someone had proposed the idea of playing Love in favor of McCaffrey for the bulk of Stanford’s snaps, it would have been a preposterous suggestion. Yes, Love is now a front-runner candidate for the Heisman Trophy, but it took McCaffrey leaving the spotlight for Love’s ferocity and craft on the field to truly shine.
The same principle exists at Cal. The coaching staff and the offense simply can’t afford to not put the ball in Laird’s hands.
Matter No. 3 — Cal’s defense. Boy is having a real defense in Berkeley quite the breath of fresh air. From Gerald Alexander’s defensive backs to Peter Sirmon’s inside linebackers, Cal went to work on the Tar Heels’ floundering offense.
As good as the defense looked, though, it now has a huge hole to replace. And quite frankly, I don’t think it can.
Redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Cameron Goode had himself a day — a 38-yard pick six, some pass breakups and don’t forget his wizardly moves in the pass rush. But in the fourth quarter, Goode groveled on the field in pain and was carted off with an injury.
Head coach Justin Wilcox announced at practice Monday that Goode isn’t out for the season, but the outlook isn’t exactly bright. If the hearts of Cal fans haven’t dropped yet, they will now. Goode is arguably the most skilled and valuable piece of Cal’s defense, and without him, the Bears simply aren’t going to have the same lethal threat setting edges.
While Goode’s counterpart, Alex Funches, will continue to hold down one side of the field, Goode’s replacement — likely Malik Psalms or Ben Moos — can’t easily replace to Goode’s physical prowess.
Now maybe you’re not feeling as giddy as I was following my 15 likes on my post-game tweet. Maybe you’re feeling more like Vic Wharton III after his punt return video went viral.
Wharton had millions of eyes on him after he got rocked by a UNC defender and sent into a rapid 360 flip, drawing oohs from the crowd and the press box. He ultimately found himself as the butt of thousands of viewers’ jokes. But when was the last time people actually cared that much about anything that Cal football did?
Wharton’s viral stint, bad or not, is a pretty darn good analogy for Cal’s first game, and quite frankly the rest of its 2018 season. Cal knows it’s going to take some hard, Pac-12 powerhouse hits this season. The Bears, while certainly headed in the right direction, are not a part of the big dawgs yet.
What Wharton tried to defend after his moment of fame, was that he got up damn quick, like nothing even happened. Therein lies the analogy to Cal football. It’s not about how hard Cal gets hit, rather it’s about how quickly it can get back up.