The start of something new

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If anybody claims that they saw this coming, they’re lying.

To be completely transparent, it’s not out of this world that Cal football is 2-0, having competed against two well-known yet wildly inconsistent programs. It’s not shocking that Patrick Laird, the Bears’ offensive centerpiece in 2017, is exerting himself in both the run and pass game yet again this season.

Everything else, however, was unforeseen to everyone and everything outside of the belief within the Cal locker room.

Both of the team’s wins have been anchored on the shoulders of its stone-cold, electrified defense, overseen upstairs by Tim DeRuyter and executed beautifully below by every position group in head coach Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 scheme. The former laughingstock of Pac-12 defenses under previous coach Sonny Dykes is now an 11-headed monster dripping with talent that extends well down the depth chart.

After a step in the right direction in Wilcox’s inaugural season at the helm, 2018 looks awfully bright for both the secondary and the defensive front. Safety Jaylinn Hawkins has accounted for three of the Bears’ six interceptions, a number that is currently tied with Syracuse’s Andre Cisco for the national lead.

Yet that doesn’t tell half the story of the defensive dominance that the blue and gold have exhibited thus far. In both their home and road games, the Bears did not allow an offensive touchdown through three quarters of play and have only surrendered their physical edge in the red zone in the waning minutes of both contests, as they held onto early leads.

When Gerran Brown announced his medical retirement shortly before Week 1 and Cameron Goode turned his ankle just days later, there was reason to raise eyebrows at Cal’s thinning linebackers group.

No more. Evan Weaver and Jordan Kunaszyk have exceeded expectations and then some, combining for 24 tackles against BYU and setting a tone on defense that hasn’t been seen in Berkeley since the likes of Syd’Quan Thompson, Cameron Jordan and Tyson Alualu.

The offense is a different story. Here’s where the unexpected enters a whole different degree, starting off with the men — yes, that’s plural — under center. Quarterback competitions across the nation have stolen college football storylines, with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa-Jalen Hurts bromance and Clemson’s Kelly Bryant-Trevor Lawrence conundrum taking center stage.

While Cal’s defense is competing at a level that fans have dreamed of for years, a one-two punch on the other side of the ball is simultaneously unfolding before our eyes — and not the one we speculated about at the end of fall camp.

As seen in the BYU game, redshirt freshman Chase Garbers has been thrust into the de facto starting position, with transfer Brandon McIlwain looming on the sideline for his share of running and sporadic passing opportunities.

That formula hasn’t exactly flourished at the same level as the defense, but it’s gotten the job done just enough to close out two tight victories. After next week’s tune-up against Idaho State, the competition gets real — Oregon, Arizona and UCLA await Cal as September turns to October — and based on the level of play we’ve seen, I would need to see a near-perfect offensive outing against the Bengals on Saturday to have confidence in Cal’s ability to keep  stride with other Pac-12 offenses.

It was a welcome sign to see Kanawai Noa and Jordan Duncan exert their deep-ball abilities against the Cougars, which should open up opportunities for Beau Baldwin to rely less on Laird’s consistent production that defenses game-plan around.

For now, Garbers is the primary pocket passer, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see McIlwain — who led Cal with 74 rushing yards and 16 carries against BYU — see the field for an entire drive or two.

I’ll conclude by addressing the elephant in the room: What about Ross Bowers? The full-time, consensus 2017 starter was spotted in a hat and sweats during the tail-end of Saturday’s win. Head coach Justin Wilcox has emphasized that Bowers has done nothing wrong to (temporarily?) “lose” his starting job and that matchups have played a factor in sticking with Cal’s new two-headed threat.

Anything is on the table, but I speculate that Bowers will see the field at least occasionally next weekend, as Cal should be able to separate itself from Idaho State early on. The veteran is naturally disappointed at this point, but he’s got the leadership qualities to make a difference on this team, one way or the other. While the Bears have laid the foundation for something new, Bowers is still the leading returning passer in the Pac-12 and is expected to be ready at a moment’s notice.

Josh Yuen is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.