At the start of the year, five wins for the Cal football team looked like it was going to be a stretch, especially after the dismal 2013 season. Last year, the Bears couldn’t beat good teams, and they couldn’t beat bad teams. They just couldn’t beat anybody, going 1-11 for the season. And the only win came against Portland State. An FCS team. By seven points.
This season, however, Cal started off 4-1 and was a Hail Mary pass away from starting off the season with those five wins that had seemed so elusive. People started to believe. Then, the Bears hit the tougher part of the season, and things started to fall apart. All Cal needed was one more win — one more win and they’d have been bowl-eligible for the first time since the 2011 season.
And the Bears came so close.
With seconds left, down by seven, quarterback Jared Goff stepped back in the pocket and looked to Kenny Lawler, who had been his favorite target all day, in the back of the endzone. One catch, and Cal would have had a winning season for the first time in a long time. One catch.
But, of course, Lawler never caught the ball. And Cal doesn’t get to go to some bowl game with a hilarious name.
Still, it was quite the season. The “Bear Raid” offense started firing on all cylinders, with Goff showing off both his arm strength and his accuracy. He finished the season with a completion percentage of 62.1 and an efficiency rating of 147.6. Goff also ended the season as the No. 2-ranked quarterback in the FBS with 3,973 yards. He broke several Cal touchdown and passing records and has several more in his sight in the coming years.
Of course, he had quite the arsenal of talent in a phenomenal wide-receiving corps who are all eligible to return next year. Bryce Treggs was one of Goff’s most reliable targets, Lawler was able to make huge grabs in key moments, Stephen Anderson developed into a kind of tight-end role — head coach Sonny Dykes’ system doesn’t officially call for a tight end — blocking and gaining big yardage, and Chris Harper, Trevor Davis and Maurice Harris also picked up big downs and made key plays.
And let’s not forget how important the emergence of Daniel Lasco was, whose 5.3 yards per carry and 12 rushing touchdowns helped create another dimension for Dykes’ offense. Lasco had just fewer than 100 rushing yards per game this season, averaging 92.9 yards a game.
This combination of offense built in both the air and on the turf led to Cal being the No. 15 total offense in the FBS with an average of 495.2 yards per game. So, the offense looked good this year.
But the defense didn’t.
Last season, the Bears ranked No. 124 out of 125 FBS defenses. This season, they ranked No. 124 out of 128 teams, and the pass defense is ranked the worst in the league. So, there wasn’t really much improvement, even though Cal brought in a new defensive coordinator, Art Kaufman, to come in and work on solidifying its defense.
Unfortunately, something with the Bears didn’t quite click during Kaufman’s first season. Cal made some stupid mistakes with penalties, and, at times, the defense looked like it was having trouble tackling. Injuries did hurt — Cal lost both defensive end Brennan Scarlett, who looked poised to be the team’s best player on defense, and safety Griffin Piatt, who was leading the team in tackles and interceptions, for the season — and Cal’s lack of sacks and inability to really pressure the opposing quarterback hurt the team.
Still, the season wasn’t all bad. Cal’s phenomenal offense is basically all returning, and Goff looks like he could be a bona fide superstar next year. The defense is relatively young and will have all spring and summer to work on technique and improve.
There are good things to remember, like the time when the Bears sat alone at the top of the Pac-12 North (albeit for a very short week) or the catch Lawler made against Sacramento State that landed him on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays.
Now, just imagine more of those catches next year.