Beating Expectations

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I think it is safe to say that most people left Memorial Stadium Friday night after Cal football’s 37-3 victory over then-No. 8 Washington State with only one feeling on their minds: bewilderment.

Whether it was the defense causing seven turnovers, quarterback Ross Bowers front-flipping into the endzone or just that the Bears thoroughly dominated the Cougars, the general consensus was that the coincidence of events that transpired Friday night was nothing short of remarkable. Cal fans were beyond pleasantly surprised, and WSU head coach Mike Leach called his team’s performance “pathetic” and accused his defense of treating Cal’s Vic Enwere “like an all-star down the stretch.”

But what should be made of this incredible showing? I know I have never witnessed Cal holding an opponent to less than seven points in my four seasons watching Cal as a student here ─ the best was one touchdown allowed in 2015 against San Diego State. So I, like everyone, am trying to decipher how much of Friday night’s result was a product of a poor Cougars’ performance, and how much was Cal’s own doing.

The previous two weeks’ road losses to Oregon and Washington exposed so many of Cal’s flaws. The defensive line was giving up countless yards right up the middle. Opponents had seemingly figured out how to minimize errors, and take advantage of communication problems in the Bears’ secondary. A defense that was so turnover-dependent in its winning start to the season had nearly gone dry, forcing one apiece in each of those two contests.

And while the Oregon game was easy to chalk up as a winnable but unlucky loss on the road, the Washington defeat was starkly different. Cal was demolished, yes by a much better opponent, but nonetheless with obvious room for self-improvement. Interestingly, the defense wasn’t all that bad against the Huskies ─ compared to the offense at least ─ but it was also the defense which responded the most significantly against the Cougars.

If anybody deserves praise, it is Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. He clearly did his homework on a short week. He dissected the Cougars’ pass-heavy offense, knew when to use his blitzes and had Luke Falk’s number all night long. He also instructed his team to have the proper selective amnesia it had been missing, keeping it focused on the play at hand, instead of letting his players dwell on what went wrong on previous plays.

But for me, after seeing the performance that the defense doled out, it seems like in the wake of the hammering at Washington, DeRuyter (and of course head coach Justin Wilcox) inspired his team to more than just a victory. The Bears proved to themselves that they are capable of winning despite the odds being stacked against them.

It is obviously hard to imagine Cal reproducing its WSU performance again, but as long as the defense continues to force turnovers and give the offense reasonable field position, Cal has a chance against all of its remaining opponents ─ of which only Stanford is ranked.

Just a week ago, my coworker put out a column of his own suggesting that Cal should start focusing on next season, with emphasis on the fact that “the Bears offense is dead and gone” and that Cal would compete with Oregon State for last in the Pac-12. The WSU domination showed me otherwise. It showed me that a defense even half as effective as Friday night’s would give the offense a fighting chance.

And if it can be done against a top-10 team, it certainly can be done against Arizona, Oregon State, Colorado and UCLA. It is admittedly unlikely that Cal shows the consistency to defeat all of those teams, but two of them seems doable to me, and so does bowl eligibility. The Bears have shown what they’re made of. Now it’s time for them to show my coworker that it wasn’t a fluke.

Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].