Cal football had severe highs, lows in Justin Wilcox’s 1st year

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In a sport where there’s no such thing as a moral win, it’s hard to make sense of a season in which a team misses out on making a bowl game and extended an embarrassing streak of conference road losses, but still managed to show a lot of promise. What can’t be argued is that this was one of the most interesting Cal football seasons in recent memory, showing that having moved on from Sonny Dykes and his Bear Raid offense didn’t mean a drop in excitement was also on the way.

In a season that could have been so much more, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the Bears still managed to pull off a year that few thought possible, finishing 5-7 in a season where they could have been a two- or three-win team. Cal head coach Justin Wilcox inherited a program that was losing its quarterback, leading receiver and leading rusher and took over on a shortened timeline, taking over the program in January, far later than most college coaching moves are made.

National signing day was just around the corner, and Cal was clearly hampered in its recruiting. When spring ball finally began, there were few obvious answers on who to plug in and where, especially with a defensive scheme change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 that had many players converting positions.

A nominally four-way quarterback battle quickly became a two-man event between redshirt sophomore Ross Bowers and redshirt junior Chase Forrest, neither of whom had much college experience to speak of. The race was tight the whole way and the coaching staff was tight-lipped, only revealing Bowers as the winner a week before Cal’s opening matchup.

And what an opener it was. Embarking on what ESPN considered to be the hardest schedule in college football, the Bears stunned UNC in North Carolina. Cal notched another surprise win over Ole Miss two weeks later, showing signs of the defensive transformation promised under Wilcox.

After some ugly road losses where the offense looked out of sorts, the Cal defense put up a performance for the ages, shutting down Washington State’s dynamic offense and eliminating quarterback Luke Falk’s Heisman campaign by picking off five passes. In the 37-3 victory, the full potential of defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s turnover-forcing system was unlocked.

The wheels came off from there, and the team couldn’t pull off two victories in its last five games to become bowl eligible, only beating a pitiful Oregon State squad. The team was generally impressive in close losses against Arizona, Stanford and UCLA, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and the Cal season came to an anti-climactic close by allowing the Bruins to march down the field for a game-winning field goal in the Rose Bowl.

Looking forward, the most comforting facts for Cal fans may be how much the Bears managed to accomplish despite some devastating injuries. Speedy sophomore receiver Demetris Robertson put up 110 yards in two weeks before it was announced he would be out for the season. Senior running back Tre Watson also went down early on in the season, as did outside linebacker Cameron Saffle. Saffle’s injury initially seemed to be devastating for the Bears’ thin linebacking crew, but junior transfer Alex Funches grew into the role extremely well and looked like a truly complete player by the end of the season. All of these players should return next season, and have a big stabilizing effect on a team losing some other key parts.

Senior James Looney had another excellent season, finally playing on a defense worthy of his talents, and senior Devante Downs was the unit’s best player before suffering an injury against Washington State, and his absence was a huge factor in Cal’s disappointing end to the season. Along with linebacker Raymond Davison III and running back Vic Enwere, the Bears are losing some veterans that allowed them to play with versatility on both sides of the ball.

The defense may continue to improve due to another year under Wilcox and DeRuyter’s tutelage, but the offense is the more obvious candidate to take a step forward. Redshirt junior Patrick Laird stepped out of the shadows to put together more than 1500 all-purpose yards, and his combination of speed and balance is no fluke. Bowers’ two favorites targets, Vic Wharton III and Kanawai Noa are sticking around, and the return of Robertson will add a vertical element that was missing this season.

Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin was connected to the open head coaching job at Oregon State, but with that spot filled by Jonathan Smith on Wednesday, he seems to be sticking around. Over the latter half of the season, he was clearly becoming more comfortable with Bowers, a sign that year two should see a more consistent offense week in and week out (assuming Bowers doesn’t lose his spot to transfer Brandon McIlwain, who sat out the season).

In what promised to be a transitional year, simply maintaining last year’s record likely counts as a win for Wilcox this season. But now, without December football to cap off the season, we’ll have to wait nine months to see his second act.

Andrew Wild is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.