Despite losing record, Bears show signs of life under new coach

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“Welcome to California football, freshmen,” lamented an upperclassman as he marched up the stands of the student section, shaking his head.

Cal football had just given up a fumble in the red zone and, subsequently, a field goal — giving FCS foe Weber State the lead at the end of the Bears’ first half at home of the season. Last season, the Bears had a losing record, and after a change of head coach, many expected this year to be an even tougher year, one focused on rebuilding the team. But by the end of the season, under new head coach Justin Wilcox, hope had replaced lowly prospects for the season, and the voice of the cynic had been muffled.

Before Wilcox arrived, the team was headed by Sonny Dykes, an offensive-minded coach who lead the team to a bowl game victory in 2015. But Dykes was relieved of his duties after the 2016 season, in which his high-octane offense struggled to drag incapable defense to wins.

Early January 2017 saw Justin Wilcox taking over the reins of Cal football. The new head coach had a bit of a late start to his first season at Cal — most new coaches are hired closer to the end of the season — potentially related to the delay in retrieving the buyout money for Dykes’ contract. The late start, combined with major defensive questions to answer, led many to expect a two- or three-win season out of the Bears.

Fixing a poor defensive unit was a large part of the reason why Wilcox was chosen for the job. Fresh off the role of defensive coordinator at the University of Wisconsin, Wilcox immediately began to emphasize proper tackling form.

At the beginning of the season, Wilcox’s touch seemed to be working very well. Cal sported a 3-0 record in the face of predictions of a 3.5-win season. The Bears only allowed a total of 13 second-half points in their first three games. They also racked up nine takeaways — the third-most in the country. But as the season wore on and Cal met stronger opponents, these numbers trended downwards — in part due to the injury of senior Devante Downs, the Bears’ leading defensive player.

Cal dropped the next three games, which were against stiffer competition in USC, Oregon and Washington, falling to 3-3. The Bears’ defense did not fare well in these games, giving up 30, 45 and 38 points, respectively.

Their next game, an upset win over Washington State, which was then ranked No. 8, clearly jumps out as the most memorable performance of Wilcox’s team during his young career. It wasn’t just a win but an absolute trouncing to the tune of 37-3. The Bears’ defense wreaked havoc on quarterback Luke Falk (then a Heisman hopeful) and his offense with a debilitating seven forced turnovers and nine sacks.

The highlight of the game (and SportsCenter top 10 play of the week) was a wild touchdown rush by quarterback Ross Bowers, who jumped in the air to avoid a defender and landed a front flip into the end zone while absorbing contact. Bowers’ growth throughout this season and his signs of potential for next endorse the environment Wilcox has created for the young quarterback and the rest of the team, for that matter.

Students impatiently waited for the final seconds to pass and then proceeded to jump down the walls of California Memorial Stadium and explode onto the field as chants of “Jus-tin Wil-cox” rang through the emptying student section. This was the Bears’ first win against a top-10 team in 40 years. With that statement win, Cal had finally cemented its status as a team with a great deal of potential, one that could keep up with any team in the league.

But the final five games of the season, in which the Bears went 1-4, did not mirror much of the glory of that upset against the Cougars. Three of the losses during this stretch (against Arizona, Stanford and UCLA) hurt especially for the Bears, as they each came by three points or fewer. The loss to UCLA means the Bears have failed to to win a conference game on the road since September 2015.

Against Arizona, the Bears took the game into their own hands in the second overtime, with Wilcox opting to attempt a two-point conversion to take the lead rather than settle for a tie and another overtime. The Wildcats snatched the win from the hands of the Bears with a batted-down pass on the final play of the game. This gutsy decision by the coach was characteristic of his play-calling style throughout the season. In many cases, fourth-down conversions helped the offense keep its drives alive, but in cases such as this one, the risk-taking did not pay off. Either way, the aggressiveness has inspired Cal’s offense as a vote of confidence.

The Bears under their new coach may not have improved on last season’s overall record, but they have shown signs of life that are very encouraging to the California faithful. In Cal’s spectacular performance against the Cougars, all aspects of its game came together, with the defense pitching a near shutout and the offense running a clinic. Close losses to UCLA, Arizona and, most importantly, Stanford show that this team will be competitive next season and may be on the brink of making a big step forward if it can manage to attract a strong recruiting class and string together solid defensive performances.

Contact Armen Aprahamian at [email protected].