Heading into an early bye week, Cal football may have a gift on its hands: the ability to pause, reflect and take stock of why this was the point at which everything went wrong last season. And, if the Bears are to use their time well at all, they’ll hope to avoid the same bowl-game-less fate as last fall.
When Cal began 3-0 last year under first-year head coach Justin Wilcox, celebration was in the air. The opening win over UNC on the road was a genuine shock, Week 2’s win over Weber State established Patrick Laird as a surprise star and holding Ole Miss’ dynamic offense to 16 points in a Week 3 win seemingly confirmed that something special was in the works. It had only been a short time, but the Sonny Dykes era was forgotten and gone in a big way.
The Bears have once again begun the season 3-0 with impressive nonconference wins, but there’s not nearly as much joy in the air. Last year’s squad went 2-7 after its blistering start, so now everyone is aware of how little a start like this means if the season’s finish is equally disappointing.
“We could be really good this year or we could be really bad,” said inside linebacker Evan Weaver. “We started 3-0 last year and nothing really happened good from that. All it is, is just taking every week the way we know we can and focusing on the little things.”
The inconsistency after last year’s perfect start was indeed noticeable. Cal competed step-for-step with then No. 5-USC for three quarters in Week 4 before both sides of the ball crumbled in the final period, and in the following two weeks, the Bears looked absolutely abysmal on the road against Oregon and Washington.
A young team improving at home is understandable, but the complete discombobulation was a bit baffling, and it would show up again in an ugly loss to Colorado. Meanwhile, the inability to finish strong against Stanford and UCLA sealed the deal: It all added up to the Bears staying home in December after looking like locks for at least a lower-tier bowl game.
“We kind of got above of where we should be last year and it showed. … Three games is really nothing,” said wide receiver Jordan Duncan. “It doesn’t guarantee us a bowl game or even a bid to get in the Pac-12 Championships. We’ve just got to keep our heads down and keep working.”
The bye week coming after Week 3 would probably be interpreted by most fans as a minor misfortune. Playing in nine straight weeks down the stretch of the season is sure to be taxing. But this week in practice, Wilcox took a lighthearted approach to the matter.
“We’re going to make the most of it,” Wilcox said of the break in action. “They set the schedule, so until they start asking us when we want it, I’m not (going to comment). I don’t think if you love it or hate it the people who make the schedule are going to care.”
But perhaps the timing of the bye week will be a boon. With the ability to pinpoint exactly what went wrong last year and what tendencies are resurfacing (such as offensive inconsistency and poor fourth-quarter defense), a dismal ending to the season should be avoidable.
The advice “act like you’ve been there before” has become popular in regard to celebrations in football, but the Bears would be wise to heed it in regard to how they handle the remaining bulk of their schedule. Luckily for them, they don’t really have to act — they’ve been here before and know how much not taking advantage of it can sting. Perhaps a week off will be a sobering reminder and a source of a renewed push forward.