All heroes on deck: Analyzing Cal football’s bowl chances with 5 weeks remaining

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There’s a part in Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” when she belts, “I need a hero / Holding out for a hero till the end of the night / But he’s got to be strong, he’s got to be fast, got to be fresh from the fight / I need a hero.”

While many may argue that quarterback Chase Garbers is the de facto hero Cal football needs to “save” its season after he threw three touchdowns in the team’s 49-7 win over Oregon State on Saturday, others will call out tailback Patrick Laird as the hero for being “strong” and “fast” and even “fresh from the fight” on his way to nearly 200 rushing yards and three total scores.

The point is, Cal football isn’t holding out for a single hero to erase the three-game losing skid that significantly dented the team’s postseason chances. But with a blowout win on the road against the Beavers, the Bears are now just two shy of postseason eligibility with five games to go — the same spot they were in last season when they finished the year 1-4 and fell a game short of a bowl berth.

So what’s it going to take this time around? If Bonnie Tyler is a Cal fan, she’s undoubtedly calling for a hero at the quarterback position, one way or another. While Garbers found a nice rhythm against the lowly Beavers defense, it will take a lot to do the same against No. 15 Washington this upcoming weekend.

The Huskies held an upstart Colorado offense to just 13 points Saturday, as the Washington defense pitched a second half shutout and kept quarterback Steven Montez at bay for the majority of the contest. While currently ranked below Washington State, some still consider the Huskies the perennial contenders of the Pac-12, and the Bears will need heroes all over the field to take down the Dawgs from up north.

One week later, the road to a bowl game gets no easier with a trip to Pullman, where Washington State resides as the hottest team in the conference at this moment. The No. 14 Cougars burst out to a 27-0 halftime lead over then-No.12 Oregon before closing things out in the second half, 34-20. Transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew is the real deal, and realistically, it will take a near-perfect performance to derail Mike Leach’s rejuvenated bunch on the road.

Without any real magic, that leaves the Bears at 4-5 with three to play — USC on the road, and Stanford and Colorado at home. Cal hasn’t defeated USC since most current UC Berkeley students were in pre-K or kindergarten, so if you think history sides with the Trojans, you might trigger the most die-hard Cal fans who have seen this story far too often.

That said, the Trojans might be the most beatable of Cal’s remaining opponents — J.T. Daniels has been far from the hero USC has needed since Sam Darnold’s departure, and the Trojan defense has lagged well behind expectations as well.

Whether or not the Bears can reverse the course of history in Los Angeles, their showdown in the Big Game against Stanford really comes down to the health of Cardinal tailback Bryce Love. Once a top-10 team nationally, the Cardinal have dropped off significantly as Love’s health has fluctuated.

The Bears have done an excellent job of shutting down opposing air attacks thus far, which bodes well against the Cardinal, but not against the Buffaloes in the final game of 2018. Montez has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes in his junior season, propelling Colorado from a projected bottom finish in the Pac-12 North Division to a team that sniffed the top-25 just two weeks ago.

It really comes down to this — if Cal can pull off a single upset against either Washington school, the Bears have a shot at getting to win No. 6. If that’s the case, it’s probable that Nov. 24 against Colorado is the game where it’s all heroes on deck for Senior Day.

Win, and play one more game as a group that had tremendous aspirations early on. Lose, and finish 5-7 for a third consecutive year, setting back a program that should be on the rise.

Josh Yuen is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.