Heading into last weekend, Cal football sat on 3-3, and the team seemed perilously close to having head coach Justin Wilcox’s second season go right off a cliff. The team’s opponent, Oregon State, had been pretty unimpressive, but the Bears hadn’t won a Pac-12 game on the road in three years, and I, along with many others, was taking a wary view of their ability to bring that streak to an end.
The lopsided 49-7 score may seem to indicate the win was Cal’s no matter what, but I’ll vouch that if the Bears had come out with the energy that mirrored that of previous weeks, a win would have been seriously doubtful.
Many players chalked up the team’s new confident and energetic poise as the result of a players-only meeting Friday night, the first of the season. From their dominant performance, it seems like that meeting holds the secrets to how the Bears may be able to turn around their season and avoid a third straight 5-7 season, which would undoubtedly be a disappointment.
After the game, we heard a few different players’ takes on what made that meeting so important and what they took away from it, but it was redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Tevin Paul’s insight that provided the most answers.
“There was some, not conflict between the offense and defense, but it had been up and down with one side doing well and one side doing bad,” Paul said. “It was just a trust-building between the offense and defense.”
I’ve written article after article about how in the coaching change from Sonny Dykes to Wilcox, Cal has swung from one extreme to another: from the barn-burning offense and little attention paid on the other side of the ball to a feared defense and pedestrian-at-best offense. But, perhaps, I hadn’t been mindful of how those changing dynamics had affected the team.
For years under Dykes, the offense had to be fundamentally doubtful of the defense, knowing that however many points the team put up, it likely wouldn’t be enough in the end. That much is apparent in tweets from former players such as receiver Bryce Treggs who remembers the futility of the team’s strong offenses.
And now with former defensive coordinator Wilcox at the head, the situation has flipped with the defense doing everything in its might in impressive efforts against Oregon and Arizona only to have the game end with a loss because of sloppy turnovers and poor execution offensively.
The result with this year’s team? Half of Cal’s offense has been around long enough to remember times of putting up 40 points and the defense surrendering 50. On the flip side, there’s a rightfully confident defense that can cast an understandable stink eye at an offense that before this week, couldn’t hold onto the football, let alone strike fear into opponents.
Looking at it this way, it’s a miracle that the team was able to win any games at all without having a true clearing of the air. If the emotional impact of that meeting can be sustained, the Bears have a real chance to impress over an admittedly extremely difficult final five games of the schedule.
“We want to have this positive energy and chemistry with offense and defense,” said running back Patrick Laird. “When the defense makes a good play, we want to feed off of that. … I think (Saturday) we saw the result of what we’re capable of.”
If Cal can truly get both sides of the ball on the same page the rest of the way, I think the sky’s the limit. The caveat, of course, is that its remaining opponents are going to make things a whole lot more difficult than the 1-6 Beavers. The warm and fuzzy feelings amongst the offense and defense were certainly in the air Saturday; the team’s job now is to keep that coming.