Student must become teacher — Wilcox readies for battle with former mentor Petersen

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Washington football head coach Chris Petersen still feels like the new kid in town for the Pac-12, coming in and transforming the Huskies into the cream of the conference crop. But in reality, Petersen has been a head coach for more than a decade, and his coaching tree has grown and grown, including planting serious roots at Cal.

Saturday’s matchup, and perhaps the shape of the Pac-12 North for a few years to come, are going to hinge on whether some of the Bears coaching staff can manage to outflank an old mentor.

Justin Wilcox’s major break in coaching came shortly after Petersen became the head coach at Boise State after serving as the offensive coordinator for five years. Wilcox, who had been a graduate assistant for two years during that span, became Petersen’s choice as defensive coordinator — a serious display of faith, considering Wilcox was not yet 30 at the time of the promotion.

Because Petersen came from an offensive background and Wilcox from a defensive, it can initially seem that Petersen may have only played a limited role in Wilcox’s development and we should be looking at the defensive-minded coaches Wilcox learned from. But, fascinatingly, Wilcox has never worked under a defensive-minded head coach in his 18-year career, so Petersen looks like as influential a figure as any.

Over their four years together, Petersen and Wilcox led the Broncos to a 49-4 cumulative record and two top-5 AP finishes — a stellar reflection of their ability to work together and prop up each other’s strengths. Last year, before their first head-to-head matchup, in which Washington blew the Bears off the field, Petersen had some high praise for his former co-worker.

“I just think he’s a good football coach,” Petersen said. “I’ve known that for a long time, whether he’s running the defense or a whole team. He knows how to coach the guys, get ‘em going.”

That’s certainly been true on defense, but Wilcox’s ability to be considered an elite coach will depend on getting both sides of the ball to be locked in the same way, as Petersen has done nearly perfectly over the past few years. Even in 2018, when the Huskies have somewhat disappointingly already dropped two games, Petersen has his offense and defense in the top 25 for efficiency.

The Bears may be on their way to that sort of relationship between both sides of the ball after last week’s dominant win over Oregon State. After the game, a few players credited a players-only meeting the night before, in which getting both sides of the ball on the same page was made a primary topic of discussion.

If Wilcox can keep the ball rolling on that front, Cal will have a chance to knock off Washington. The Bears are a threat against anyone in California Memorial Stadium, and the defense should be able to hammer quarterback Jake Browning on his mistakes. If the offense has found a way to be consistent if not unspectacular behind Chase Garbers, that could be enough.

So far, Petersen has only had to face off with one former assistant who became a head coach. When he returned to Boise State in 2015, his protégé Bryan Harsin came away with the win, playing shutdown defense and scoring just enough to notch a 16-13 win. A sample size of one isn’t much, but at the very least, it’s provided the template Wilcox needs to follow to prove himself Petersen’s equal.

Cal shouldn’t be favored to win against Washington, but frankly, I don’t think the Bears deserve to be favored against anyone for the rest of the season. So considering the path to a bowl game necessitates some upsets no matter what, there’s no better time to start than the present. It’s a big task to one-up an old mentor, but to avoid turning his sophomore season into a bust, Wilcox may not have a choice but to pull it off.

Andrew Wild covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.