Garbers time

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Cool. Confident. Levelheaded. Stanford faithful, meet Cal redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Garbers, the man who is attempting to ruin your Saturday evening and end the near-decadelong misery that is this historic rivalry. Cal faithful, get used to those golden locks of hair and undeniable smile — this is your quarterback for the foreseeable future.

Now that Cal is bowl-eligible for the second time in seven years, it’s time to exhale a bit and digest this roller coaster of a season without thinking too far past the cardinal and white this weekend.

The Bears’ 2018 campaign comes down to an unusual combination of emerging themes that have been the talk of Berkeley this fall — a diminished offense and a downright scary defense. Even after nearly a full season’s worth of battles, just putting those two ideas together still feels awfully out of place from a Cal perspective.

But give credit to head coach Justin Wilcox and a well-deserved tip of the hat to defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter for changing the narrative around this program.

The defense is no longer the runt of the litter that is the “conference of champions.” As the Stanford Daily’s managing sports editor Bobby Pragada put it in our recent conversation, Cal’s defensive front seven has been “utterly terrifying” in 2018.

That’s some real respect right there.

Then there’s the offense. Since a 49-7 dismantling of lowly Oregon State, the Cal offense has averaged just one offensive touchdown per contest across its past three games. Thanks to solid special-teams play and the 11-headed monster on the other side of the ball, the Bears won two of those and nearly stole a third victory from the hearts of the believers who feel that Washington State actually has a shot at the college football playoff.

It hasn’t been pretty for offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin and company. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that Chase Garbers isn’t just the man of the hour — he’s the future face of Cal football, bumps in the road and all, who has come a long way since his days as an under-the-radar quarterback with dual-threat potential.

It’s an uphill challenge to justify Garbers’ levelheadedness and improved play when solely picking apart box scores from the period since he re-established himself as the team’s starter last month. The 373 yards he’s put up recently don’t represent a single-game mark — that’s his total number of passing yards across the aforementioned three games, leading to just 32 offensive points.

But since Garbers’ benching midway through Cal’s Sept. 29 turnover fest against Oregon, the redshirt freshman has surrendered the ball to opposing teams just once — an interception after which he made a game-saving play to deny a Cougar defender the end zone, ultimately knocking the ball out and giving his team a chance at redemption.

And against a Stanford defense that has struggled to bother opposing quarterbacks all season long, there’s no better time for Garbers to prove himself as Cal’s present and future. It’s expected that Brandon McIlwain’s explosiveness and Ross Bowers’ experience will be in Wilcox’s back pocket come next season, but the Chase Garbers show looks like the top option for the offense at this point.

This Saturday, Paulson Abedo and the Stanford secondary are amped up to extend the Cardinal’s eight-game winning streak over their Bay Area rivals. With the health of receivers Kanawai Noa, Jordan Duncan, Vic Wharton III and others up in the air, both history and the injury report are against Cal’s golden boy.

But Garbers isn’t one to fold — he’s as calm as they come on the outside and tougher than nails internally. He’s been forced to grow up faster than most within the Cal program anticipated, but it’s his turn to do what recent quarterbacks have been unable to do — bring the Axe back to Berkeley.

If you ask nearly anybody donning a Cal jersey, they’ll tell you this wasn’t the script for 2018. Yet here we are, with the Bears bowl-eligible and one calm Garbers performance away from knocking off Washington, USC and Stanford in the same season.

In a day and age in which statistics and eye-popping numbers are the driving forces behind Heisman races and postseason analysis, I’m here to tell you that Garbers’ uninspiring numbers don’t tell half the story. This kid is the real deal, and he’s ready to roll against the best that Stanford has to offer — with a healthy supporting cast or not.

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