For every Cal football home game throughout the 2018 season, I’ve had the privilege of leading a team at The Daily Californian, which produces a “Game Day issue.” One hundred hours of work, thousands of printed copies and about 2 1/2 hours of sleep later, I get the opportunity to “livehawk” our work to the blue and gold faithful as it pours into California Memorial Stadium for six Saturdays per year.
It’s one of the most rewarding parts of the job and has been a privilege from opening day until now, sleepless nights and all.
One of my favorite parts of producing Game Day content is the back page — the page on which my assistant, Alison, famously copies every opposing player’s name and position down as my other assistant, Shailin, even more famously heads to Walnut Creek to pick up Chick-fil-A for our dream team.
But my favorite part of the back page is placing score predictions. And despite my best efforts to “out-predict” my team, it’s safe to say that my ability to project outcomes is far better in my public policy class than it is with college football.
For Cal’s homecoming game against UCLA, I predicted a close Cal win of 20-19. As many fans vividly remember, the Bruins rolled over the Bears, 37-7 — truly an anomaly within a season that has been defined by gritty, low-scoring contests, especially during the Bears’ conference slate.
Two weeks later, the eventual Pac-12 North Champion Washington Huskies arrived in Berkeley, and I gave the edge to the Dawgs, 31-17. The Cal defense stiff-armed the Myles Gaskin-less Huskies back to Seattle to the tune of a 12-10 loss, an unexpected result that ignited waves throughout the conference.
All six Game Day predictors that day picked the wrong team to win. And all of us will admit that we were highly skeptical that Cal could turn its season around when the Bears were sitting at 3-3 just two weeks prior, having dropped their first three Pac-12 contests in brutal fashion.
Six weeks and five games after the UCLA loss, the Bears are now 7-4 — bound for a bowl game and playing as well as any Cal team has in the past decade.
As linebacker Evan Weaver said after that 30-point embarrassment against UCLA, this year is different. Really different.
Last weekend, when Greg Thomas knocked a 24-yard kick through the uprights to extend Cal’s lead to 24-7 almost midway through the second quarter against Colorado, the Bears had just two first downs to their name. And even after a pair of atypical wins against Washington and USC in which offense was optional and defense reigned superior, Cal still managed to outdo itself.
On the sideline this weekend against Colorado, receiver Vic Wharton III openly joked to his teammates that it would be funny if the team accomplished two pick-sixes in a row after Elijah Hicks jump-started the Bears with one of his own on the game’s opening drive.
Colorado’s quarterback, veteran Steven Montez, had torn apart the Bears’ defense a year earlier to the tune of four touchdowns, completing 20 of 26 pass attempts. But less than a minute of game time after Hicks’ fireworks, Ashtyn Davis did the same — this time for 35 yards — sending Wharton and the sideline into a frenzy.
Not even defensive-minded head coach Justin Wilcox could recall a time in which he witnessed back-to-back pick-sixes, let alone to start a game.
Cal’s 17-point halftime lead, albeit with just three first downs at the time and a 1 of 17 conversion rate on third downs for the entire game, was oddly more than enough to ensure that Colorado wouldn’t ever take the lead.
Weaver was right. This team is different — so different to our expectations that our score predictions are merely an afterthought and, more often than not, a good laugh after the game. In an era that is defined by 74-72, seven-overtime college football contests, it’s safe to say that for this weekend’s 121st Big Game, the script will remain the same for a Cal team that has been as different as they come.