Please, not this again: Cal football’s offense must pull its weight this season

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As I watched the first half of Cal’s home opener against UC Davis unfold from the press box on Saturday, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. The flow of the game was eerily similar to last season in all too many ways — the Bears rode the tail of their stifling defense, while the offense looked completely clueless.

Of course fans, and the team itself, should have expected some rust in the early goings of the game, especially with so many new faces getting live snaps. But what caused the alarm was the things that we thought would surely improve, that seemingly didn’t upon first glance.

For instance, all throughout camp, the coaching staff boasted about quarterback Chase Garbers’ improved decision-making skills, which were of utmost priority after the Bears finished dead last in the entire nation in turnovers per game last season.

Fittingly, Cal turned the ball over on three of its first five drives, albeit one was on special teams due to Ashtyn Davis fumbling the game’s opening kickoff. Still, Garbers struggled to click with his receivers, and offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin was making questionable play calls, such as calling a swing pass to the running back on 3rd and 10, which will get you a first down maybe 10 percent of the time.

The Bears capped off their third possession with Garbers making an inexcusable throw off his back foot, which sailed completely off target and was intercepted by an Aggie donned in icy white threads. UC Davis may have lost the game, but they won the uniform battle for sure.

If Cal wants to win games this season, Garbers must learn when to throw the ball away, and when it is worth taking a shot. Obviously the team wants to be more explosive throwing the ball downfield this year (as they should be), but if Garbers isn’t smart about it, the turnovers will keep on piling up.

By the time Cal had completed its first five drives, the team had come away with nothing but a big fat zero on the scoreboard and had only possessed the ball for a grand total of five minutes and 36 seconds. Meanwhile, after allowing a touchdown on the Aggies opening 21-yard drive, the Bears’ defense forced punts on five out of the next six drives.

Sound familiar?

The majority of Cal’s 2018 season followed this same exact pattern offensively, and while it won them a handful of games, there is no way it will be sustainable this season against a brutal conference schedule. Head coach Justin Wilcox needs more out of his offense if this team wants to be playing in a bowl game — that’s the bottom line.

The pressure should absolutely not be placed purely on Garbers, though. In fact, he settled in quite nicely as the UC Davis game progressed, and it ended with him posting a career-high 238 passing yards on top of the Bears rumbling for an additional 233 yards on the ground.

Garbers flashed his patience in the pocket, which was clearly better than last year, (though Cal’s offensive line quite possibly faced its easiest competition of the season last Saturday) and showed off his arm on multiple passes to Nikko Remigio and Kekoa Crawford.

In reality, everyone needs to be better. Baldwin should limit the number of swings and screens, and focus more on moving the ball vertically. The receivers need to hold onto the ball better, as tight end McCallan Castles dropped a perfect downfield pass by Garbers, while receiver Jordan Duncan fumbled his only reception of the game.

There were a lot of positives to look at (I don’t think anyone saw running back Christopher Brown Jr. nearly topping 200 rushing yards in his first-ever start), but the offense cannot take so long to get clicking once better competition is across from them.

While the Bears arguably boast the best defense in the Pac-12, having to stay on the field so much will wear them out quickly, especially against the likes of high-flying offenses in Oregon and Washington State. If Baldwin and company cannot find some consistency, expect to see the same Cal team that we saw in 2018 take the field each week. They’ll be good, but not great.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].