A decade in the making: Cal football is back — for now

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Staying at the same hotel as the Cal football team on its most recent road trip, I woke up on Saturday morning in Olive Branch, Mississippi. The night before, I had gone to bed a tad later than I initially anticipated, because well I’m a college football geek and my pick to win the Pac-12 South (Utah) was struggling mightily against an embattled team led by a third string quarterback (USC).

Big yikes; did not see that one coming.

I stayed up late, secretly pulling for a Utah rally, only to see Clay Helton walk off the field with a little less heat bearing down on him from every “Fight On” supporter in attendance. The moment the clock hit zero on the Utes, three teams from the Pac-12 conference remained undefeated: Arizona State, Washington State and … Cal, all ranked programs, falling near the bottom of the Associated Press Top 25 entering play Saturday.

The Sun Devils and Cougars were hosting Colorado and UCLA, respectively, and were both presumed to handle business in the late hours of the evening. The Bears, meanwhile, departed from Olive Branch about 7:45 a.m. CST (5:45 a.m. on the West Coast) for an hourlong bus ride to Oxford, where the Ole Miss Rebels and their “Hotty Toddy” chants from the stands awaited.

Add on an 11 a.m. local time kickoff, a few extra notches of humidity and a handful of significant notes on Cal’s injury report, and it’s easy at first to anticipate a sluggish showing from the Bears.

If one team was going to emerge from Saturday as the lone unbeaten Pac-12 program in the conference, all signs pointed toward Washington State, followed closely by Arizona State.

Yet half a day later, after the Bears had silenced Vaught-Hemingway Stadium with an eye-opening offensive performance and a late goal-line stand, the unexpected happened — the Buffaloes, without their top receiver available to play, stunned the Sun Devils.

Then the unthinkable happened. Imagine throwing for nine touchdowns in a single game, and winding up on the losing end of the stick.

Welcome to the life of Cougars quarterback Anthony Gordon, who shattered Gardner Minshew’s single-game record for touchdown tosses, but whose team blew a 32-point second half lead to a team without a win in 2019.

By a final score that mirrored that of a basketball game rather than one played on the gridiron, UCLA won 67-63, sending Wazzu out of the top 25 and leaving Cal — yes Cal — as the Pac-12’s last undefeated team.

Cal is a program that trailed 10-0 early against both UC Davis and Washington, scored just three points over a 48-minute stretch against North Texas and nearly blew a 15-point lead with four minutes remaining this past weekend.

It took a career day from Chase Garbers to give the Bears the late edge necessary to fend off the Rebels. Beyond that, Cal needed every one of senior captain Evan Weaver’s 22(!) tackles to put away a read-option inspired offense, with members who had called out “those California boys” for not being able to handle the Mississippi humidity and the early morning kickoff.

The bottom line is that if there’s one thing we’ve learned so far from the 2019 version of the Cal Bears, it’s that they sure do make things interesting, but find a way to win.

Against the Aggies, it was running the rock. In Seattle, it was about limiting explosive plays and executing the two-minute drill. Dealing with a pesky North Texas offense, it was about starting fast and pressuring the quarterback.

And down in the South, where Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral has a big mouth, the Bears’ defense extended its streak of 11 straight contests surrendering 24 points or less, dating back to last season. The highly scrutinized offense saw nine different playmakers record a reception, piecing together its most complete game since dismantling Oregon State 49-7 in October 2018.

Under Justin Wilcox, this Cal team has no excuses for losing. When the running game is bottled up, Garbers embraces the challenge. When Steven Coutts is clearly not at 100 percent, punter Dario Longhetto isn’t afraid of the moment. And when four of the team’s top outside linebackers are unable to give it a go, tight end Nick Alftin is ready to play the entire contest on the other side of the ball.

It’s been nearly ten years since the Bears were ranked as high as No. 15 in the Associated Press poll. Back then, Kevin Riley and Jahvid Best commanded the headlines and Jeff Tedford was still a fixture on the Cal sideline. A decade later, the Bears are back on top of the conference of champions — at least for now — and are no longer an underrated program seeking to climb out of fifth place in the Pac-12 North.

Enjoy the ride while it lasts, Cal fans — especially any alums who graduated well before most of us students were born.

Oh, and just as icing on the cake, that team across the Bay is currently 1-3.

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.