This past winter, Cal head coach Justin Wilcox accentuated that Cal football’s offense would be better in 2019.
Four games into Wilcox’s third campaign in the driver’s seat, his players had delivered on that promise. The Bears scored at least 20 points in each of its first four contests — all wins — and peaked at the No. 15 slot in the weekly Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Then in week five, midway through a Friday night contest against Arizona State, things changed.
Now at 4-2 (1-2 in Pac-12 play) and recovering from back-to-back punches from conference opponents, Cal’s first bye week could not have come at a more ideal time. Here’s what we’ve seen early on, and here’s what to expect here on out.
Offensive rise, future growing pains
On Sept. 27, halfway through a nationally televised contest and playing as well as he has been in his brief Cal career, quarterback Chase Garbers fell hard on his shoulder. The fall wasn’t just a stinger, and the injury figures to keep Garbers out for the majority of this season.
Backup Devon Modster has since entered the center of attention, but was unable to generate a similar offensive rhythm to the pre-injury Garbers offense. The result? Two close defeats to one-loss programs, sending the Bears sliding out of the Top 25.
While explosive plays continue to see a slight uptick, Cal’s offense has holistically regressed in its last two games. Since Modster took over, the Bears have managed just 17 total points, attempting to overcome key injuries under center, in the slot and at all but one spot on the offensive line.
Starting left guard Gentle Williams was lost before the games even began, and left tackle Will Craig suffered a season-ending injury after just one start. The ever-so-versatile Valentino Daltoso and center Michael Saffell have missed time with their own injuries, leaving McKade Mettauer and Matthew Cindric with significant reps.
The one-two punch of Christopher Brown Jr. and Marcel Dancy in the backfield has been borderline unstoppable at times, but also ineffective during Cal’s most recent contests, with Brown Jr. earning the lion’s share of reps.
Outside the hashes, Trevon Clark has emerged as the offense’s top receiver, as fellow transfer Kekoa Crawford has dealt with his own injury. Senior Jordan Duncan and sophomore Nikko Remigio continue to see the field quite a lot, but have each managed just one score on the year.
Going forward, expect better execution on third downs as Modster adjusts to his new life as a starter, but continued growing pains as the offensive line remains dinged up.
Defensive grit, more forced turnovers
When it comes to cooking up a “W,” Wilcox’s “secret ingredients” are two-fold with explosive plays and turnover margins. But it’s no secret that Cal has done things a little differently in 2019.
The Bears committed four turnovers in its season-opening win over UC Davis before being significantly outplayed and outgained for three-and-a-half quarters in a close call against North Texas.
A big road win over then-No. 14 Washington also lacked explosive plays, but two takeaways of Jacob Eason put an exclamation point on what was arguably Cal’s most complete performance of the year.
Evan Weaver and the defense surrendered 525 yards against Ole Miss, but bent to the very last inch without snapping, preserving the team’s fourth win of the season. For his part, Weaver’s 83 total tackles on the year is the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision by a significant margin.
The defense has forced six fumbles through six weeks, but has picked off opposing quarterbacks just three times in 2019, a year after a breakout season for the secondary that resulted in 21 total interceptions.
Forcing three turnovers in one quarter against No. 13 Oregon last week was an encouraging step for a defense that set a high bar for itself this fall. With Weaver leading the way and Kuony Deng filling in nicely for Jordan Kunaszyk, Tim DeRuyter’s side of the ball has done its job well, if not dominantly, six weeks in.
Unconventional special teams play, late season resurgence
When redshirt freshman Dario Longhetto lined up in Cal’s first punt formation of the year, it was a surprise to say the least. Since then, an injury-ridden Steven Coutts has struggled to repeat his breakout performance from 2018.
With Coutts active and showing signs of full health in the loss to Oregon, the redshirt senior should be the one flipping field positions for Cal’s defense that feeds off of forced turnovers.
It was also a surprise when sure-footed kicker Greg Thomas missed not one, but two crucial kicks in Cal’s loss to Oregon last weekend. Up until that point, Thomas had missed just one kick and had been seemingly automatic from inside 40 yards. Given that midseason struggles have often turned into blessings in disguise for kickers, expect Thomas to rebound in the coming weeks.
On paper, the Bears are 4-2 at the halfway benchmark, and a lot of folks would say that was expected. But with the offense adjusting to a new quarterback and the defense well under its forced turnovers mark a season ago, it’s safe to say that this path to 4-2 was not anticipated.
With Oregon State arriving in Berkeley next weekend, the Bears will be wary of OSU quarterback Jake Luton’s breakout year and the new life Luton has instilled in Corvallis. As Utah, Washington State and USC loom, a win over the Beavers is a pivotal must to start the second half of the season.