In September, UC Berkeley — one of the most prestigious, historical universities in the country — was ranked 15th in the nation in football and was still unranked academically. Now, Cal is back in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings as the second-best public school in the nation and is very, very much unranked in football.
Cal football happens to be collapsing. Perhaps the stark contrast between a month ago and now is due to just how good the Bears were looking at the outset of the season. Four straight wins seemed almost unfathomable after last season, especially given the departure of some of Cal’s best players, running back Patrick Laird and linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk. The team rotated through quarterbacks last season faster than Cal fans abandoned faith in the team after its first loss to ASU this year, and the Bears never landed on a solid, reliable man under center. Plus, with the Cheez-It Bowl as a recent memory of Cal football for fans, confidence in the team was realistically low.
But quarterback Chase Garbers transformed what would have been just four consecutive victories, a celebration-worthy cause for any team, into a shining beacon of hope for the season and those to come. For more than a fleeting moment, aspirations for a bowl game were within arm’s reach, and the Bears looked as if they could take on just about any opponent. Obviously, a lot has changed since then.
In terms of records, the Bears aren’t far off from where they were last year or the year before that — or the year before that. But the disaster that was the Utah game indicates that the season has officially turned a dark corner and might end in a truly disastrous fashion for Cal.
Granted, earning a win against Utah was unlikely for Cal from the get-go, but the Bears showed that their offense is completely incapable of producing when it matters. Third-string true freshman quarterback Spencer Brasch made the start against the Utes after Devon Modster was ruled out because of an injury, a decision that was borderline cruel when considering the porousness of the offensive line. Brasch completed only 36.8% of attempted passes, but even then outplayed Modster in terms of athleticism.
Nothing about how Cal played Saturday looked like how it did a month ago. The defense, the team’s only saving grace at this point, was completely unable to shut down dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huntley or even backup quarterback Jason Shelley. Yeah, Evan Weaver and Kuony Deng can tackle, but they themselves can’t make up for the shortcomings that the rest of the defense has displayed lately.
Up to this point in the season, Cal’s chances of making a bowl game have never been slimmer. The Bears’ schedule has been markedly difficult this year, but the team wasn’t able to earn wins against easier teams such as OSU and the more evenly matched ASU. Now with about four more losses than they would have liked this year, the Bears will face a surprisingly dangerous Washington State team, followed by more of the same with a visit from USC.
Nothing is a given at this point, not even a win against Stanford, which has had a relatively inconsistent and less successful season than anticipated. There was a time several weeks ago in which many, myself included, anticipated that the marquee win of the season was yet to happen, even given the upset win against then-No. 14 Washington in week two. I also believed that the first Big Game victory in 10 years would indeed come this year, but not be the biggest game (despite the name) of 2019 for the Bears. Now, however, if Cal can somehow muster a win over the Cardinal, it might be its last win of the season.
If the Bears are to make a bowl game, they will need to top Wazzu at home after a bye this weekend and hope that either Stanford or UCLA buckle, neither of which will be likely, considering that both are troublesome teams and Cal won’t be on home turf (though playing in an empty stadium with no fans is only marginally better than playing on the road).
Cal, like the rest of the Bay Area, is in a dark place (literally and figuratively) right now, and if the Bears are to miraculously bounce back, a win against the Cougars is absolutely crucial.
Amid all of the abnormalities occurring in the world as we know it right now, one thing remains consistent — Cal football is the same as it was last year and just as good at blowing it.