Fresh off Big Game victory, Cal football takes aim at 1st win over UCLA since 2016

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What comes next after the biggest win of your coaching career?

If you’re Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox, hopefully another win.

“We’re focused on beating UCLA,” Wilcox said when asked about his team’s bowl eligibility for the second year in a row. “We’re spending all of our time and energy on that. We’re just focused on a great week of practice and playing our best game because that’s what it’s going to take to win.”

A week after ending a nine-year losing streak at the hands of archrival Stanford, Cal will take the field for the final regular-season game of the 2019 campaign when it faces UCLA at the historic Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

While the significance of a two-year losing streak against the Bruins doesn’t carry nearly the same weight as Cal’s recent history with Stanford, the Bears are eager to salvage a fourth conference win and seventh overall victory on the year, matching Cal’s totals in both categories from last fall.

As Cal got the best of its rival last weekend, UCLA faced its own local nemesis in USC down at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where the Trojans laid down 52 points and quarterback Kedon Slovis threw for a program-high 515 yards in a 17-point win over the Bruins.

The outcome, which spoiled a robust showing from UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and the rest of the Bruins’ offense, mirrors a troubling trend in the team’s overall performance in 2019: a historically bad year on the defensive side of the ball overshadowing a successful offensive scheme featuring multiple playmakers.

Although Bruins head coach Chip Kelly has endorsed defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro despite mounting frustration among fans, the numbers speak for themselves: more than 35 points and nearly 500 yards surrendered per contest, including five games in which the opposition eclipsed 48 points.

That storyline doesn’t bode well against a Cal offense that found its groove for 424 yards in last Saturday’s comeback victory at Stanford.

As the Bruins’ defense has sputtered, however, UCLA’s go-to playmakers in Kelly’s fast-paced, run-oriented offensive scheme have produced in line with what many anticipated heading into 2019.

Workhorse tailback Joshua Kelley is just 16 yards shy of a second consecutive 1,000-yard season on the ground, while three different receivers have each generated more than 500 receiving yards thus far.

The growth of the true sophomore Thompson-Robinson, including 24 total touchdowns in a year in which he has battled injuries, may be put on pause against the Bears after UCLA’s starting quarterback limped off the Coliseum field late against USC and did not practice in the early portion of this week. If he’s unable to go, UCLA will likely turn to redshirt sophomore Austin Burton, who’s seen action in five games (one start) this season.

For the first time in about seven weeks, there is no debate regarding who will start under center for Cal. In last week’s thrilling 24-20 triumph over the Cardinal, Chase Garbers played for the entirety of the contest and produced more than 350 all-purpose yards.

He connected with true sophomore receiver Nikko Remigio nine times for 157 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to tie the game. After Garbers’ 16-yard scamper into the north end zone at Stanford Stadium gave the Bears the late edge, he expressed confidence that the offense was back on track.

“Spring and fall camp, Nikko and I were really clicking,” Garbers said. “Obviously the injuries slows that timing down, but once you practice a little while more and get that rhythm and timing back, you see it translate on Saturdays.”

The duo of Remigio and Garbers will seek to exploit a UCLA defense that produced arguably its best game of 2018 last year against Cal when the Bruins blew the Bears out in Berkeley on homecoming weekend by a final margin of 37-7.

This time around, with Cal bowl eligible and with UCLA sitting at 4-7, the Bears are eager to hit the ground running when the postseason rolls around.

“We’re trying to give ourselves a chance to play in the best bowl possible,” Wilcox said. “A bowl game is really meaningful to our program for a number of reasons, and so we’re excited about that. Now what we have to concern ourselves with is playing well (this week).”

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