They say life comes in waves. Apparently, so does Cal football. If you are unsure about how to feel about the Bears’ 2019 season, you are not alone.
On one hand, the team reached No. 15 in the AP poll and beat Stanford for the first time in a decade. On the other, the Bears again fielded the worst offense in the Pac-12 and again saw a losing skid dampen early-season hope. If you take a closer look, though, this season was easily the most successful of the Wilcox era for reasons that go beyond the eight victories, which is the program’s highest win total since 2015.
If there was one statistic that sums up the season, it’s this: Cal was 7-0 in games that redshirt sophomore quarterback Chase Garbers completed, but was just 1-5 in contests he did not start and/or finish.
The first four games of the season, all of which Garbers played in, were characterized by tight wins that saw the offense doing just enough, and the defense fully employing its “bend, but don’t break” mentality. After a 27-13 home-opener win against UC Davis, Cal shocked the country by upsetting the then-No. 14 Washington Huskies in a lighting-filled battle that ended in a game-winning field goal by Cal’s Greg Thomas, which was kicked well past midnight.
The Bears continued riding strong with a close win over North Texas before heading down south. Against Ole Miss in Week 4, Garbers threw for 4 touchdowns en route to Cal’s third straight victory over an SEC opponent. The win catapulted the Bears into the eye of the national media, and the city of Berkeley was buzzing with excitement leading up to a nationally televised Friday-night clash with Arizona State.
And then … fortunes changed, to say the least. Garbers landed hard on his shoulder after a shoestring tackle in the first half against Arizona State, leading the team to spiral into a string of four consecutive losses. Heading into their matchup with the Sun Devils, the Bears were No. 15 in the country, and just a month later, the team would be fighting to salvage a .500 record.
After the loss to ASU, Cal, with Devon Modster at the helm, headed up to Eugene, where they fell 17-7 despite a gritty showing by the defense. Throughout the losing streak, a slew of injuries ravaged the offensive line and receivers, causing an already lackluster offense to become even more incapable.
The next pitfall occurred in Berkeley during homecoming weekend, when the Bears were upset by Oregon State despite being favored by more than 10 points. What happened the week after, though, was much worse. Cal was wildly embarrassed on national television with freshman Spencer Brasch starting at quarterback, becoming the recipient of a thorough 35-0 beatdown at the hands of No. 12 Utah.
With the team now in desperation mode, Modster, who was back after missing one game, turned some heads by ending the losing streak with an explosive home victory over the high-powered Washington State Cougars. That was supposed to be his final game as a starter, however, as Garbers was set to be the savior for Cal, only for Garbers to sustain an unrelated injury during his long-awaited return the next week against USC, which ended up being a 41-17 loss as the Trojan receiving core overpowered the Bears throughout the night.
After the bye week, with Garbers announced as the starting quarterback for the 122nd annual Big Game, a cautious wave of optimism surrounded the team heading into the season’s biggest matchup. I’d assume most of you remember what happened that afternoon. Spoiler alert: The game ended with a sea of blue and gold storming the field of Stanford Stadium.
The Bears capped off the regular season with another rivalry win against the UCLA Bruins, where Christopher Brown Jr. stole the spotlight with 111 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. Afterward, Cal sported the same 7-5 record that it did upon the conclusion of the 2018 regular season before a laughable performance at the Cheez-It Bowl.
This year, however, the players were determined to send their talented group of seniors out with a win. And boy, did Garbers do his part. The quarterback ended the year with the best performance of his career, throwing for 4 touchdowns and adding another on the ground, all without turning the ball over in the team’s 35-20 rout over Illinois. With the final page of 2019 in the books, this team has plenty to be proud of.
While a full season of Garbers would have likely meant ending the season with nine or 10 wins, Cal did well with the hand it was dealt. Its defense was again among the best in the conference, and the unit paved the way for many milestones to be reached. The Bears ended 2019 in a tie for second place in the Pac-12 North, which is their highest finish since the Pac-12 was formed in 2011. This was also the third straight year that Cal upset a top-15 team, and also the first time the program hit eight wins since 2015.
The future is brighter than it has been in a long, long time. Obviously, the defense is losing plenty of key pieces, including talented safeties Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis, along with nickelback Traveon Beck. Cal’s secondary has flashed its depth throughout the season, though, so don’t expect them to see a significant drop-off.
Perhaps the most important change before next season will be finding out how Wilcox will replace the production of consensus first-team All-American inside linebacker Evan Weaver. The current Cal coaching staff has shown mounds of evidence that they can develop defensive talent, which means the bigger question is how the Bears will improve offensively.
But for the first time in the Wilcox era, there is reason to be confident in Cal’s potential to put up points in 2020. All 11 offensive starters from the Redbox Bowl are set to return after putting up a season-high 35 points in the affair, and Wilcox is bringing in a talented recruiting class to add to the mix. Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin is departing for a head coaching position at Cal Poly, and his replacement is expected to be named in the coming days. Garbers has proven that he is the quarterback of the future, so it is up to the new coordinator to put him and his teammates in a position to succeed.
All in all, despite the rollercoaster of winning and losing streaks, 2019 was the year that Cal fully established itself as a legitimate threat in the Pac-12. With Wilcox at the helm, it seems as though it will stay that way for much longer.