Justin Wilcox, who underwent knee surgery Tuesday, swung himself to the sideline on crutches prior to Cal’s 42-30 win over Sacramento State on Saturday. The fifth-year Cal head coach wears an unchanging frown and didn’t allow himself a smile after the game, but the relief of earning Cal’s first win of the season was palpable.
The Bears figuratively hobbled onto the field after hurting their pride in Weeks 1 and 2. But Cal’s offense, which struggled to create explosive plays and convert on third down against Nevada in Week 1, started where it left off against TCU. The Bears created 534 yards of total offense and found the end zone on five of their 12 drives. The last time Cal created more than 500 yards of total offense was in 2018 against Oregon State.
Quarterback Chase Garbers played out of his socks for the second week in a row. The redshirt senior had 251 yards passing in the first half alone, a new career high for a half. It was an improvement on his previous career-high 235 passing in the first half against TCU last week.
His perfectly weighted 45-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jeremiah Hunter, which put the Bears up 21-6 near the end of the first half, felt like an early dagger in the hearts of the Hornets. Nikko Remigio’s 99-yard kickoff return to start the second half put the game well out of reach.
“We were just taking what the defense gave us. (Because of) how their defense plays structurally, there were going to be some opportunities to take some underneath stuff and take some shots over the top,” Garbers said. “We were really efficient starting out in the pass game, and that’s just what we’ve been practicing all week.”
While the offense shone, the defense was mediocre at best. Stopping the run was a problem for Cal last week, especially against versatile TCU quarterback Max Duggan. And after Sac State quarterback Asher O’Hara scrambled a lot in the Hornets’ second drive of the game, which he capped off with a 7-yard run and an acrobatic leap into the end zone, the Bears looked like they might suffer another thrashing at the hands of a mobile QB. But Sac State head coach Troy Taylor decided to use O’Hara more sparingly for the rest of the game in favor of quarterback Jake Dunniway, a pocket passer.
The change worked for the Hornets. While Cal’s defense managed to keep Sac State at an arm’s length throughout the game, Dunniway exposed some weaknesses in the secondary. The Hornets had 302 passing yards on plays of 15 or more yards, including a 26-yard pass to wide receiver Jared Gipson that set up their second touchdown of the afternoon and a long touchdown pass over the middle to wide receiver Marshel Martin in the third quarter.
In the postgame press conference, Wilcox was clearly upset with how the secondary played.
“These are not new coverage concepts. Hell, there’s not a lot that’s new out there,” Wilcox said. “It’s the same coverages. We have to do a better job making sure those guys know the techniques, and then we have to go out there and execute those techniques to get off the field.”
Allowing 30 points to an Football Championship Subdivision school would have been unimaginable a few years ago during former defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s tenure. When asked for his assessment of the defense in general, Wilcox was terse in his response.
“It wasn’t great,” he said. “It was good enough to win, and we always appreciate winning, but we have to be better than that.”
The Bears will head to Seattle on Sept. 25 to take on Washington (0-2). Crutches in hand, Wilcox won’t exactly hop on the plane brimming with confidence. But after relieving some pressure with a win, Cal can at least take a deep breath before conference play begins.
William Cooke covers football. Contact him at [email protected].