Final grades: Cal football’s season in review

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Antonio Martin/Staff

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Cal football finished its 2021 season with a 24-14 win over USC on Saturday. The Bears end the year 5-7 with a win over Stanford and losses to TCU and Arizona in head coach Justin Wilcox’s fifth year in charge. What’s the verdict? 

The Daily Californian’s sports staff breaks it all down in a Cal football season retrospective. 

What grade would you give Cal for its overall performance this fall 2021 season?

Will Cooke: D+. It was a season of fits and starts. Where was Cal’s offense against Nevada, Washington State and Arizona (other than in quarantine because of a huge COVID-19 outbreak)? And why, then, did quarterback Chase Garbers and the offense look like 2005 USC against Oregon State and Stanford? Is Cal’s run defense the team’s strength, or is it collapsing against UCLA? The team grade is a D+. In the context of the conference, however, Cal isn’t alone in being completely unpredictable (except Utah, which popped off with six straight wins to end its season). A Rose Bowl appearance like the Utes’ would receive an A–level grade, so a C+ conference record grade feels generous.

Ryan Chien: B- for baseline mediocrity. Cal’s most impressive showing came against Oregon State, in which it usurped the Beavers 39-25 –– such a victory proved that the blue and gold were capable of, at the very least, competing. Beyond that, though, the Bears couldn’t pull off any remarkable upset wins. They came close against Oregon and TCU but couldn’t seal the deal in potentially game-tying drives. To be fair, the Bears were projected to finish sixth in conference standings in a preseason media poll, so a fourth-place finish in the Pac-12 North Division isn’t exactly atrocious. It’s just underwhelming.

Kabir Rao: C. The Bears only played exciting football a few times this season — against TCU, Oregon State and Stanford. It felt like whenever Cal wasn’t battling off-the-field issues such as a COVID-19 breakout, the team was getting in its own way on the field. For a team that entered the past two seasons as a dark horse candidate to claim the conference crown, a barely passing grade is unacceptable. Head coach Wilcox probably earned some job security by leading the Bears to victories over both the Cardinal and the Trojans in the same season. Cal will certainly try to sell that fact to fans as evidence that this year was not a lost cause, but don’t be fooled: USC and Stanford both experienced their worst seasons since 1991 and 2006, respectively.

Jesse Stewart: C+, and there was potential for this to even be a B+ year if not for breakdowns against Nevada and Arizona. This was a team that legitimately was talented enough to win nine games and compete for a Pac-12 title. Inexplicable losses and terrible luck typified this season. Take all that and combine it with some relatively uninspiring performances (I’m looking at you, UCLA and WSU) and you get a season where anything more than a C grade feels disingenuous. Surviving without making a bowl (aka, going .500) is honestly really hard, but there’s a bright side. The Bears won four of their last five Pac-12 games (excluding whatever happened in Arizona) and beat USC and Stanford in the same season, which is always a welcome accomplishment. 

Maria Khan: C, given to the barely-successful and the ever-mediocre. The season’s trajectory was on a downturn as soon as the Bears were defeated on their home turf by Nevada, a game that was filled with misses (both literally and figuratively –– with kicker Dario Longhetto missing a field goal). From then on, it seemed as if nothing was going right. The blue and gold barely lost to TCU by 2 points, faced the COVID-19 fiasco that erupted at the most crucial point of the season and then just when things were looking to swing toward Cal after defeating Stanford –– UCLA dished out an embarrassing loss in the form of a 42-14 blowout. Not good and certainly not great.

What was one of the most memorable moments of Cal’s season?

WC: The moment that sticks out in my mind is Cal’s blocked punt against Washington State, which the Cougars then recovered for a first down. In the context of the Bears’ season up until that point, the play felt like a cruel joke; the 21-6 loss to WSU at home meant that Cal had won just one of their first five games, their only win coming against an FCS team, Sacramento State. Now, after wins over Stanford and USC, Bears fans can laugh about the incident. Right?

RC: It should go without saying, but bringing the Axe back to Berkeley in a decisive 41-11 victory against Stanford is the most memorable moment of them all. What was impressive about the game was not just that the Bears emerged victorious, but also the way in which they won. Heading into the late November matchup, Cal was coming off of an embarrassing loss to Arizona, in which it gave the Wildcats their first victory since 2019. Instead of dwelling on the loss, the Bears returned to the field with a vengeance –– and it just so happened that the Cardinal was on the other side of it. In that match, Cal outplayed its rival from start to finish after posting 636 total yards, two interceptions and five flawless PATs. On top of that, the Bears pulled off multiple spectacular plays, including an 84-yard touchdown pass from Garbers to Trevon Clark that marked the longest pass play in the Big Game’s 124-year history. It was enough to prompt the blue and gold faithful to storm the field for the second time in three years –– a memory that many students will cherish for the rest of their lives.

KR: When looking back on this season, fans will always remember the Axe returning home, but Cal’s best performance came against Oregon State. The 2-5 Bears dominated the 5-2 Beavers, who were in the thick of the race for the Pac-12 championship at the time. Not only did Cal essentially end Oregon State’s hopes of winning the North, but the blue and gold also outplayed their opponents in all three phases of the game. Cal shut down OSU’s star running back B.J. Baylor, posted its second-highest scoring output of the season and led from early in the first quarter onward. On that Saturday night, the Bears woke up from hibernation and flashed what they could be.

JS: Bringing the Axe home is obviously always going to be a fan favorite, but an underrated moment of this season was Cal finally nabbing its first win in the Joe Roth game jerseys. Worn in 2007, 2017, 2018, 2019 and now 2021 — the Bears are finally able to give the man who means so much to the program the win those wonderful uniforms deserve.

MK: Yes, the Axe is back. Yet what remains in many minds is the utter tragedy that was the “game” played against Arizona. Whether Cal in Arizona is just a recipe for disaster, or if the COVID-19 situation was the disaster in question, can be debated. With nothing remotely wild about the Wildcats, the game was looking to be an easy win –– until the best of the roster took a turn for the worse. Defeating Cal was Arizona’s first win against a team since its match against UCLA in the fall of 2019, 800 days prior. Coming into the game, it was 0-8 overall and 0-5 in the Pac-12. If that’s not memorable, in the worst way possible, what is?

What should Cal’s expectations be moving forward into next season? 

WC: Seven wins or more is a realistic expectation if Garbers decides to stay with the program for another year. If he leaves, experience at the starting quarterback position will be minimal among Cal’s current backup gunslingers. That said, if defensive lineman Brett Johnson and linebacker Kuony Deng are healthy enough to return to play, and young defensive backs such as Isaiah Young and Lu-Magia Hearns III continue to improve (which they will), the Bears’ defense will take a big step forward. A bowl game appearance should always be the expectation, regardless of personnel changes.

RC: Cal’s expectations moving forward is solely dependent on who’s returning. Twenty eight Bears were honored at the Joe Roth Memorial Game on Dec. 4 against USC, including the likes of core players such as Garbers, Clark and Cameron Goode. Luckily though, many of the seniors on the team have a chance to return next season due to the NCAA’s blanket eligibility waiver for student-athletes as a result of COVID-19. Should a majority of these players continue sporting the blue and gold, the expectation will be earning a bid into some kind of bowl game. If not, the team must turn its attention toward younger players to create an entirely new team identity altogether –– with Wilcox or not.

KR: This season served as a reset button on what to expect from Cal football. Perhaps 2019, when the blue and gold went 8-5, was an anomaly season. Perhaps the Bears showed their true colors when they finished 1-4 in 2020 — a season that many wrote off due to the pandemic. The loss of former defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter has and will continue to loom large over this team. And the offense is only getting younger and more inexperienced. Fans should still hold Cal to a bowl game standard but after back-to-back losing seasons, it’s time to realize that the Bears are much further from a Rose Bowl berth than previously anticipated.

JS: Bowl game. It’s important to have realistic expectations for the future, but also, let’s not pretend that this is a roster set to compete at a national level just yet. A Rose Bowl appearance is obviously something the Bears will be looking for in the near future, and with an influx of young and talented players, you never know what the next few years are going to look like under Wilcox. 

MK: Be better. Sometimes it’s just that simple. With a few of the starters on the roster in question, it is hard to hypothesize whether Cal will have the player-power to be better. Yet, this end brings a new beginning. Seniors, at the end of their Division I road, come off of the roster as new recruits take their place. Eager players, ready to make their mark on the field, arrive to change expectations –– and perhaps create new ones.

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