The Novel: Illinois
Evan Weaver says that awards are for moms, and I’d like to join him in saying that bowl games are for optics. (The players, too, but also, optics. I put this line in after riffing it on the pod.)
But since they often pit you against teams you never see in regular season play, and there is no immediate game to follow, this year-end Novel tends less to be about analysis than it is about contextualization, and therefore, I will not be holding myself to any rigorous prosaic standard for this column – or at least, even less of one than usual, particularly in the introduction, which I often try to craft with extreme care.
Granted, this may be in part because I haven’t been a writer long enough to have had us qualify for many – just the Armed Forces Bowl, the Cheeze-It last year, and this one in my 9 seasons blogging -- but I’ve always maintained this same view throughout that time; unless you’re in a playoff, NY6, or one of the postseason games that has major history behind it, then actually winning isn’t of that much significance.
So, no, I don’t put particular weight behind being the Redbox Bowl champions – especially not in a game I believed the Bears would always win fairly handily. It sure feels better than being 7-6 (again), but otherwise, not terribly important.
Monday was more about having a good time. It certainly ended up being that.
II. The Big Picture
That being said, the program is undeniably in an upward swing, based on all the common indicators: they won said bowl game, signed their most exciting recruiting class in quite some time, gained possession of the Axe for the first time in a decade, and most importantly,
they’re doing all this and returning a majority of the team (up to 18 starters, depending on how you slice it) at a time when the other in-state schools are trending downward.
There is a real feeling of opportunity in Berkeley. The players, and even the notoriously tight-lipped Justin Wilcox have both said so, even daring to utter the “R” word – Rose Bowl - as the program heads into 2020. In fact, it’s hard to say the last time Cal football entered into an offseason feeling this optimistic, and since I’ve only seriously covered or followed the program since 2011, I’ll do my version of the year end #vibecheck:
2011 – WE ALMOST BEAT STANFORD AND WE MADE A BOWL GUESS WHAT EVERYONE
WILL BE BACK AND ZACH MAYNARD WILL BE WAY BETTER (Narrator: we were not)
2012 – Tedford fired
2013 – we went 1-11, ‘nuff said
2014 – blew bowl opportunity versus a BYU team missing several of their top players to finish 5-7, team is very fun but ultimately flawed
2015 – positive vibes with the bowl win, but Jared leaving for the NFL made the next team an uncertainty
2016 – treaded water – team is fun but ultimately flawed; most fans were now ready to move on from Dykes and were not thrilled with the prospect of him returning; he was eventually and somewhat unexpectedly let go in early January (which is late as far as firings go)
2017 – lost bowl opportunity at the hands of now Cal QB Devon Modster
2018 – Cheeze-It Bowl memery and great defense, but unsure of future based on direction of the offense
So, since many of these years are plagued by 5-7 near-misses, almost by default, this is the first time in awhile people can feel secure in the direction of the program. (And somehow, it is my tenth year blogging next year?)
But they should certainly enter the next months feeling great.
III. Can Cal Contend in the North?
For a team like the Bears, who don’t have – at the moment – as deeply stocked a roster as Northern favorites Oregon and Washington, any chance of contending for the division in the forseeable future depends how many of these things are aligning at once:
1) those aforementioned favorites need to be “rebuilding”, a term that doesn’t just include breaking in a new quarterback, but at least maximizes your chances of getting them when they’re down
2) they need to be not rebuilding
3) that it is an even year schedule, since those tougher games of Stanford, Oregon, and Washington are all at home
4) being demonstrably better than their peer class (currently: Stanford, WSU, Oregon State; they went 2-1 this year against this triumvirate, and although Oregon State will be back to being a total pain in the ass again, there’s no reason to think they can’t be at least 2-1 against them going forward)
5) Health and no unexpected attrition, which they only kind of got this year. Lost multiple projected starters at OL and WR for most of the season, and just enough faces to hurt the defense overall.
At least on paper, they are four for four here heading into 2020, with #5 obviously being a wait and see situation. It would appear to be as good a chance as they’ve had in quite some time.
IV. One Little Thing…
Complicating this somewhat is the new offensive coordinator, whoshould be in the final stages of being hired by the time you read this – I don’t have any inside information into who that might be, but it absolutely needs to be a system that can be implemented with the current personnel, and fast. The cupboard, as the common college football metaphor goes, is far from bare here -- with the way Chase Garbers and Makai Polk have developed over the last 2/3rds of the season to a now veteran, experienced offensive line, and this is definitely not a group in need of rebuilding anymore. They’ll even be supplemented by a well-recruited bunch of skill position players, too.
Obviously, my preferences for a hire are for a young, exciting recruiter and innovative mind, like Brian Lindgren originally, and Kellen Moore if he’s on the market. (Whoever the OC ends up being could push the pace a bit, but can’t be wedded to tempo; Wilcox will never go for any real hurry-up style offense). The thing is, given what’s available to them from the start, it’ll be easy to find someone whose offense can win 7 games with this personnel next year, and to maintain that standard behind Wilcox’s defense for the next several seasons.
There is a chunk of the fanbase that could be satisfied with that Cal program – a respectable one, graduating most of its players, and frequently bowl bound -- because the Bears have not been a 7 win team consistently in their history, and truthfully, there is no shame if that’s all that Cal ends up being under Justin Wilcox.
But there is also a chunk of the fanbase, who think they could be more under the same coach, and emboldened by what Jeff Tedford showed was possible here, would like to eventually do better than just seven (regular season) wins. I believe that to do better than that – something they haven’t since 2008 – will require a bit more risk-forward thinking at the offensive coordinator position. The underlying logic of the Baldwin hire, who was a coach waiting for his first major opportunity, was an example of this in action, and despite it not working out to the degree everyone hoped for, they should attempt to hire in this vein again. An unproven name might ultimately raise the ceiling in a way, I don’t know, Eric Kiesau, a known commodity in many places now, might not.
Mike Yurchich came from Shippensburg, before traveling to Oklahoma State, then Ohio State, and now Texas.
Chip Kelly jumped straight to being the offensive coordinator at Oregon from New Hampshire.
Joe Brady had zero experience as even a position coach before getting the reins at LSU!
Graham Harrell, who has USC poised to dominate once again (at least offensively), came by way of North Texas.
(You can pull a bunch of examples in this vein, so for column’s sake, you get the point. Hiring small is risky, but many of the top offenses in the country are helmed by young minds getting their first big break.)
The Bears are already fairly fortunate they’ll get an opportunity to overhaul their offensive staff without needing to pay buyouts, but I don’t think it is hyperbolic to suggest that this decision is what will make or break Wilcox’s tenure here at Berkeley. If he finds someone to maintain “decent”, then eventually the donors get restless and part ways with him 2-3 years down the line. Maybe he gets plucked off by some other school hoping to return to the same level of “decent” themselves – he’s certainly already proven capable of stewarding a program to that much.
But if he finds someone who can raise the ceiling for the program and fully tap into what we think the 2020 group of skill position players could be, well…then he might start writing the chapters of a Cal legend himself.
IV. Only a Few Assorted Game Things
When Imatorbhebhe and Hansen were announced as out, I got very confident Cal would cruise, which they more or less did after the first quarter. 5.8 YPP for both teams, though.
If you’ve read this space this season, you’ll know I have felt like Beau Baldwin did his best work this year, in terms of gameflow, misdirection, and creating easy opportunities for the QB. There werealready the Stanford, Ole Miss, UCLA, and Wazzu games as proof of this, but take the touchdown to open the second half as another example: he saw Illinois not fully respecting the bootleg in the first half (on the drive that eventually became a Chris Brown TD) even after scoring with it early going right on the Moore TD, so he called it left for a wide open Reinwald in the second half.
Maybe he was waiting for a guy like Chase Garbers to arrive this whole time, because when he finally did, he got it cranked up to a solidly functional offense most of the time. Occasional hiccups still, to be sure – you would have liked to put it away a bit earlier -- but nothing as serious as short-circuiting for halves, and much more turnover sound.
Unfortunate that it wasn’t until now that it all came together.
And again, he did all this while recruiting his ass off for a team that he didn’t have a contract for. Ultimately, those depth issues probably fall on him and all, but that doesn’t mean that the process for actually hiring him was wrong, or that he did a bad job this season. I’d give him a solid B-/B for the efforts and development this year.
Evan Weaver did not get the overall single-season tackle record (only the single-season tackle record in the Pac-12, unfortunately) but he did tackle our hearts one more time. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s hard to have any more words for what he helped do for this program. I’ll enjoy his swagger – which really showed out this year more than last – his leadership, his effort, and now, his career at the next level.He left with a few minutesto go and Colt Doughty got a few snaps in his stead.
Saw Cal run a couple trick plays for him at the CCSF practice, which I was hoping would come through. Shame there.
This defense is now going to be Cam Goode’s, and while he fell half a sack shy of 10, it’s hard not to see him doing it next year in a full time capacity. Cam Goode needs to be joined by some other pressure though, and I wonder if getting Maldonado bigger and full-time, or maybe one of the freshmen can step up to allow JOHNSON! to work more 1 on 1 situations. Orin Patu being through S&C could also be an option here next year – the Bears were conservative in a way that didn’t get to Peters often, and while he didn’t punish them too much for it, it’s hard to see them cracking that 7 win ceiling without more consistent disruption. There were some real holes in the defense this year, particularly in that intermediate middle of the field area.
Chigozie Anusiem was ultimately tracked on PFF as 4 of 10 in coverage for 48 yards, with 2 passes broken up and one pass interference penalty, which, if you took that away from him, is a pretty solid game. I don’t think they’ll push Bynum out the door or anything, but if he comes back, then I’d expect Hicks to be the guy who moves to safety, with Daniel Scott and Isaiah Humphries in the lead for that other spot.
Wasn’t watching on the broadcast, so it was somewhat unclear how Peters was ruled short on 4th and 17.
As a unit, extremely clean day by the offensive line protecting Chase, who was assigned the credit for his own two sacks by PFF, and largely unbothered overall. I still feel that there’s still a lot of room for improvement with this unit heading into next year, particularly in the run game, but the good news is that all those guys will return, and they’ll also be able to add Gentle Williams, Ben Coleman, Will Craig, and possibly even Brayden Rohme back into the competitive mix. (At this moment I do not see a need for any of the true freshmen to push for playing time, but things sometimes happen, which is how McKade Mettauer ended up starting most of the year at RG.)
Chris Brown got to show off some of his massive physical talent once again, breaking 7 tackles on his 20 carries, for 120 yards on the day (104 of which came after contact). As usual, he’s not getting enough help, but making the most of what he can when he gets any daylight. With another year, and his health willing, I expect him to get closer to 1100, 1200 yards.
His carries chart on the afternoon: 5, 54, 1, 9, 10, 0, 0, -2, 5, 0, 10, 13, 2, 7, 2, 0, 2, 3; for a median carry of 2, and 35% of which went for 1 yard or less, which is still too many. (It was 33% against UCLA.)
This was really the first year where I’ve become comfortable with my role in the Cal community. When I was younger, I used to be too nervous to interact with people, or eat, or drink at all on gamedays – I’ve told the story of how I lined up 3 hours early at the gate for my first home game in 2012 after the remodel – but now that I am somewhat more grown and a little less socially awkward, I’ve been able to manage that a bit better, so thanks for every random hello or acknowledgment you guys shot me!
Next year will be my tenth year, and it’s the first one I can remember being totally optimistic about upon entry from a program trajectory standpoint, so I’m excited hopefully continue providing thoughts and insights worth checking out.
Thank you for following my work all this time, especially since I have no real right or qualifications to be here, except for too much free time!
Go Bears forever, baby.