Cal sent three defensive backs to the NFL the past two years, stripping the Bears’ secondary of lots of skill and experience. Ashtyn Davis, Jaylinn Hawkins and Camryn Bynum are not walking through that door.
The result has been an unexpected major drop-off in the Bears’ ability to defend the pass. They allowed 408 yards through the air — and were flagged four times for pass interference — in Saturday’s 42-30 victory over Sacramento State.
Yes, the Hornets have skilled players and a creative offensive mind in coach Troy Taylor, the former Cal quarterback. But they’re also an FCS-level team, and quite likely not up to par with any of the next nine Pac-12 opponents the Bears will face.
It’s a problem Cal did not expect to have. The 30 points surrendered Saturday is more than twice the average Cal’s past 12 FCS foes have managed. And it could have been more — Sac State reached the Cal 25-yard line eight separate times, and squandered chances to score on two short field goal misfires and an interception in the end zone.
Through three games, Cal is allowing 28.7 points per game — 12 points per game worse than the Bears surrendered to nonconference opponents in 2019, the last time they played games outside the Pac-12.
The Bears rank 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and passing yards allowed (318.0 per game).
Asked to assess his team’s pass coverage, coach Justin Wilcox said bluntly, “It’s not good. We have to be able to play man-to-man in order to get off the field. We’re not making many plays there.
"We need to practice better. Myself and secondary coach got do a better job of helping the players understand the techniques and they have to go into the game and execute those techniques so we can have some success and play confidently.
“We just need to take a step there. So that’s on me and the coaches in the secondary.”
Junior Chigozie Anusiem, who replaced Bynum at one cornerback spot, was pulled mid-stream Saturday in favor of freshman Lu-Magia Hearns III. Wilcox explains the coaches' decision in the video below.
The pass defense was particularly shoddy on third-down plays. Sac State attempted 17 passes on third down. One resulted in a pass interference call against Cal that created a first down. Eleven of the other 16 were completed for a total of 177 yards, with 10 of the 11 converting either first downs or touchdowns.
That means the Hornets negotiated first downs -- or better -- on 65 percent of their third-down pass plays.
Senior safety Daniel Scott has been Cal’s most productive defensive back this season. He had a pick six at TCU and intercepted a Sac State pass in the end zone on Saturday.
But Scott knows the Bears’ secondary must play better, starting Saturday at Washington, which passed for 398 yards in its 52-3 rout of Arkansas State this weekend.
“Can’t keep making the same mistakes,” he said. “We’re learning but time is a-ticking. Got to come with an urgency on Monday.”
Asked what Wilcox said to the DBs after the Sac State game, Scott said, “I’m just going to keep that in-house. He said a win is a win but we’ve got to keep improving.”
WILCOX SURGERY: Determined to keep the focus on his team rather than himself, Wilcox provided virtually no details about the surgery he had Tuesday on an old injury that recently took a turn for the worse.
“I’m fine,” he said after navigating the sidelines on crutches with a heavy wrap on his right foot. “Had an old injury. Had to get it fixed real quick. Missed half a day on Tuesday. It will not impact the team in any way moving forward.”
Wilcox played defensive back at Oregon (1996-99) before beginning his coaching career in 2001.
REMIGIO GOES ALL THE WAY: A year after having a kickoff for a touchdown against Oregon State wiped out by penalty, senior Nikko Remigio scored his first TD on a return. He raced 99 yards, barely touched, to open the second half and extend Cal’s lead over Sac State to 28-6.
Remigio said he hadn’t scored on a kickoff return since his days in Pop Warner.
“I was 12 or 13,” he said.
And why has it taken so long?
“I ask myself the same thing.”
AN OLD FRIEND VISITS: NBA star Jaylen Brown, who played one season (2015-16) with the Bears, was at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, decked out in a Cal letterman’s jacket and a Celtics cap.
Brown, who made his first NBA All-Star team last season, led the crowd in a cheer shown on the video board.
Cover photo of Cal coach Justin Wilcox by Darren Yamashita, USA Today
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo