Cal is playing a little role reversal.
Ever since Justin Wilcox arrived as the Bears coach in 2017, Cal was at or near the bottom of the Pac-12 in every offensive category, leading to the belief that if its offense could ever match its outstanding defense, the Bears would be a contender.
Well, that offense has finally arrived, but that dependable defense has mysteriously disappeared.
Offensively, the Bears are moving the ball better than at any time under Wilcox, especially early in games when offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave seems to have the perfect game plan. That was the case again Saturday afternoon in Berkeley, when the Bears scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, and did not even face a third down in those two first-quarter possessions while rolling to a 42-30 victory over Sacramento State.
The Bears piled up 534 yards of offense, quarterback Chase Garbers had his second straight impressive outing, and the Bears, who lost to TCU 34-32 a week ago, scored more than 30 points in consecutive games for the first time since the first two games of Wilcox’s Cal tenure in 2017.
Wide receivers Jeremiah Hunter (five receptions, 78 yards, one TD) and Trevon Clark (four catches, 70 yards, one TD) are providing the deep threats Cal never had before, and the Bears’ offense did not seem hampered by the absence of injured wide receiver Kekoa Crawford, who was their leading receiver last season.
Granted, Cal’s offensive success on Saturday was against an FCS team’s defense – a defense that provided no pressure on Garbers, who completed his first 11 passes and finished 22-for-34 for 288 yards, two touchdowns and an interception while adding 68 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown.
“When the quarterback is untouched in the pocket, it’s a really good thing for the offense,” said Garbers, stating the obvious.
Wilcox was effusive in his praise of Garbers in the video atop this story. “And I think he can take the next step and play even better,” Wilcox said.
The trajectory of the offense is particularly encouraging.
“Each and every week we’ve gotten better,” Garbers said. “Starting with Washington next week [in the Bears’ Pac-12 opener] I think from this week to next week I think we’re going to take an even bigger jump offensively and as a team.”
The team is not going to take a big jump if its defense continues to struggle as it has so far this season.
Asked to assess his team’s defensive performance on Saturday, Wilcox paused a long time before finally saying quietly, “Wasn’t great. Wasn’t great.”
“Good enough to win,” he continued, “but we need to be better than that. I have a defensive background.”
Wilcox made his mark as a defensive coordinator at Boise State, Tennessee, USC, Washington and Wisconsin, and seemed to take the defense’s struggles personally. He was particularly annoyed by the play of his secondary, which had been a strength in recent years.
In Sac State’s first two games, both against FCS schools, the Hornets scored 19 points in its season-opening, 19-7 win over Dixie State and 16 points in last week’s 34-16 loss to Northern Iowa.
Against Cal, its first FBS foe of 2021, the Hornets racked up 30 points and a season-high 467 yards of offense, including 408 passing yards. The absence of Bears outside linebacker Kuony Deng (leg injury) did not make that much difference.
Cal committed four pass interference penalties, and its defensive backs did not play the ball in the air well.
The Bears might have been in danger of losing the game if Cal safety Daniel Scott had not made an interception after the Hornets had reached the Cal 25-yard line with Cal holding a 15-point lead late in the third quarter.
And this comes a week after TCU amassed 505 yards of offense, 31 first downs and 34 points against the Bears last week.
Next week the Bears face a Washington team that seemed to find its offense on Saturday when the Huskies churned out 598 yards of offense in a 52-3 rout of Arkansas State.
Cover photo of Chase Garbers is by Darren Yamashita, USA TODAY Sports
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