For all the difficulties the Cal football team is experiencing on offense, there is one thing the Bears are doing better than any team in college football:
Holding onto the ball.
Cal has zero lost fumbles through five games this season, one of five programs who can still make that claim. The others: Pac-12 rivals USC and Oregon, along with BYU and Georgia Southern.
But that’s not the extent of it.
Over the past two seasons, Cal has lost just two fumbles in 17 games. That’s better than any team in the land. Next is Nevada with three lost fumbles, followed by the aforementioned Georgia Southern with four.
How impressive is this?
Cal’s offensive players — quarterbacks, running backs and receivers of various types — have totaled 1,119 rushing and passing plays since the start of the 2021 season.
And they have coughed the ball up just twice.
We did the math and it works out to a nearly microscopic fumble rate: 0.18 percent.
In other words, the Bears have lost the ball via fumble less than one-fifth of one percent of the time they’ve handled it on offense the past two seasons.
So how does this happen?
“We don’t teach the guys not to fumble or not to throw interceptions. We teach them to play with great habits when it comes to ball security and decision-making with the ball,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox says in the video at the top of this story. “That’s something we’re proud of, that we’re protecting the ball.”
The Bears have played more than 31 consecutive quarters — 509 plays since the opening period of the 2021 Big Game — without a lost fumble.
How does this stack up?
Stanford already has fumbled the ball away 10 times this season, in just four games. The Cardinal is last in the nation in turnover margin at minus-10.
Freshman running back Jaydn Ott has 88 offensive touches, 636 rushing and receiving yards and seven total touchdowns to start his college career. But no fumbles.
Quarterback Jack Plummer has been sacked 16 times, but hasn’t given up the football.
The Bears are second in the Pac-12 and tied for ninth nationally in turnover margin at plus-7 (9 takeaways, 2 turnovers — both interceptions). USC is first in both categories at plus-14 (15-1).
“That’s a critical stat, but we’ve got to capitalize on that,” Wilcox said. “The turnover margin is in our favor — we’ve got to keep that going. But we’ve also got to do something with it . . . that’s got to manifest itself in more production.”
So far, that has not happened. The Bears are are 10th in the Pac-12 and 94th nationally in scoring at 25.8 points per game.
Eight of the other 13 teams across the country with turnover margins as good or better than the Bears are averaging at least 30 points. USC tops that list at 42.2 per game. But four of those 13 teams actually have scored less than Cal, including Georgia Tech, which has translated its plus-7 turnover margin into just 16.2 points per outing to rank 123rd among 131 FBS teams.
“We’ve always emphasized it. We drill it. We do emphasis periods for ball security and takeaways,” Wilcox says in the video above. “I don’t want to jinx us, either. There are teams out that that put the ball on the ground more than we have — there’s no doubt about it. Our guys have done a good job of protecting it.
“But we’ve also got to do something with it."
Fumbling was something of a problem for the Bears in Wilcox’s first two seasons. They lost eight in 12 games in 2017, then 11 in 13 games a year later, even while winning eight times, including at the Redbox Bowl.
But in 34 games over four seasons since then, Cal has lost possession via fumble only eight times.
Cover photo of Jack Plummer handing off to Jaydn Ott by James Snook, USA Today
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo